Building biodiversity patch by patch

Elderberries in Toronto

This summer the David Suzuki Foundation is working on building Canada’s first “Homegrown National Park,” a crowd-sourced green corridor in downtown Toronto. The park will consist of restored and reclaimed urban green spaces, bird-and bug-friendly backyards, rooftop gardens, and balcony agriculture initiatives, which will all be stewarded by a team of volunteer “park rangers” appointed by the Suzuki Foundation. Although the deadline for ranger applications has already passed, it is not too late to unofficially participate in the groundbreaking project.

A few weeks ago we spoke with Carol Dunk, Environment Chair at the Ontario Horticultural Association, about how to start a Do-It-Yourself pollinator patch. Pollinator patches are small-to-medium sized garden plots that are dedicated to restoring Ontario’s traditional floral biodiversity. As the O.H.A. Environment Chair, Carol spearheaded the Roadsides Pollinator Project, an initiative that took countless gardeners to Ontario highways to boost the presence of native plant varieties that so many creatures rely on for food and shelter. She is an avid proponent of environmentally-minded guerilla gardening, and shared some tips on how you can create a patch of your own on some vacant city land, to help bring more native fruits (such as wild strawberries, chokecherries, elderberry, wild raspberries) to your neighbourhood.

CAROL DUNK: I’ve always liked to think that I knew about the environment and cared for it, but after a trip to Texas where we saw the plantings along the side of the road that (former First Lady) “Lady Bird” Johnson had created, I thought it would be nice if the roadsides of Ontario were prettier and had flowers. The second thought was that if we are going to plant flowers along roadsides then they should be native, and from that came the thought that this would be a perfect conservation idea. I devised the idea for the pollinator patch, which is a 6 metre by 3 metre plot of native grasses and wildflowers, and I sold that to the O.H.A. and to its members as something that each of us would be able to do. I’m older, and since a lot of our members are older too, we can’t do acres and acres of pollinator plantings. What we can do is little patches, but hundreds of them. My community here was very pro that idea, and it has expanded into unused lots everywhere. Instead of just roadsides, look for vacant lots in town around you, or in your own garden, anywhere you can spare a little patch to dedicate to the invertebrates, flowers and plants of Canada.

It is important to plant native plants because we are at risk of losing our biodiversity in Ontario, when we plant mostly hybrids that we buy from our nurseries. The first reason to plant natives is simply that they grow better here, and are better at absorbing water. The second reason is that animals and insects have been attached to our native plants for aeons, and when we plant our hybrids we are not always providing food for birds and bees and other invertebrates. The kind of planting that you are doing with native plants also gives habitat for birds. Tallgrass Ontario is planting large sections of prairie to provide habitat for such things as bobolinks which are disappearing from Ontario. When you plant a pollinator patch you are helping to bring back or restore some of the habitat that the birds had before. If we want to keep our land natural, then we need to plant for all of the things that should be here.

The object of the planting is to have some sort of nectar or pollen from early spring to late fall. This means you’ll need spring plants, midseason plants, and fall plants. For spring pollination, I planted wild strawberries, chokecherry and New Jersey tea. We’ve had great results with the strawberry, it is a good groundcover. For the summer: black-eyed susan, butterfly weeds, golden alexander, purple coneflower. The Fall is easy too, you can plant goldenrod and asters. You will also want to plant some grasses. I planted a few kinds of grasses that I knew bees would like; little bluestem, sideoats grama, and one of the panicums (switchgrass). You don’t think of bees going to grasses but they do, and quite often bumblebees will nest underneath a clump of grass. It is also easier to use plants from nurseries instead of seeds, you tend to have better luck that way.

If you are going to plant on someone else’s property, whether it is the city, the municipality, or the county, then you will need permission. One of the things you will have to do is write a proposal. Tell them the benefits, and how long you are going to be committing to it. With my pollinator patches I suggest a commitment of three years, after that it should be able to stand on its own once the plants have established their root systems.

If you want to do a patch the most you’d need is three people. You’d need to go to whoever owns the property and get permission to plant, and what I’ve found is that it works best to give them two or three different location options, and then let them decide on where the patch will go.

It is legal to plant by roadsides but the Ministry of Transport doesn’t always want it. When I phoned them, you could almost hear the fear in their voice: “Oh my god, fifty thousand little old ladies planting along the road!” If you are planting along a roadside, you’ll need something that is about 20 feet wide, so you can pull a vehicle over and still have space to garden. The Ministry will want to do maintenance, and so you will need to leave an area that can be cut between your area and the road.

The best advice is to just go for it. If you go to my website there is a booklet that you can download or read. Just do it. Be guerilla gardeners.

For more information on planting pollinator-friendly plant varieties, you can check out the Ontario Invasive Plant Council’s Southern Ontario guide, Grow Me Instead: Beautiful Non-Invasive Plants for Your Garden.

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