Green & Growing: Pollinator protection is buzzing
It was 2019 when Guilford resident Heather Bradley accidentally killed a frog with her lawnmower. It wasn't a good day for the frog but a turning point for Bradley.
"It hit me that keeping a turf lawn was a total waste of time, space, and resources, not to mention a detriment to ecology and the environment," said Bradley. "I started reading about native plants, wildlife, and pollinators. I knew my next step was a no-brainer."
The plight of the little frog energized Bradley; to learn what she did, please keep reading. But she is not alone. In the following three stories, perhaps you'll find encouragement, as I have, in the rapid growth of national and regional programs that promote pollinator and wildlife protection.
If you read this column regularly, you may recall the July 2021 article about the National Wildlife Federation's new "Garden for Wildlife" program, an ambitious, coordinated effort to put hundreds of thousands of seed-grown, neonicotinoid-free native plants into the nation's landscape. Recognizing that nursery industry supply was a barrier to this goal, the 86-year-old NWF created native plant "kits" that could be shipped directly to customers with instructions. The kits contained science-based collections of pollinator "keystone" plants for the northeastern US and Midwest ecoregions.
Now the program is closing in on the end of its second year. How has it gone?
"We are blown away at the engaged, committed community eager to learn more about helping wildlife with native plants while beautifying their spaces," said Mary Phillips, Garden for Wildlife director. "We've sold over 16,000 plant kits so far in 2022. We went from four plant collections in 2021 to 22 product offerings this year. We started serving ecoregions in 20 states (including Connecticut), but now we're up to 36 states," she said.
This is only a beginning, however. "Our broader goal is one million Garden for Wildlife Plant Collections sold and planted by 2027," said Phillips. To get there, she said they are tackling some barriers in the plant nursery industry.
"While there are some notable native plant suppliers, they tend to be small operations compared to the major mainstream growers," said Phillips. "The major growers have a business model based on high quantities of popular plants and cultivars."
Cultivars are plants bred for popular characteristics such as low height or popular colors.
"Major growers are not geared to growing lesser-known, high-wildlife-value, straight native species, particularly those grown without neonicotinoids," said Phillips. "Neonics” are controversial pesticides that persist in roots, stems, and leaves of treated plants for as much as one year. They are toxic to bees.
Seeds present another challenge. "Seed supplies for regional ecotypes of straight species are in limited production nationwide," Phillips said. While Garden for Wildlife growers are using seeds that originate within Level 1 ecoregions, these regions cover extensive land areas. Phillips looks forward to a time when seed supplies are much more local in origin. (See Eco59.com for a state-based example.)
To learn more about the Garden for Wildlife program and the "powerhouse" keystone plants recommended for our region, enter your zip code at gardenforwildlife.com.
It might be reasonable to conclude that “gridlock” is the best way to describe legislative action on the planet's future. But there's another perspective.
"Pollinator protection doesn't take an act of congress. You can just do it," says Louise Washer of Norwalk. She believes that's one reason the popular Pollinator Pathway movement has taken hold so quickly. "People feel the urgency to protect wildlife right now. This concept is simple, free, and all-volunteer."
Washer was part of the original steering committee that launched the Pollinator Pathway concept in Wilton in 2017. The committee included people who were already active in environmental issues professionally and as volunteers.
"We realized that habitat fragmentation is a death sentence for species that can't travel more than a few hundred feet," said Washer. Some of the committee members were aware of a community planning concept called "Pollinator Pathway," a phrase initially coined by Seattle artist Sarah Bergman. They had also heard of Norway's "Bee Highway."
As they discussed ways to address the situation, she said, "A lightbulb came on."
Most native bees have a travel range of less than one-half mile or 750 meters. The group decided to publicize the importance of planting native plants, pesticide-free, everywhere to avoid insect deaths due to "pollinator food deserts." The gardens need not be elaborate; a simple planter box of native plants can help fill the distances between areas with native trees, shrubs, perennial flowers, and grasses. Pathway gardens would be marked with a small sign to educate neighbors and attract further participation.
Committee members established the first Connecticut pathway in the Wilton area. Today, about half of Connecticut towns have Pollinator Pathway participants, including every shoreline town from East Haven to Stonington. Many towns have local coordinators and post the project on their town websites.
The movement caught on in Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ontario, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
"Our newest addition is a pathway of 20 towns in the state of Washington," said Washer.
She and fellow founders have been surprised and delighted by the quick uptake of the concept. "These ideas were already on people's minds—they sensed the invitation to do something, and they're doing it."
She said their information-rich website has been key to the momentum. "It operates almost like a switchboard for local groups, connecting them with the evolving body of knowledge we post on the site. We also have a newsletter and an active mailing list." She added that new site content is often suggested by participants.
"There's a lot of energy that people bring back to us."
Personal inspiration, local action
Now, let's go back to that fall day in 2019 when a frog met a bad outcome beneath Heather Bradley's lawnmower. The incident convinced her to reduce turf. Equipped with the reading she completed that long COVID winter, Bradley covered her front lawn in cardboard and compost and planted about 1,000 plugs of native plants beginning in March 2020.
"Once the planting started to take off, I thought, wouldn't it be great to get people to see what's possible with a turf-lawn conversion?" said Bradley. She decided to organize a pollinator tour in Guilford and went in search of like-minded property owners who would open their yards to visitors.
She had no sponsoring organization to organize and publicize the 2021 event, but Bradley found a few helpful sympathizers.
"For instance, Robin Campot of the Sustainable Guilford Task Force was one of the first people who reached out and offered to help get the tour off the ground," she said. Bradley had postcards printed at her own expense and Campot distributed them.
The success of the 2021 tour encouraged Bradley. She started a company that year, Quercus Works Native Pollinator Gardens. (Find the company on Facebook.)
Ironically, Bradley wasn't involved with the Pollinator Pathway when she planned the 2021 tour. "But in 2022, I reached out to let them know about my plans, and they posted my information on their website," she said. "The tour was attended by about 200 people from about ten towns," she said.
The second tour included six locations—one of them Robin Campot's.
"Now, I plan to host this tour each year. With Pollinator Pathway's assistance, it should grow exponentially."
However, Bradley's sense of urgency has spurred more than the pollinator tour. She's helped convert eleven lawns to pollinator-friendly plantings and is growing thousands of plants in her new greenhouse. She's sent out over 1000 postcards to explain the deadly connection between pesticides and pollinators. She organized two native plant sales. Meanwhile, she's removing invasive plants on her own property and planning a meadow this fall.
Who'd have thought a tiny frog could make such a difference?
Suppose you're ready to take a small step in this direction. In that case, there are many pollinator and wildlife protection groups ready to support your goals nationally, regionally, at the town hall, or down the street. Begin anywhere. Begin now.
Kathy Connolly is a writer and speaker from Old Saybrook who focuses on landscape ecology and native plants.