– By Joe Poelzl, architectural designer
Every year at PGAV, we pick a new cause for our “Conservation Awareness Campaign.” In our inaugural year, we raised awareness of the illegal ivory trade and the poaching of elephants, which was a big success, and led to new legislation to ban ivory trade in Missouri. In year two, we went from caring for one of the largest animals on the planet to some of the smallest, because last year it was all about pollinators.
While learning about the plight of the honey bee, we heard about what is contributing to the disappearance of these important creatures, and it was both interesting and troubling. We found out there are many factors that contribute to their population decline, including insecticides, parasites, and disease. All of these add up to some serious problems for the bees; but other than raising awareness and changing what types of chemicals I spray on my own lawn, it just didn’t feel like there was much I could do to improve the dire situation of the bees.
As it turns out, there is something that we can all do to help the honeybee and other insects that pollinate the crops that we eat: We can plant pollinator gardens filled with native plants and wildflowers that provide food stores for bees and butterflies throughout the growing season.
The idea of planning a small garden seemed like a good idea, since it would provide an island of refuge in a food desert that is the city, and I could do something to directly affect what has become a serious situation. But putting in just one small garden at my house didn’t seem like enough. What if we did something bigger? I wondered, was there a way to leverage my access to some unused land and heavy equipment, which would allow me to do something on a much larger scale?
So I came up with this idea and proposed it to the Chairman of our company: If PGAV would purchase enough seed to cover 1.3 acres, and if Kolping Soccer Club would donate the land and equipment, I would do the work to prep the ground and plant the seeds. He graciously accepted, but challenged me to think bigger, and figure out a way to get more of our PGAVia team involved in the process. After talking with a local wildflower seed expert, we came up with a plan where I would buy the bulk pack of seeds for my big garden, and the seed company would donate 30 packs of seeds to distribute to our volunteers to be planted at their own homes.
Not knowing anything about local native wildflowers, I reached out to Pure Air Natives, and they mixed a blend of seeds that were native to this area and would work well with the soil conditions I had down in the flood plain. Twelve different varieties of wildflowers in all were selected so that they would bloom throughout the year.
Work started last December with the clearing of the 1.3 acres of tall grasses, and the breaking up of the ground to make the seed bed. Seeds were planted in the winter and scratched into the earth to give them some cover, and then it was time to wait for nature to take its course. (You can see more about this process in the video below)
As I mentioned earlier, this piece of ground is located in a flood plain; and unfortunately, before the ground warmed enough to germinate the seeds, we were hit with the 2nd worst flood in recorded history at this location.
After the flood, when I when I went down to inspect the site, it was hard to believe that anything could have survived. Everywhere you went, from the parking lot, to the back of the property, there was ¾” of mud and silt. There was a sheen of oil on the surface that was pretty typical of big river valley flood, when farm equipment and vehicles are left behind to sit in the water. But I’ve lived through plenty of these floods before, and as long as the seeds didn’t wash away, there was still reason to be hopeful.
After months of good weather and dry ground, I was starting to think that I was a little too optimistic, because I didn’t see signs of any wildflowers, only tall grasses. I knew the tall grass could crowd out the wildflowers as they all compete for the same resources, and I was contemplating cutting the grasses down when I discovered something pretty remarkable. Most days when I went to check on the wildflowers, it was in the evening, right around the time of soccer practice. But one weekend I went down to cut grass early in the morning, I noticed something yellow in the tall grass of the pollinator garden. What I had been looking at in the evenings that appeared to be only tall grass, was actually filled with Lanceleaf Coreopsis wildflowers. These little yellow flowers open in the morning and face the sun until the day gets too hot, then the flowers close up, and they appear to be just tall green grass which I almost cut down!
Upon closer inspection, I had several other wildflowers coming in, including Plains Coreopsis and Partridge Pea. This was pretty exciting for me to know that the hours spent prepping the ground and seeding over six months ago were not wasted, and something really did survive the flood!
I spent the rest of the summer going down to check out how things were doing, and I enjoyed seeing the flowers continue to grow without any more intervention from me.
After seeing the small victories down at the big pollinator garden, I decided to check on one of the home gardeners who took one the packets donated by Pure Air Natives. To be truthful, it wasn’t just anyone’s garden, it was my mother’s garden. I scooped a few ounces out of the 40 lb. seed bag that I planted in my big garden, and I gave those seeds to her, because I knew that if anyone could make something grow, it would be her. What she was able to accomplish with the same seeds that I struggled with at my site was truly remarkable. Nearly every one of the different species had germinated and grown; and when added to some perennial flowers she already had, her garden was BUZZING. Literally. Every kind of wild bee I’ve ever seen was busy crawling all over those flowers.
Of the 15 different varieties of wildflowers I planted, I’d say that I only saw four or five of them actually bloom on site. Perhaps those other seeds washed away in the flood, or maybe the soil conditions were not ideal for those species, I’m not really sure. I can tell you that I found wildflowers blooming in places I never planted, so I can guarantee that the flood picked up seeds and carried them to places I didn’t intend, and that’s OK. Somewhere down river, on some isolated creek bed, there are little pollinator gardens growing that I never intended.
It has been 18 months since the initial planting. The PGAVia pollinator garden is in its 2nd summer, and is doing even better than its first year. The Partridge Pea plants have really thrived; and upon visiting the site yesterday morning, there was a swarm of happy bees pollinating the yellow flowers. Every plant had a buzzing bee on it, as you can see in the video. I will continue to monitor the progress of this field, and help it along going forward, and my hope is that this will be a food source for all the pollinators for years to come.
See the whole story in this “Making of the Pollinator Garden” video.