University of Washington graduate student Nicolette Neumann Levi is looking for ways to bring more native pollinators to the UW Farm. Nicolette recently obtained a $1,000 UW Campus Sustainability Fund (UWCSF) grant to help support the installation of several new native pollinator plantings at the UW Farm, Center for Urban Horticulture site. Nicolette is embarking on this endeavor as part of her thesis project as a candidate for the Master of Environmental Horticulture degree. Her funding will support the installation of a herbaceous perennial garden with plantings specifically chosen to attract native pollinators, as well as a pollinator hedge that will further provide food and habitat for beneficial pollinator insects.
Recently Nicolette had the opportunity to meet with UWBG curation staff and horticulturists to discuss plant choices, especially options that would be easy to grow and maintain while providing the most benefit to the pollinators. Some of the preliminary plant ideas include grasses, violets, trilliums, sunflowers, and irises for the herbaceous perennial gardens, and evergreen huckleberry and grasses for the hedgerow. The concept is to use all local, native plantings in these gardens to lower maintenance needs and avoid the requirement to directly irrigate.
Work on the project will start this spring with the preparation and planting of two patches at the north end of the farm for perennial flowers. Over the summer, Nicolette also plans to install plastic film to solarize the areas at the southern edge of the farm where the pollinator hedge is slated to be planted. This will utilize passive solar heat to remove pests and pathogens prior to planting.
Working with Native Pollinators
By planting exclusively native plants, Nicolette hopes to attract a wide variety of the native pollinators found in the Seattle area. “The idea is to use native plants to attract what would naturally be around the [local] area.” she explains. Some of the local pollinators she is hoping to see more of at the Farm include honey bees, orchard mason bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. While each of these pollinators have specific native plants that they prefer, Nicolette is utilizing a diverse palette of plants with blooming times staggered throughout the growing season to try to consistently attract as many pollinators as possible. “Overall it’s healthier to have a more diverse mix of insect,” she explains.
Nicolette is hoping that by bringing in a diverse mix of pollinators it will have measurable impacts on the Farm’s overall crop yield too. She will be measuring this impact as a part of her thesis work, as well as continuing to do frequent pollinator counts to see if her efforts are making a difference. Nicolette does have high hopes for the impact the perennial gardens and pollinator hedge will have on the UW Farm:
“Many farms will have to bring in on a yearly basis a box of bees. By trying to attract the native pollinators you don’t have to do that and spend all that money every year. You can maintain the populations and have a place for them to overwinter. It saves money.”
Not only will the plants in the garden and hedge provide pollen for the pollinators, they will also be chosen to support these beneficial insects in their various life-stages (i.e. larval, such as a caterpillar) and provide food, habitat, shelter, and hiding for adults. The hope is that these new plantings will also provide over-wintering habitat for the pollinators so that the Farm can start to grow a larger base population of pollinators right where they need them
A Network of Green Spaces
One of the challenges facing pollinators today, especially in urban areas like Seattle, is habitat fragmentation and the loss of green spaces. An exciting possible benefit of this project is its ability to provide a vital patch of habitat, for many types of pollinators, right in the heart of the University District. “The flight range or movement [for pollinators] between different patches is not so big, so you end up with these isolated patches,” Nicolette explains. “You miss out on the opportunity to have pollinators moving through a mosaic of habitat patches. Having one more pollinator garden adds one more place for the population to move to and grow”.
National groups such as the Pollinator Pathway and the Xerces Society are working to bring awareness to the importance of habitat patches and are focused on promoting more urban gardens with plantings tailored towards the needs of native pollinators. Home gardeners can get involved too and help to provide vital habitat patches by fine-tuning their own growing spaces to meet the needs of more pollinators. Nicolette recommends that home gardeners, “try to use plants that would naturally be growing [in our region] and blooms that are in a variety of colors.” She also encourages, “using plants that bloom at different times during the growing season,” to consistently attract pollinators throughout the season. Bee boxes, such as those made for mason bees, could be something a home gardener could use.
The most important thing is to make sure that the plants chosen match up well with the needs of our local pollinators. Starting with native plants is a good place to begin, but Nicolette also recommends checking with your local nursery or gardening outreach program (like the Center for Urban Horticulture) to get more ideas and guidance with setting up your own pollinator garden.
The Elisabeth C. Miller Library has a list of recommended books on Pollinators and Pollination.