A Plea For The Planet: Native Garden Advocates Push For Plants That Benefit Pollinators - 27 East

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A Plea For The Planet: Native Garden Advocates Push For Plants That Benefit Pollinators

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North America is home to 4,000 species of bees.

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

North America is home to 4,000 species of bees. HEATHER HOLM

Wasps comprise 15 percent of the total number of flower-visiting insects worldwide. HEATHER HOLM

Wasps comprise 15 percent of the total number of flower-visiting insects worldwide. HEATHER HOLM

Wasps comprise 15 percent of the total number of flower-visiting insects worldwide. HEATHER HOLM

Wasps comprise 15 percent of the total number of flower-visiting insects worldwide. HEATHER HOLM

Wasps comprise 15 percent of the total number of flower-visiting insects worldwide. HEATHER HOLM

Wasps comprise 15 percent of the total number of flower-visiting insects worldwide. HEATHER HOLM

A butterfly lands on a common milkweed in the garden of Leonard Green, co-founder of ChangeHampton.

A butterfly lands on a common milkweed in the garden of Leonard Green, co-founder of ChangeHampton.

A butterfly lands on a wild bergamot in the garden of Leonard Green, co-founder of ChangeHampton.

A butterfly lands on a wild bergamot in the garden of Leonard Green, co-founder of ChangeHampton.

authorMichelle Trauring on Aug 24, 2022

For years, Gail Pellett and Stephan Van Dam have refused to water the lawn in front of their home in East Hampton, allowing the yard — dotted with oaks, spruces and crab apple trees — to fend for itself.

This summer, they stopped mowing it, too.

“We wanted to see what would happen,” Pellett said with a soft laugh. “We’ve learned, of course, that’s not exactly a way to transform it into a meadow. We now know much more about it.”

The less-than-successful endeavor — a project that evolved to include milkweed, which has helped — encouraged the couple to consider whether the rest of their property aligned with eco-friendly values, and their attention turned toward their pebble garden. In it, they saw an opportunity.

They replaced the stones with native plantings, from bee balm, goldenrod and yarrow to Joe-Pye weed, sunflower, onyx and gayfeather. As the plants bloomed, more and more butterflies flocked to them — resulting in a thriving pollinator garden.

“Gardening is always a crapshoot — everybody should know that. Even the best of the horticulturalists have failures,” Pellett said. “People shouldn’t think, ‘Oh, OK, now we’re transforming it. Oh, it didn’t really work, so it’s a failure, so let’s go back to lawns.’ Keep trying. It’s a huge experiment and we’re all learning together because we’ve been killing nature for a very long time. We cannot restore it instantly with great success.”

In a region long associated with sprawling estates framed by lush lawns, the residential East End now faces a biodiversity crisis — one that, when coupled with the effects of climate change, threatens the future of pollinators, including bees, wasps, butterflies and other insects and mammals that help plants spread pollen and reproduce.

“Many people will say we’re at the tipping point, or we’ve gone past it, on many factors having to do with climate change,” Pellett said, “and to stall and to procrastinate at this stage seems like a decadence we don’t have.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the human race and all of Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems would not survive without pollinators. Of the 1,400 crops grown around the world, almost 80 percent require pollination by animals. That equates to about one out of every three bites of food — and, in the case of honeybee pollination alone, an added $18 billion in value to agricultural crops annually.

“We are heading for a catastrophe in terms of food production and our lives,” Pellett said. “The insects can survive well without us, but we cannot survive as a species without them — and we have to get that into our consciousness, and it’s a process. It doesn’t happen easily or quickly.”

An Uphill Battle For Pollinators
 

By definition, pollinators are insects, birds, bats and other small mammals that visit flowers to drink nectar or feed off their pollen, and transport that pollen as they move from bloom to bloom. The ecosystem service is nearly invisible, until it begins to slow — or stops entirely.

“Insect decline has been widely publicized in recent years,” according to Jared Dyer, an entomology educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, “and while early reports were met with some skepticism, the evidence from continued research has made it clear that many insect species are on the decline — and if such trends continue, it will certainly have consequences down the line.”

In July, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared the migratory monarch butterfly endangered and, earlier this month, a Princeton-led team of researchers found that when plants compete to attract dwindling numbers of pollinators, biodiversity is on the line.

Beginning in 2006, experts noted significant yearly declines in honeybee colonies, sparking a national movement to save them. And while that effort continues to be important, there is more to pollinators than the honeybee, which represents just one of 3,600 species of bee in North America alone, according to biologist and pollinator conservationist Heather Holm.

“That’s pretty amazing and staggering,” she said, adding, “More and more people realize we can’t live without pollinators. They do provide some pretty important ecosystem services.”

In the face of climate change, some pollinator-plant systems may remain stable and others, inevitably, will not — “Those losses could have cascading effects,” Dyer said — as temperatures continue to warm and drought conditions threaten the plants that pollinators need to survive.

But perhaps the greatest concern, quite simply, boils down to timing, according to Kevin Munroe, the Long Island preserve director at The Nature Conservancy. Over millions of years, many insects, including pollinators, have evolved alongside native plants and are dependent upon each other — resulting in a detailed, choreographed dance of insects emerging when plants bloom, and vice versa.

“If climate change changes that and plants are blooming earlier or later, the pollinators show up and the flowers aren’t there, and so they starve,” Munroe said. “Conversely, the flowers bloom and they’re waiting for their dance partners to show up — they’re waiting for the bumblebees and monarchs to show up, because pollinating allows that plant to reproduce — but they don’t, because climate change has changed the timing.”

Adding to this predicament are the introduction of invasive species and the transformation of natural spaces into lawns, Dyer said. And while grassy turfs are not technically invasive, they lack the co-evolutionary relationship that many native pollinators and other insects have developed with native plants.

“We have to begin to reimagine our yards and our lawns — we have to rethink them,” Pellett said. “It is going to be an enormous challenge because it’s just been with us for so long. These huge, pristine, manicured lawns have been attached to wealth and status and conformity for a very long time.”

Taking Up The Cause At Home
 

Lawns do provide an important function in landscape design, such as play spaces, open areas for vistas, and access for paths, according to Mina Vescera, a nursery and landscape specialist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.

But she sees room for improvement in reducing fertilizer and pesticide use, as well as focusing on soil health to create healthy, thick lawns — in moderation.

“Garden design is not immune to trends. Turning lawns into meadows and providing flowering trees and shrubs for habitat is a wonderful trend that provides beauty with function,” she said. “The lawn isn’t going away, but it is becoming smaller.”

Popular books by authors like Douglas W. Tallamy and Rick Darke have catapulted native plant awareness over the last decade, Vescera explained, as well as educational programming by the extension and local libraries. Many garden centers also have native plant sections that make it easier for customers to shop.

“I think the key is showing that it can be beautiful,” Munroe said. “When a lot of people hear the words ‘native plants,’ unfortunately, they think ‘weeds,’ or the forest, or the meadow. And, yes, of course, the forest and the meadow have lots of beautiful native plants, but native plants can be used in an ornamental setting. You can create a formally landscaped, ornamental yard that will compete with the most beautiful yards in the Hamptons — and just use native plants to do that.”

While driving through Suffolk County, Munroe said he has noticed libraries, post offices and even a couple of McDonald’s with wildflowers planted as ornamental landscapes. In East Hampton, alongside a group of concerned neighbors, Pellett and Van Dam co-founded ChangeHampton, an organization that is encouraging the adoption of eco-friendly landscaping practices that support pollinators at residences, businesses, houses of worship and municipal buildings.

In May, they proposed a 3,000-square-foot pollinator garden to the Town Board, to be installed in front of Town Hall, that would act as a cornerstone of a local “Pollinator Pathway,” which seeks to regenerate and link parcels of land that insects can cruise and, of course, pollinate.

“You can transfer these ecological deserts that we call turf lawns, and you can welcome back insects and birds and pollinators and bees and butterflies and moths and fireflies,” Pellett said, adding, “We may have been presenting the greatest crisis we’re facing, which is our existential crisis of our planet, but we have the most joyous solution to do right now, here locally, which is to create something beautiful and wondrous to look at.”

Advising ChangeHampton is East Hampton-based landscape designer Edwina von Gal, founder of Perfect Earth Project and a leader in promoting planting natives and eliminating toxins from gardens — particularly those that are interconnected.

Every property, no matter how small, is important, she said, because they create a biological corridor, or conservation zone, when planted with natives.

“You’re gonna be proud that your garden looks full of life, while the person next to you is just mowing, mowing, mowing and doesn’t have a butterfly or anything out there,” she said. “No life.”

When planting with natives, steer clear of those that were grown with neonicotinoid insecticides, and commit to ditching fertilizers and pesticides, including those meant to deter ticks, von Gal reported.

“We actually say to people, if you insist on spraying for ticks and if you insist on spraying your garden, please do not plant a pollinator garden,” she said, “because you’re inviting them to their deaths.”

Once established, native pollinator gardens will take care of themselves and do not require pruning or watering, von Gal said. Certain plants will attract specific pollinators, explained Holm — she recommends asters, sunflowers and black-eyed Susans for longhorn bees, which are active now — as will certain habitats for nesting.

Most native bees prefer to lay their eggs in burrows just beneath the ground, and the remaining set of bees nest above ground in plant stems and tree trunks. Some even prefer to nest in the sand, like the southeastern blueberry bee, which specializes in pollinating blueberry flowers and redbuds.

Other flying insects, like beetles and wasps, play an important role in pollination, too. The latter have shorter tongues than bees, so they prefer shallow flowers that are easier for them to access, and are drawn to the color white.

“Most people don’t have positive feelings about wasps, but wasps, in fact, regularly visit flowers,” Holm said, adding, “We really have a very small minority of wasps that people may get stung by — and that’s my bigger message. We can’t paint this broad brush that all wasps are going to sting us and they’re a nuisance, because that’s not the case whatsoever. They’re just as cool as bees and, in most cases, are not going to pose a threat to people.”

Though, according to Dyer, planting natives does not fight climate change directly, at least not on a large scale. It does serve a greater purpose.

“Climate change is not the only ecological crisis going on,” he said. “We are in the midst of a human-driven extinction event, caused in part by climate change but also by habitat fragmentation, intensive industrial agricultural, pollution, and the proliferation of invasive species.”

To help pollinators survive rising temperatures, Munroe suggests creating cooling sanctuaries for in the landscape, which can include more shaded areas and bird baths — “There are insects that do, actually, drink water or, at the very least, will cool off in water,” he said — and protect forests and riparian buffers.

For those who live in apartments or townhouses, container gardens planted with native plants are a great alternative for attracting bees, butterflies and even hummingbirds, Munroe said — and don’t forget about late-season bloomers, which are critical for pollinators as they gather their last resources before winter, Dyer said.

“We’re sort of in a biodiversity crisis, and I think the actions that individuals can take really amount to a lot of positive change,” Holm said. “Sometimes, people feel helpless, like, ‘It’s overwhelming, and I don’t know what to do.’ I think once people get involved with creating pollinator habitat and then see the results of bees and other flower-visiting insects come to that habitat, they really feel like they’re part of the solution.”

For those who lack a green thumb, Dyer advises them to simply do less: Stop mowing, leave leaf litter on the ground — which is a great habitat for caterpillars — and allow pesky dandelions, clovers, and other weeds to grow. All of this will not just help pollinators, but other helpful bugs, as well, he said.

And for those with available land and the willingness to plant natives, but may be grappling with nerves, Pellett encourages them to anticipate mistakes and embrace the challenge.

“Be adventurous. Be brave. Be bold. Be ready to look at chaos,” she said. “Think of chaos as beauty and what an adventure —and what joy you could get from your yard. When we look out at those big issues of climate change, there’s nothing much we can do about some of them. We can do something about this. It’s local. It’s in our own yards.”

For more information about planting pollinator gardens, visit these online resources: pollinator-pathway.org, protectingbees.njaes.rutgers.edu/find-plants, and xerces.org/blog/ground-nesting-bees.

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