By Nicole Rivard
The biggest takeaways for me from the COVID-19 pandemic is accepting life on life’s terms; tomorrow is not promised and the decisions we make right now regarding our treatment of the planet and all its inhabitants will affect future generations, for better or worse.
It seemed like the universe was telling me to stop putting things off that I knew would be a win-win for wildlife and me—putting up a bird feeding station in my backyard and creating a pesticide-free native wildflower garden for pollinators. So, with stay at home orders in place and extra time on my hands, I’ve decided to dive in. (Not to mention my landlord was kind enough to triple the size of my garden space because he has been home more too.)
The easy part was purchasing my very own patented Advanced Pole System from Wild Birds Unlimited like the one I had gotten my parents a couple of Christmases ago. Truth be told, I have been envious of theirs ever since. (If you live in bear country, you should take down bird feeders from March through November.)
Simultaneously, I joined a six-week online backyard birding class through the CT Audubon Society. Not only did it make sense with my recent purchase, bird walks are suspended and I’ve been wanting to get more active with bird watching, a hobby that I started almost two years ago. In just the first two days of setting up the station, I identified more than a dozen bird species.
But identifying species of native wildflowers that would thrive in my backyard in Darien, Connecticut was not as simple as flipping through a Peterson’s Field Guide of birds. I didn’t know if I should spread native wildflower seeds or get actual plants or both. My garden does not have direct sunlight all day. Deer frequent my backyard. With all these things to consider, I really didn’t know where to begin.
Then I got an email mid-April from CT Audubon about a webinar, “Native Plants & Pollinators,” presented by Emily May, pollinator conservation specialist for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. The timing was certainly fortuitous.
One slide she shared really resonated with me. It pointed out that the ornamental plant varieties that I had chosen in the past that look pretty in gardens often have no habitat value for pollinators! Showy double petals in place of anthers have little or no pollen and nectar is inaccessible.
Yikes. Ornamentals are what I had planted the last five years.
Research by Entomology Professor and author Doug Tallamy has shown that alien ornamentals support 29 times less biodiversity than do native ornamentals. He points out that in the U.S. gardeners often plant Kousa dogwood, a species from China that supports no insect herbivores, instead of our native flowering dogwood (cornus florida) that supports 117 species of moths and butterflies alone.
Lucky for me, May agreed to talk to me after the webinar to get me on a more successful pollinator path, as did Kris Barker, owner of the Gardener’s Center and Florist in Darien.
I am forever grateful for their expert advice, and I’m sure the pollinators will be too. I’m sharing what I learned because it is so empowering to know that I will be keeping pollinators in the air and on plants and protecting wildlife and my entire backyard ecosystem.
So here goes:
The good news is the timing is right–Mother’s Day weekend is a good time to aim for seeding wildflowers, as well as late fall. But it can be a crap shoot in terms of what ends up coming up. Some might not flower for a year or two since some northeast native species will need a cold winter season before they can germinate. Others will just go for it and start germinating right away.
Who knew? Not me.
So, it is recommended to also plant native plants in some areas of the garden so you and the pollinators have something to enjoy this season. Check with your local nurseries, but Barker said his will have native plants available after Mother’s Day.
Because of the pandemic I ordered some pesticide-free seeds online from High Country Gardens including a pollinator wildflower mix, a deer resistant mix and a native Northeast wildflower mix. I was relieved when May said that those were good choices. (Apparently there are a lot of bad pollinator mixes on the market.)
She pointed out that at the very least the patridge pea, coreopsis varieties and black-eyed Susan in my mixes should come up this year.
Barker recommends applying a bit of compost when you first spread the seed.
Overall though, native plants actually do not need much fertilizer. You can top dress (1/2″) with compost or a granular organic fertilizer like Espoma PlantTone once per year if you’d like, but it is not necessary.
As far as what native plants to choose for your wildflower pollinator garden, it depends on what area of the country you live. You can visit the Xerces Pollinator Conservation Resource Center here for region-specific collections of publications, native seed vendors and other resources to aid in establishing pollinator habitat. Other resources include Plant Native, which has a searchable database of native plant nurseries in each state and Audubon’s native plants for birds database. In addition, the National Wildlife Federation’s website has information about gardening for wildlife.
Just FYI, if you are lucky enough to have deer visit your yard like me and you live in the Northeast but you don’t want them eating your native wildflower plants, Barker said to put some gastache, asclepias and coreopsis varieties into the mix because they are deer resistant.
Because I have a yard that’s on the smaller side, I also adore this book: Native Plants for the Small Yard, which you can download here. It provides guidance on flower garden designs for your yard, including nine different design templates you can use and/or modify as you wish. It lists native wildflower plants by color, height and water needs, etc. It also has a section dedicated to deer resistant native plants.
No matter what happens after I seed this weekend, or after I plant some native plants, Barker said not to expect everything to work perfectly the first time around.
If that is not another lesson in accepting life on life’s terms, I don’t know what is.
He also said to have fun. Once things are up and growing, seeing the blooms change throughout the year is the best part, he said.
For me, the best part is knowing I’m helping all the little things who run the world. Right now, nothing seems more important or fulfilling than that.
Nicole Rivard is editor of Friends of Animal’s quarterly magazine Action Line. She brings 24 years of journalism experience to the front lines, protesting and documenting atrocities against animals.