ONE OF THE MOST common questions that garden centers and other garden professionals are asked these days: How can I add more pollinator plants? Kim Eierman designs ecological gardens with such beneficial insects in mind, and is the author of the new book “The Pollinator Victory Garden,” and I got some advice from her on subjects ranging from wildlife-supporting spring cleanup tactics and timing, to how much of each plant is “enough” to make a difference, and which plants are native, anyway.
Kim is also founder of the garden business called EcoBeneficial, consulting on ecological landscaping and design, based in Westchester County, New York. She speaks nationwide to spread her passion for habitat-style plantings, and creates an occasional podcast series on the subject, and teaches at New York Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Native Plant Center.
Read along as you listen to the March 9, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Plus: Enter to win a copy of “The Pollinator Victory Garden” (affiliate link) by commenting in the box at the very bottom of the page.
creating pollinator gardens, with kim eierman
Margaret: Welcome, Kim. I think we all need a pollinator victory garden, don’t we? Especially after the winter. I tell you, I’d like to see some of the guys buzzing around.
Kim: Very, very soon.
Margaret: Yes. So, I should say before we get started that we’ll have a book giveaway on A Way to Garden with the transcript of this show, so people can come and get all the details and more links and pictures and enter the book giveaway.
So, I guess the place to start is the basics, like why, to your mind, native is important and in your work, how do you define what native means? Because over the years I’ve heard many, many definitions, and it’s evolved, and I’m just interested to see where you are on that to start.
Kim: Sure. Yes, It can be very confusing to people that are trying to make the transition to native, to figure out what the heck that means. So I always default to the federal executive order, as scintillating as that sounds.
Kim: And they define native species as plants and animals that occur naturally, either presently or historically in any ecosystem in the U.S.
So how do I use that? Well, I try to apply this to regional ecosystems, to use a geographic qualifier with the word “native.” So our best practice would be to garden with plants that are native to our particular county or area. And again, they would have to be properly adapted to our site, because not all sites are the same. And then we might have a broader definition, “native to the Northeast,” or so on and so on.
So why is this important? It comes down to one simple word: “evolution.” The evolutionary interconnections between plants and animals and sometimes between plants themselves are really, really important. And I think the poster child for this over the last decade is the monarch butterfly and its obligate larval host plant milkweeds [below], the hundred-plus species of milkweeds in the Americas. But there’s so many other connections that sometimes we just don’t even know about that make native plants particularly important. But my book covers, I don’t know, probably 10 points of why natives are important.
Margaret: Yes. And so you’re going somewhat local, yes? Regional or local, yes?
Kim: We really try to focus on regional native plants, yes.
Margaret: O.K. You just mentioned Northeast; both of us are in the Northeast. But the great thing when I came to your website and when I looked at the book, you provide information and plant lists and so forth…. we can come to the website and find access to databases of plants, no matter where we live.
Kim: Right. I have a lot of regional lists in addition to what you see in the book. There are a lot of regional lists of pollinator plants that cover North America.
But I really encourage folks to do a little research. Just don’t blindly look at a list. So get a reference, and understand kind of where that’s taking you. And then, please, investigate and join your local native plant society. Where you are, it would be the Native Plant Trust. Where I am, it’s the Native Plant Center of New York.
And there are so many great native plant organizations that have regional plant lists on their websites. New Jersey is a case in point. California has a fantastic website with native plants. So do a little digging, is my answer. There’s no one-size-fits-all here.
Margaret: And since I have readers and listeners all over the place, I have done a little digging and I have a list. And what I’ll do is, that it involves some of the ones like Calflora and the New York state, the flora of New York State, the plant atlas, and some other ones, comparable ones, around the country.
Margaret: So what I’ll do is, since we’re talking about it with the link with the transcript of this show, I’ll give a link to that. Obviously I haven’t done every single one. [More on how to find plants that are native to your area.]
But I love your suggestion. Just like with birders, people say, “Well, how can I learn about this? How can I learn about that?” And I’m like, “Go to your local bird club’s website. Go to a meeting.” You know what I mean? It’s the best way to find out, from other people who are into it in your area, right?
Kim: And I have a lot of resource websites and books on “The Pollinator Victory Garden” part of my website to help readers kind of get to the right resource.
Margaret: Good. So we’ll give all those good links. O.K., so now we sort of set the stage; that’s what we’re talking about. So we’re talking about local. And even though many plants are native to the United States, to other regions, something that’s a prairie plant, that’s not native to the Northeast, so it’s not native for me and so forth. So matching to your …
So, now that we’ve kind of established that, as we walk around our yards this spring, we gardeners—and as you do with clients, prospective clients or established clients you’re visiting again—where are some of the spots in the landscape, as you’re walking around doing a consult or whatever, that you are looking to find, to sort of transform into more native-heavy areas? Are there places you’re on the lookout for because you have this expertise?
Kim: Absolutely. So, my number one target is the lawn, what I call the “green desert.” [Above.]
Kim: It truly is an ecological wasteland for pollinators.
So, it can be a bit much to ask someone who’s had a lawn for 20, 30 more years to give it all up. And I think that’s often unrealistic. So I suggest that we start with small areas and replace lawn with what I call “pollinator islands.” It’s very easy to do, and we can include more islands over time and connect them to create bigger landscapes.
But I find that with most of us, if a project becomes too large and overwhelming, we don’t do it at all. So better that we get started with smaller spaces. And an example of a kind of a no-brainer conversion to a pollinator area would be a hillside that is currently in turfgrass. Who wants to mow that? [Laughter.]
Margaret: Not Margaret, Kim. Not Margaret.
Kim: No, no. So why not just let’s get rid of that, and think about lower-growing plants, perhaps meadow-like plants. We can do a formal or an informal design, depending on the person’s taste. But why not take the low-hanging fruit and convert it into a pollinator habitat and garden?
And I really recommend that you start with an area that you’re going to see all the time. If you’re a cook like me and you always in the kitchen, and you’re looking at the window, get a garden out there so you kind of see what’s going on and you start to appreciate what the function of a pollinator garden is really doing, all the different creatures that are coming.
Margaret: And I really believe in all garden design… I’m not a garden designer like you are, but I always say, when I’m lecturing, I say, “Hey, go inside. Look out the window. See what your vistas are, what axial views you have from the key windows that you use your house in. Because that’s where you’re going to be able to pat yourself on the back and get some reward for your work.
Margaret: You know what I mean? Yes.
Kim: And even to including some seating areas outdoors, so when you’re in the garden, be in the garden, like in the middle of the action. Make an area where you can actually enjoy what’s going on, seeing the hummingbirds and the bees and the butterflies, etc.
Margaret: Yes. So we hear and read on podcasts or garden lectures and in books about habitat-style gardening, to “plant in layers,” that phrase is often used, and not to plant the way we do, a 30-foot tree in a 3-inch lawn or just having miles of 3-inch lawn. But plant nature does, in layers.
And you say in the book, though, when advocating for lawn reduction, you say, “Don’t replace one monoculture with another.” So tell us about that. [Above, a layered planting of ginger, tiarella, mayapple and more among trees and shrubs in a woodland garden.]
Kim: Sure. So, say we’re looking at the line and we’re thinking, “Oh, we’re going to make this a pollinator garden.” Well, there’s a temptation to just choose one plant.
And that doesn’t really work well for pollinators because there are many different types of pollinators, bees, butterflies, bats, moths. Depending on where you are in the country, beetles are the largest group of pollinators. And they all have different preferences of pollinator plants. They also are active at different times of year.
So when we’re designing, we really need to think about, first of all, diversity. So we have a diverse array of plants that attract a diverse array of pollinators.
And just an example, hummingbirds really love red, tubular flowers. It’s not cast in stone, they don’t always go to them, but those are their favorites. But a very small bee will probably need a very open flower, because it doesn’t have a lot of body strength or tongue length, and it will prefer a bright white or a yellow or violet or blue-colored flower.
So the diversity of bloom is really important, but also the succession of bloom is really key. Depending on where you are, if you’re in California, you’ve already started your gardening, probably, in certain parts of California. But for us here in the Northeast, early spring through late fall.
And although we want to have diversity of bloom, we also have to have sufficiency of bloom. I call that “achieving floral balance.” So what’s that about? Well, pollinators like bees and butterflies have a behavior called floral constancy or floral fidelity. And that means when they go off on a foraging mission, they’re looking for one species of plant.
So we need to provide targets for them to accommodate that. And that can be done in a couple of ways. One, we can create a big group of plants of one species. Research out of University of California has shown that a one-square-meter grouping is ideal, but we can’t always do that because of space considerations, etc.
So another way to approach it is to repeat smaller groupings in a landscape, and the pollinators will find them, or to have a meadowscape type of arrangement with an erratic amount of bloom. But it’s all about biodiversity when we’re thinking of pollinators, and especially in the face of climate change.
Margaret: So when we bring home native plants from the garden center, we shouldn’t—just like when we’re trying to design any garden even just for pure aesthetics, and even of nonnatives—bringing “onesies” home, one of this, one of that, one of the other thing, isn’t going to do the trick. Even though we could say, “Oh, I have 20 new native plants in my garden,” we want to have a little bit of a mass of each type, yes? Like you’re saying.
Kim: Absolutely. So, trees and shrubs kind of help us out a little bit, especially the larger ones, because we’ve got good biomass there, so we might be able to get away with one of a given shrub or tree.
But just be aware that many of our plants that are native do require a pollinator partner. That’s what I call them. They may either be, like our native hollies are dioecious male and female plants, and we need both to provide the pollen on the male plants, particularly for bees to build their brood—it’s the main source of protein—but also the fruit on the females. So, a lot of these plants are dioecious.
And a lot of plants, like our native viburnums, even though they don’t have different sexes, they’re not always reliably self-fruitful, meaning they need a genetically different partner near them for cross-pollination by insects to produce fruit.
Margaret: Yes. A little bit of homework is a good thing, gardeners. [Laughter.]
Margaret: Right? Right.
Kim: It seems really simple until you start doing it.
Margaret: I know.
Kim: It requires some knowledge.
Margaret: I know.
Kim: So align yourself with a great local nursery that knows this stuff, that can help you out. Join your native plant society. Go to volunteer events, for example, plant sales in the spring. We’re just getting into that season. There are so many native plants sales where knowledgeable people help you choose the right plants and get you a little bit further down the road with this. [Find yours: a list of state and Canadian native plant societies, plus this one from of U.S. state societies from American Horticultural Society.]
Margaret: Yes. So it’s not all about adding plants. The book, your approach, it’s not all about just adding more plants. It’s also about other sort of ecosystem-supporting cultural tactics, like, for example, not using chemicals. Very important.
Margaret: So, some of us are starting our spring cleanup, or maybe in warmer zones than you and I are in, they’ve already started. You have, toward the end of the book, of page with some eco-beneficial cultural tips for each season. And I just thought we could kind of go over some of the spring ones to get us off to a smart eco-beneficial kind of start.
Margaret: So let’s talk about some of the ways that you would approach cleanup that might be a little different from the old days.
Kim: Well, the first order of business is to remember that you are not just providing floral resources, you’re providing habitat. You’re providing a place where pollinators are living, overwintering in some cases, nesting, hiding, getting protection from predators, etc. So your garden’s an ecosystem. Whether you want an ecosystem or not, it is. So if we start thinking in that way, we can be much more successful in planting for pollinators and providing all of the resources.
So cleanup is tricky, because if you’re like me, the way I learned as a gardener was to be meticulously clean. Well, the Nellie Neat in me has long since vanished. [Above, many bees nest in the ground.]
Margaret: Me too, Kim. I have to say that’s been the biggest change. The way that I clean up fall and spring is the biggest change since I started to understand some of this stuff.
Kim: And why? Well, we might like it neat and tidy, but that’s not always great for nature and for wildlife. So, just thinking back to the fall, what should we have done or not done? Well, for those of us who live in a forested ecosystem here in the Northeast, lots of the Midwest, etc., depending on where you are, we have forests, we have trees, we kind of emulate those systems in our own landscapes with those layers that we’ve been talking about.
And of course, trees do what? They drop their leaves. That’s what’s supposed to happen. Those leaves then decompose. Macro- and micro-invertebrates are going to help decompose those leaves, and they develop essentially a nutrient-cycling system for our soil. So, there’s something else that goes on there too, which really is an implication for a need to keep leaves in place.
There are tons of invertebrates in that leaf litter. Tons. Tons. And so maybe there’s a mourning cloak butterfly that can overwinter as an adult in leaf litter. It has a chemical in its body that’s like antifreeze and it can actually survive that way.
Margaret: Yes, or under a little bark, even. Sometimes under a little bark. It might hide under some bark on the tree. Yes.
Kim: Yes, that too. But that that leaf litter, there are lots of critters in an immature stage or sometimes in a mature stage that are really crucial for healthy ecosystems.
And then think in the spring, when migrating birds are coming back and they are looking for food, and for all of us who know and love Doug Tallamy’s work and his book “Bringing Nature Home,” we’ve learned that like 96 percent of land birds feed insects to their young.
Kim: So we need a lot of insects for landscapes. So in the spring, so what do you do? So, you’ve left all this stuff. You haven’t cut your perennials back in the fall. You haven’t moved the leaves.
Those perennials, by the way, particularly pithy-stem ones [above], can become habitat. Sometimes you’ll see that, gosh, if you will have a broken-off stem in the garden, you might have an aggregation of, say, ladybugs that overwinter as adults in that pithy stem, or it could be an overwintering bee. There’s a lot of activity going on in the garden that we may not be noticing.
And of course, by leaving our perennials up, we’re also providing a seed source for birds that are overwintering and other mammals. So, when do we start cutting back? That’s a tough one. Climate change has made this really challenging.
Kim: And we can’t always predict what the temperature is going to be at any given time of year. So my general suggestion is, wait until we’ve had a consistent number of days where we’re well into the 50s because that’s when insect activity starts up. And make sure that when you start to cut back your garden, you’re doing so when the soil is not soaking wet, because the enemy of healthy soil is compacted soil. When we step on wet soil, bad news.
And then take it easy, easy, slowly, slowly. Instead of cutting everything back the same day, stage it. Maybe not all the insects in your landscape have woken up. Maybe we’re going to get a cold spell. When you think, “Oh, we’re now in spring,” maybe we’re not so much now in spring. So those are my suggestions in terms of cleanup.
Margaret: Right. So we’re going to be a little bit slower and we’re not going to go through there with a giant blower-
Kim: Weed-wacker. [Laughter.]
Margaret: … shredder, or weed-wacker, oh my goodness, assault-on-nature kind of a thing. Yes.
Kim: Yes. Gentle, gentle.
Margaret: O.K. So the book and also the movement sort of, of ecological landscaping, they have this message of connectivity, I think. And you, Kim, in your yard, and Margaret, over in my yard, we can do things. But it’s even better if we connect the dots.
And Doug Tallamy’s new book, a lot of it is about that, about how we can kind of create this “Homegrown National Park” by all contributing our small piece.
So, I know that you do a podcast, and one of your interviews, I think it was in December 2019, was with the founder of Bee City USA. [More about the Bee City USA initiative on the Xerces Society website.]
Kim: Yes. Phyllis Stiles.
Margaret: Yes. And so that’s an example of a sort of blown-up, a big connectivity program. And I wondered if you could kind of just talk to us about why connectivity, why not just doing this as a little isolated island, is so important.
Kim: Sure. Well, you can just kind of see yourself, that if the only resource—and sadly this is the case in much of Westchester, where I live—if the only resource is a little patch of landscape, the pollinators that you’re trying to attract and support are very limited in terms of what they have available to them.
And to get to the next landscape that might be a quarter mile away, that’s a bit of a challenge. And some of our pollinators travel a fair amount of mileage. A bumblebee, a strong bumblebee, can go a mile. A little bee might only go 100 feet. But hummingbirds and some of our other winged pollinators are going to be able to travel, like butterflies, long distances.
So if we think of monarchs as a model that kind of gives us a goal. We need to help them along their entire route, whatever that may be. And so having landscapes that are connected in terms of resources and habitat really helps.
It’s very much like the wildlife pathways that have existed for many decades with wildlife managers. If you go out into, say, Montana or parts of the West, you will see these wildlife ramps over highways for large animals to actually get safely from one area to another. Well, pity the poor bee, for example, that’s trying to get from your one patch of habitat and forage to another area, and it’s got to cross a highway. Much better that your neighbors have more resources, and they don’t have to travel this far.
Margaret: Making known what you’re doing and communicating and sort of joining some of these group efforts?
Kim: Totally. And influencing neighbors, family, and friends. I’ve had a number of clients who, after we’ve installed landscapes that are ecological, pollinator-friendly, they’ll have me come do a walk-and-talk in their garden. And we’ll give plants away to their neighbors and friends and do kind of a formal arrangement, a little garden tour and explanation and get people jazzed up about this. I think most people want to help. They just don’t always know what to do, so sharing that message.
And signage I think is tremendously underutilized in our landscapes. So whether it’s, say, a pollinator garden sign … The Xerces Society is a fantastic resource for one of those. That’s a nonprofit organization that’s akin to … I’ve heard it described as the counterpart to Audubon, but for invertebrates.
But get signage in your landscape where people can see it, and get that message out that you’re gardening differently, you’re gardening with a purpose.
And then of course, sharing your garden. Have garden parties, provide opportunities for people to kind of see how this works. And find some volunteer opportunities, at your local church or school, etc., that maybe has some vacant area that you could help turn into a pollinator garden.
And then we can take it even further, like is going on now in the Northeast with the Pollinator Pathway movement, where throughout Westchester County and a good part of Fairfield County, Connecticut, different municipalities are joining the Pollinator Pathways, and you can get your particular landscape on the map. And there’s a big push to educate, inform, and assist folks in doing that.
Margaret: We’re short on time, but there’s a great appendix at the back of the book, which is kind of a short course, “10 Tips for a Thriving Pollinator Victory Garden.” We’ve covered most of them, and here they all are in detail.
But thank you so much, Kim. I think it’s such an important message. I’ll also give links, by the way, to Bee City USA, which I want to learn more about. Thanks for the tip on that, and thank you for making the time today.
Kim: Well, thank you so much for having me, Margaret. It’s been my pleasure.
find your area’s native plant society
- A list of U.S. state societies from American Horticultural Society
- a list of state and Canadian native plant societies from the North American Native Plant Society
(Photo credit: All photos from “The Pollinator Victory Garden” courtesy of Kim Eierman, used with permission.)
enter to win ‘the pollinator victory garden’
I’LL BUY A COPY of Kim Eierman’s “The Pollinator Victory Garden” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below:
Do you know your local (or county, or state) native plant society? Have you ever visited its website, or better yet, gone to a plat sale or program there?
No answer or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but an answer is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Good luck to all.
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