A New Kind of Victory Garden
Kim Eierman is a multi-talented, very busy woman. Founder of EcoBeneficial LLC., an ecological landscape design and consulting firm based in Westchester County, New York, Kim also teaches about the cultivation of native plants and ecologically-based garden design at the several venues, including the New York Botanical Garden, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and Rutgers University. Likewise, she maintains a busy speaking schedule and amidst all of this has found time to write a book, The Pollinator Victory Garden: Win the War on Pollinator Decline with Ecological Gardening.
The title of the book is largely self-explanatory. Kim became concerned with reports of worldwide crashes in the populations of insects, in particular with the decline in the number of pollinating insects. These are the insects that visit flowers to feed on their nectar or pollen, and in the process spread pollen from one blossom to another, affecting their sexual fertilization and making it possible for them to bear seeds. Some 80 percent of flowering plants depend on animals to fulfill this crucial part of their reproductive cycle, Kim pointed out to me in a recent conversation. Bats, hummingbirds, and other vertebrate species play some role in this process, but the vast majority of the pollinators are insects, which we have in the past largely regarded as enemies in the garden. This has to change if we are to emerge from the looming crisis unscathed.
Part of the solution to reversing insect pollinator decline will have to be a change in agricultural practices, with less emphasis on the use of insecticides. In areas such as the eastern part of the United States, however, where much of the land is residential, the reversal will also have to involve changes in the behavior of gardeners and homeowners. In short, Kim sees the need for something like the Victory Garden movements of the First and Second World Wars, when government programs persuaded tens of millions of Americans to plant food gardens. She wants to see a similar mass planting of gardens to provide food and habitat for pollinators.
It is the second part of that equation, the creation of habitat, that Kim believes is too often overlooked. In the matter of native bees, for example, which are crucial pollinators, she says that many gardeners serve smorgasbords of flowers, but rarely provide areas for the bees to nest. Habitat for nesting varies with the species of bee (and there are some 4,000 nation-wide), but generally our native bees nest either in cavities or in the ground.
Cavity nesters seek out holes bored into dead trees by beetles, or holes the bees excavate into pithy stemmed perennials or shrubs such as elderberries. Foster these cavity nesters, Kim urges, by leaving dead trees standing in your landscape – cut them back, if necessary, to a safe height. Likewise, leave perennial stems standing over the winter; don’t cut them down until early spring and remove them over a period of a few weeks to ensure that any nesting bees awaken and depart before you do.
Providing habitat for ground-nesting bees involves a different approach. So that the bees can dig their subterranean tunnels, leave a few square feet of soil bare in some sunny spot. Sandy or loamy soils are best for bee nesting areas; rich or clay soils are harder for the bees to excavate and are likely to remain water-logged after rain storms. Locate this nesting ground in some quiet, out-of-the-way spot, so that the bees won’t be disturbed by foot traffic or mowers. But keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of these native bees are solitary, unaggressive creatures that are very unlikely to sting; that behavior is more typical of social species such as the non-native honey bees which have to protect their hives and honey supply.
There’s much more involved in creating pollinator habitat, and for more information I urge you to consult Kim Eierman’s book, The Pollinator Victory Garden, or listen to her interview on a recent episode of the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Growing Greener podcast (https://www.thomaschristophergardens.com/podcasts/the-pollinator-victory-garden).
It’s important to emphasize that fostering pollinators doesn’t have to involve a large property or a big investment. Kim’s own garden is located on just 1/5th of an acre only 16 miles north of New York City’s Grand Central Station. Yet she sees a steady stream of pollinators, with many making their homes in her plot. Even just a container garden, properly planted, can play its part in reversing this dangerous decline.
Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, located in Stockbridge, MA. Its mission, to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through a diverse range of classes and programs, informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors each year. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Nature into Art and The Gardens of Wave Hill (Timber Press, 2019). He is the 2021 Garden Club of America’s National Medalist for Literature, a distinction reserved to recognize those who have left a profound and lasting impact on issues that are most important to the GCA. Tom’s companion broadcast to this column, Growing Greener, streams on WESUFM.org, Pacifica Radio and NPR and is available at his website, https://www.thomaschristophergardens.com/podcast.
Photo caption: Some 80 percent of flowering plants depend on insects or animals for pollination, says Kim Eierman, author of The Pollinator Victory Garden: Win the War on Pollinator Decline with Ecological Gardening.