A Successful Pollinator Garden is Messy
Updated: Aug 28, 2021
OR Did You Really Plant That Pollinator Garden for Pollinators? Starting in early spring a 5 year old pollinator garden at the entrance to a local nature park kept getting mowed down every month by the county parks department. The garden is between a fence and a path, with a Pollinator Garden sign in front of it. After the third time this happened my friend Pat put up small stakes with laminated “DO NOT MOW” signs on both ends of the garden and the problem seemed to be solved. The area took a hit because it was too late for spring and early summer blooming flowers like scarlet bee balm (monarda didyma), but Joe pye weed (utrochium purpureum), ironweed (vernonia fasciculata), goldenrod (solidago), aster, and passionflower vine (passiflora incarnata) bounced back and were starting to bud and bloom on 7 to 9 foot stalks and trailing vines. Last week, at the peak of pollinator season and days before the Great Georgia Pollinator Census the entire vibrant garden was bushwhacked to the ground!
As I looked at the devastation, I noticed a new layer of thick black dyed mulch had also been placed on the path between the garden and a riparian forest area. I hope I'm wrong, but it appears this eco-vandalism was an intentional act.
Rewind to last year when I learned there was a question about how to reimagine (i.e., replace) this “messy, overgrown” area by the powers that be (Parks Department?) and some park visitors. Apparently 8-foot pollinator plants are somehow considered unsightly at the entrance area of a nature park - even ones growing in a well-defined pollinator garden. A consultant from a local non-profit park organization suggested mowing a larger strip along the fence so it was clear where the garden was. He also encouraged placing seasonal signage. Butterflies, native bees and other insects overwinter in the leaves and stems, so the area needs to be left alone until it warms up in the spring. He also recommended unironically (or maybe in a clever snarky way) that if this area is not considered neat enough there needs to be clarity about whether the pollinator garden is for pollinators, people, or both.
I held my tongue then and have not shared my strong thoughts on this situation until now because the garden is in a jewel of a park that is a reclaimed urban brownfield. Thanks to federal, state and county government coordination, conservation organizations, corporations, local businesses, and countless dedicated volunteers it is now a 13-acre nature park with a 1.5-mile path along an iconic Atlanta stream, with a restored pond and wetland, meadow, old-growth urban forest and even a Community Garden. Passion-driven volunteers (like my friend Pat!) have helped restore the ecosystem with thousands of native trees, bushes, forbs and grasses. It has to be one of the most biodiverse intown parks around.
All things being equal, this pollinator garden is one of many in the park and takes up a tiny piece of park real estate - which is also why a focus on this relatively small area bothers me. I wonder if it is getting attention because it is the first thing you see at one entrance to the park. Maybe it is a victim of its own success, and the thriving tangle of native plants don't fit the old fashioned idea of a “garden”.
It seems inconceivable that someone seriously thinks an intentionally designed pollinator garden is not tidy enough for people to look at in a park that was once a toxic wasteland and is now a place where wildlife and people coexist? When I was taking photos of the area, there were also two couples staring in disbelief at the destroyed habitat. One person showed me beautiful pictures he took in the exact spot, including a passionflower, a skink and a tiger swallowtail - the state butterfly of Georgia. The value this natural area offers people seems obvious.
I’m still processing why this situation strikes such a deep nerve with me. While I sort through all the ideas and sincere questions I’m wrestling with, I’ll share just a few initial thoughts racing through my head. Look for future posts expanding on each.
Maybe we need to stop using the term pollinator garden and start using a term like pollinator habit, insect habitat, pollinator patch or even insect playground! Until more natural landscapes become the norm in both public and private spaces, the term garden still evokes a traditionally quilted landscape of orderly plants we are in control of. Maybe a term focusing on the area as a wildlife habitat would better indicate a tapestry of plants woven together in unpredictable ways is to be expected.
Are tall native plants scary in a Little Shop of Horrors sort of way? At what height does a pollinator garden start to be considered unsightly? Based on how popular small and compact plants seem to be in traditional gardens of all sizes, it seems like anything over 3 feet it too tall!
A pollinator garden’s value is not how it looks to us, but what it offers wildlife. In an 8-foot-tall patch of densely planted native plants there are more leaves for caterpillars to eat, stems for cavity nesting bees and other insects, flowers for butterflies and bees, and seed heads for birds than a more organized patch of 3-foot-tall plants.
An ideal place to take a break from man-made spaces is a natural park that has been set aside for habitat restoration and protecting wildlife. Relaxing, walking, birdwatching, photographing, or meditating are the anticipated recreational activities. Except for removing invasives and maintaining paths, destroying any part of a nature park’s ecosystem detracts from the inherent value if offers both humans and wildlife.
It seems obvious, but maybe it's not...nature is beautifully messy and unpredictable. We need to embrace and appreciate its value.
If you feel inclined to voice your dismay over this specific situation and the importance of pollinator gardens, you can e-mail Torrance at firstname.lastname@example.org He is the Project Manager who is the county point person for this park. Maybe it will move protecting this and other gardens in the county up on the priority list. The park is called Zonolite.