Sunday, May 22: Habitat Gardening Workshop for NYC Wildflower Week

2022-05-13 UPDATE: A second session is now available for Sunday, May 22, 12 noon to 2pm! Registration links below now point to the new event.
2022-05-09 UPDATE: Due to the rainy, windy, cold weather yesterday, we will be scheduling another session of this workshop for later this week, most likely for the afternoon of Friday, May 13th. Will update here when confirmed!


Me hosting the NYCWW Pollinator Week Safari in my Front Yard, June 2014. Photo: Alan Riback

Sunday, May 22nd 6th, I will be hosting and facilitating a workshop on gardening for habitat with native plants in my home garden. The workshop is from 12noon to 2pm. Space is limited, so please register at the Eventbrite link below.

Learn how to garden with native plants to create wildlife habitat, even in small urban gardens. In this interactive garden tour and workshop, Chris will use his garden to highlight the importance of native plants for sustaining urban wildlife, and how to create and maintain a garden for its ecological value. With nearly 200 NYC-native plant species, and over 400 documented insect visitors, you are sure to learn something new and find inspiration for improving habitat wherever you garden.

Presented by Chris Kreussling. Chris is an urban naturalist and advocate for urban habitat gardening with native plants. He has led numerous native plant and pollinator walks and workshops, for NYC Wildflower Week, Wave Hill, the High Line, and others. His garden is a registered habitat with the National Wildlife Federation, Xerces Pollinator Society, and other organizations. He’s documented this ongoing transformation on his gardening blog, Flatbush Gardener and on Twitter as @xrisfg.

Eventbrite

Related Content

Insect Year in Review 2021, 2022-01-03
Hot Sheets Habitat, 2021-11-19
Documenting Insect-Plant Interactions, 2021-10-29
Presentation: Creating Urban Habitat, 2021-02-04
Home of the Wild, 2020-05-13
Pollinator Safari: Urban Insect Gardening with Native Plants, 2019-06-08
Charismatic Mesofauna, 2019-02-12
Pollinator Gardens, for Schools and Others, 2015-02-20
NYCWW Pollinator Safari of my Gardens, 2014-06-14

Links

Eventbrite registration page
NYC Wildflower Week

Native Plant Profile: Amelanchier

I could probably talk about Amelanchier until my voice gave out (at least an hour!). It’s such a great multi-season plant in the garden, and brings so much value to wildlife, as well. It’s also a great example of how native plants convey a “sense of place” that is not imparted by conventional, non-native plants in the garden.

Although the Genus is distributed across the Northern hemisphere, the greatest diversity is found in North America. As you can see from the BONAP distribution map, Amelanchier diversity is the greatest in the Northeast. New York State hosts 14 species, varieties, natural hybrids, and subspecies. And New York City is home to 6 of those.

2013 BONAP North American Plant Atlas. TaxonMaps - Amelanchier

Amelanchier in my garden

Amelanchier was one of the key plants I included in my backyard native plant garden design in 2009. To fit my design, I needed a tree form with a single trunk and broad canopy.

Final rendering, backyard garden design

Most of the species grow as multi-stemmed twiggy shrubs. In my design, I specified A. arborea, the only species that would normally grow with a single trunk. But straight species are difficult to find in the horticultural trade. Even nurseries specializing in native plants are unlikely to carry this species. I would likely need to find a “standard”: a plant grown with a single trunk that normally wouldn’t.

In Spring of 2010, I went hunting for a specimen for my garden. I found one at Chelsea Garden Center on Van Brunt Street in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It was the second most expensive single plant I’ve ever bought. But worth it!

Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance'

What I found is Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’, a selection of a horticultural hybrid of two species: A. arborea and A. laevis. So arborea is in there somewhere! This cultivar was selected for its vividly colored autumn foliage. But any of the species will have beautiful fall color.

The new serviceberry, planted and mulched, May 2010

Their peak bloom in our area is just weeks away, before the ornamental cherries, and the dreaded callery pear. We’ll follow the seasons, starting with where we are right now, Winter.

Winter

This is Amelanchier ‘Autumn Brilliance’ in my backyard, as viewed from a bathroom window, after our January snowstorm.

Amelanchier in snow in my backyard, January 2022

Winter into Spring. Here’s a lengthening and expanding bud on my backyard Amelanchier, which I shared last week. It still looks like this. These terminal buds will become the flowers.

Detail, buds, *Amelanchier* 'Autumn Brilliance', serviceberry, shadblow, in my backyard, February 2022

Bud break. The emerging inflorescence is covered in dense silvery hairs, which offer protection from late frosts. The leaves will emerge later from separate buds along the stems.

Flower Buds, Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance'

Spring

The big show is coming soon! It’s the first woody plant to bloom in my garden, early April or even late March in warm Springs. Two common names refer to its bloom time. Shadblow, because it would bloom when the shad are running. And serviceberry, because it bloomed when the ground had thawed enough to bury winter’s dead.

Over the next few weeks, these distinctive furry flower buds continue to expand.

Buds, Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance'

As they mature, the inflorescences start to turn more upright and the pedicels lengthen. The whole tree turns a little less furry and fuzzy.

Flower Buds, Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance'
Flower Buds, Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance'

Finally, the buds start to open, revealing the bright creamy white of the petals. At this stage, they almost look like flowering peas.

Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance'
Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance'

When the flowers are fully open, they reveal their true nature. Amelanchier is in the Rosaceae, the rose family. Here you can clearly see the five-fold symmetry of rose relatives. At this stage, the leaves just start to emerge.

Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance'
Morning Glory: Amelanchier still shy of full bloom in my urban backyard native plant garden

In full bloom they are spectacular and conspicuous in the landscape. This is when you are most likely to notice them, if you haven’t been stalking their progress all along, as I might do. Even at highway speeds, they are recognizable when flowering. There’s a line of them along the McDonald Avenue border of Green-Wood Cemetery. My commuter bus drove down this road on the return trip from Manhattan. I would sit on the right side of the bus to soak them in.

Garden hybrid Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance' blooming in the backyard, April 2020

NYC is home to many bee species — especially mining bees, Andrenidae — that specialize in flowers of the Rosaceae. Most of our bees are solitary bees, and many of them nest in the ground. They are only active and visible for a month or so, as the females prepare new ground nests and provision their eggs with pollen balls. The rest of the year, the larvae and pupae are underground, slowly maturing, or aestivating through the winter, waiting for next year’s Spring.

Summer

Juneberry is descriptive: Berries ripen in the summer, typically June. Ripening berries on my backyard Amelanchier in 2011. They turn dark reddish purple when ripe, but good luck getting to them before the birds and squirrels. Technicaly edible, this cultivar’s fruit are mealy and seedy, better left for wildlife. Other species are used for making jams, or enjoyed right off the bush.

Serviceberries/Juneberries

When we first bought our house, our next-door neighbors had an old, failing apple tree in their backyard, next to our shared fence. The fruit never ripened. Monk parakeets loved to munch on the apples.

They were also visited by cedar waxwings, another bird I had never seen before They seemed to love picking insects off the flowers in spring, presumably to feed to their young, as much as they enjoyed the fruits in summer. After our neighbors had their tree taken down, we rarely saw the monk parakeets, except when they flew overhead. And we never saw the waxwings again. I hoped another Rosaceae would bring them back.

This intent has been successful.

Cedar waxwing in my Amelanchier, juneberry, June 2018

The berries are enjoyed by many different birds in my backyard.

Catbird in my Amelanchier, juneberry, June 2018Zonotrichia albicollis, white-throated sparrow, in my backyard Amelanchier, serviceberry, April 2020
Turdus migratorius, American robin, juvenile, in Amelanchier, serviceberry, in my backyard, June 2019Turdus migratorius, American robin, in my backyard Amelanchier, January 2021

Fall

Amelanchier‘s autumn foliage is brilliant, after all. This is from its second Fall in my garden, a year and a half after planting.

Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance', Serviceberry

This is from November 2014, four years after planting.

Morning Glory: Amelanchier/Serviceberry 'Autumn Brilliance' leaves peak in my urban backyard native plant garden/habitat

Related Content

Twitter: #WildflowerHourNYC Twitter thread, 2022-03-09

Related blog posts:

Flickr, photo album: Planting a Tree

Links

Wikipedia: Amelanchier
BONAP North American Plant Atlas, county-level species Genus distribution maps: Amelanchier
MOBOT Plant Finder: Amelanchier
NC State University Plant Toolbox: Amelanchier
Plants for a Future

Pollen Specialist Bees of the Eastern United States, Jarrod Fowler

Insect Year in Review 2021

Observing the diversity of life that coexists in one place is one of the rewards of visiting the same natural area over a long period of time. My garden not only offers myself and passersby such an observatory. It’s also a laboratory in which I can research how insects engage with their environment – both biotic and abiotic – and imagine, design, and create habitat to better provide for their needs.

The Front Garden, November 2021

I use iNaturalist to document the diversity of life in my garden. Although I only posted my first iNaturalist Observation in 2017, my garden Observations now span more than a decade. As of this year, I’ve documented over 400 insect species making use of my garden.

iNaturalist Observations · Flatbush Gardener - Top 25 Species - 2021-12-31

This biodiversity, and my documentation of it, is intentional. And although all of this is by design, all I can do is uncover the latent urban biodiversity in and around my garden. Each new species I find is a surprise to me.

Native Plants

As I explained in last year’s Home of the Wild, native plants have been a significant focus of my gardening since we bought our home and I started the current garden in 2005. I’m always researching and experimenting with new species. And, like any avid gardener, I’m always killing things off, too.

I do my best to track my acquisitions, and failed plantings, in a spreadsheet. I categorize the species by whether they are native to the five counties of New York City, native to the NYC region – e.g.: within two counties – or are some other species native to eastern North America.

This chart summarizes the increase in native plant diversity in my garden over the years. Stacked columns, plotted against the left axis, show the number of species I acquired each year: blue for NYC-native, red for NYC-regional, and green for eastern U.S. native plant species. The large undated bar on the left represents plants I brought with me from prior gardens, or for which I’ve lost track of when or how I got them. The lines, ploted against the right axis, show the total number of species: blue for NYC-native plant species, and green for everything else.

Native Plants in my Garden by Year - 2021-12-31

2014 stands out as an exceptional year for plant acquisitions. That was my first year visiting the Native Plants in the Landscape Conference in Millserville, Pennsylvania. It has an enormous accompanying native plant sale with vendors from all over the mid-Atlantic, of which I took full advantage.

I maintain a Wish List of plants I want to try to grow in my garden. (Anyone know of a NYC-regional source for dwarf prairie willow, Salix occidentalis?!) The past few years I have targeted species for their ecological value in my garden:

  • Fill in plant families that are missing, or under-represented, in my garden, such as Apiaceae, e.g.: Zizia aurea.
  • Extend the flowering season, especially early in the year when native plant blooms are scarce. For example: Packera is the earliest-blooming Asteraceae I’ve found, so I’m trying to establish that in my garden.
  • Grow more plants to support specialist flower visitors, such as bees.

As of this year, I’m growing nearly 300 species of native plants, over 200 of which are native to New York City. With that increase in plant diversity, there’s been an increase in insect diversity (though habitat needs more than having the right plants).

Insect Species

Most of the insects that have visited my garden over the past decade fall into one of six groups:

  1. Diptera, flies: 103 species
  2. Wasps. i.e.: other Hymenoptera, excluding bees and ants: 70 species
  3. Coleoptera, beetles: 57 species
  4. Epifamily Anthophila, bees: 55 species
  5. Lepidoptera, butterflies, moths, and skippers: 55 species
  6. Hemiptera, bugs: 43 species

That’s where things stand today. But this didn’t happen all at once. This chart shows how I’ve accumulated species records in my garden for each of these groups over time. We can see that the slope of the lines increased sharply over the past three years, from 2019 through 2021.

Insects in my Garden - Cumulative Species at the end of each Year by Taxonomic Group - 2021-12-31

It’s a little easier to see which taxa contributed most to the increases if we look instead at just the new species, instead of the total number of species. This stacked column chart shows the number of new species I’ve found each year in my garden, for each of my six focus taxa. Again, the last three years stand out as being responsible for most of the increase.

Insects in my Garden - New Species each Year by Taxonomic Group - 2021-12-31

The color codes of the stacked column segments are the same as the lines in the previous chart to make it easier to draw comparisons between the two:

  1. I’ve seen most of the fly species in just the past two years.
  2. It’s the same for the wasp species.
  3. Beetles saw a spike in new species observed in 2017 and again in 2020. Otherwise, a fairly steady uncovering of new species each year.
  4. Bees have seen a remarkably steady discovery of new species over the years. The first few years found lots of new species. More recent years not so much. 
  5. Butterflies, moths, and skippers have also shown up mostly over the past three years.
  6. Most of the bug species were found during the three year span from 2018-2020. Not so much this past year.

I believe that at least some of these increases reflect success in creating habitat for diverse insect species. But my observing behaviors have not been consistent over the years. Am I seeing more species just because I’m spending more time looking for them? And — if so — how much observation do I need to do to be confident I’m adequately sampling my garden?

Insect Observations

I ramped up my Observations the past two years – 2020 & 2021 – to increase my contributions to two iNaturalist Projects:

As mentioned above, I wrote about the first Project, and the history of my garden as insect habitat on my blog last year. ESNPS was originally scheduled to run only three years, from 2018 through 2020. Of course, the pandemic changed those plans; they decided to extend the iNaturalist portion another year, into 2021.

By concentrating on these two efforts, I increased my Observations in my own garden by a factor of 8. This year, I also invested in better macro equipment. So I was spending a lot more time in my garden, and was able to capture many more individuals with photographs good enough for identification.

Insects in my Garden - Observations per Year by Taxonomic Group - Chart

The Empire State Native Pollinator Survey includes bees and Syrphidae, flower and hover flies, among its focal taxa. Although my increased observation found more of everything, bees and flies took up a greater proportion of the total observations.

How many observations do I need to make to have high confidence I have found most of the species present in my garden? This chart compares the number of species observed against the number of observations for the four most diverse taxa: flies, wasps, bees, and beetles. I’ve added labels for the two most recent years, to highlight that not only did they have the most observations, they are also the years I found the most species.

Insects in my Garden - Number of Species by Number of Observations - Chart

Last year was not a pace of observation I can sustain indefinitely. There’s a lot of effort in taking high-quality, identifiable macro photographs of insects in the garden to uploading them as verifiable observatinos in iNaturalist. Some days it took most of my waking hours, spread over multiple days, just to process all the photographs from a single day of observation.

My iNaturalist activity the past year was artificial, driven by the gamification offered by the two Projects in which I was actively “competing”. But this past year gave me a strong foundation for continuing to make effective observations. I look forward to being surprised by future discoveries in my garden.

Related Content

Hot Sheets Habitat, 2021-11-19
Documenting Insect-Plant Interactions, 2021-10-29
Home of the Wild, 2020-05-13

Links

Hot Sheets Habitat

A mating pair of NOID Dolichopodidae, long-legged flies, in my backyard, September 2018

My garden is registered as both a National Wildlife Federation Backyard Wildlife Habitat and Xerces Society Pollinator Habitat. The insects have certainly gotten the message. During 2021, I’ve been able to document 14 different species of insects mating in my garden.
  1. Acanthoscelidius acephalus, minute seed weevil
  2. Epitrix fuscula
  3. Harmonia axyridis, multi-colored lady beetle (introduced)
  4. Eumerus
  5. Orthonevra nitida, wavy mucksucker
  6. Syritta pipiens, compost fly (introduced)
  7. Toxomerus geminatus, Eastern calligrapher fly
  8. Toxomerus marginatus, margined calligrapher fly
  9. Xenox tigrinus, tiger bee fly
  10. Jalysus, stilt bug
  11. Lygaeus kalmii ssp. angustomarginatus, Eastern small milkweed bug
  12. Hylaeus modestus, modest masked bee
  13. Xylocopa virginica, large Eastern carpenter bee
  14. Danaus plexxipus, monarch butterfly

Coleoptera, beetles

Acanthoscelidius acephalus, minute seed weevil

Mating pair of *Acanthoscelidius acephala* in *Oenothera biennis* in my front yard, July 2021

Epitrix fuscula

Mating pair of leaf beetle on Solanum along my driveway, August 2021

Harmonia axyridis, multi-colored lady beetle

Mating pair of *Harmonia axyridis*, multi-colored lady beetle, on *Asclepias syriaca* in my garden, June 2021

Diptera, flies

Eumerus

Mating pair of *Eumerus*, hoverflies, in my front yard, October 2021

Orthonevra nitida, wavy mucksucker

Mating pair of *Orthonvera nitida*, wavy mudsucker syrphid flies, on *Ageratina altissima* in my front yard, November 2021

Syritta pipiens

Mating pair of Syritta pipiens on Pycnanthemum muticum along my driveway, July 2021

Toxomerus geminatus, Eastern calligrapher fly

Mating pair of *Toxomerus geminatus*, Eastern calligrapher syrphid fly, in my front yard, October 2021

Toxomerus marginatus, margined calligrapher fly

Mating pair of Toxomerus marginatus on Erigeron annuus in my front yard, July 2021

Xenox tigrinus, tiger bee fly

Mating pair of *Xenox tigrinus*, tiger bee fly, outside my porch screen, August 2021

Hemiptera, bugs

Jaylsus, stilt bug

Mating pair of Jalysus on Solanum along my driveway, August 2021

Lygaeus kalmii ssp. angustomarginatus, Eastern small milkweed bug

Mating pair of *Lygaeus kalmii* ssp. *angustomarginatus*, Eastern small milkweed bug, on *Ascelpias syriaca* in my garden, June 2021

Hymenoptera, Epifamily Anthophila, bees

Hylaeus modestus, modest masked bee

Mating pair of *Hylaeus modestus* on *Boltonia asteroides* in my front yard, August 2021

Xylocopa virginica, large Eastern carpenter bee

Mating pair of *Xylocopa vorginica* on *Clethra alnifolia* in my backyard, August 2021

Lepidoptera, butterflies

Danaus plexippus, monarch butterfly

My garden is also registered as a butterfly and monarch habitat, and monarch waystation. It proved its worth this year. I observed multiple couplings, in addition to the usual egg-laying. Pair of monarchs mating in my garden, August 2021

Related Content

Flickr photo album

iNaturalist: Insects mating in my garden during 2021

Links

Sunday 6/23: Pollinator Safari: Urban Insect Gardening with Native Plants

Me hosting the NYCWW Pollinator Week Safari in my Front Yard. Photo: Alan Riback

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be hosting a pollinator-focused garden tour and citizen science workshop in my garden for Pollinator Week, in association with NYC Wildflower Week.

Event Details

Date: Sunday, June 23, 2019
Time: 1-4pm
Location: Brooklyn, NY, corner of Stratford Road and Matthews Place
Cost: FREE!
RSVP: Eventbrite

1-2pm: I’ll be focusing in using iNaturalist to observe and identify insects in the garden. Create a free account on iNaturalist, and install the app on your smart phone. I’ll show you how to make observations in the garden with your phone!
2-4pm: We’ll explore the garden, see examples of how to garden for insects and pollinators, look at insect-plant associations happening in the garden, and, optionally, make observations with iNaturalist.

These times are a rough guide. You can drop by any time.

What can you see?

With roughly 200 NYC-native species of trees, shrubs, ferns, grasses, and wildflowers, my garden hosts scores of native insects that use these plants throughout the year.

I’ve been documenting these residents and visitors on iNaturalist. Here’s what I’ve seen in June over the years:
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?month=6&order_by=observed_on&place_id=125348&subview=table&taxon_id=47120&verifiable=any

My garden is registered with several programs dedicated to creating and preserving habitat:

  • National Wildlife Federation: Backyard Wildlife Habitat # 141173, May 2011
  • Xerces Society: Pollinator Habitat, June 2012
  • North American Butterfly Association: Butterfly and Monarch Garden and Habitat, July 2017

Related Content

2014 Pollinator Safari

Related Posts, , ,

Links

Garden Deeper

I had a visceral (in a good way) reaction to Adrian Higgins’ writeup of a visit, with Claudia West, to Shenk’s Ferry Wildflower Preserve.

I think I’ll adopt “ecological horticulturist” to describe my own approach to gardening. Whether you specialize in gardening with native plants, as I do, or prefer to grow plants from around the world, studying their native habitats is, in my experience, the best way to learn how to grow them in a garden.

That doesn’t mean you have to recreate the conditions exactly. In many cases, this is impossible, anyway. The native Aquilegia canadensis, eastern red columbine, thrives in the crumbling mortar of my front steps; this location recreates some aspects of the face of a limestone cliff where I saw, decades ago, a huge colony of them in full bloom.
Aquilegia canadensis, Eastern Red Columbine, growing out of my front steps, April 2012

This is why I’m trying to go on more botanical walks and hikes. Like many, if not most, gardeners, I’ve never seen most of the plants I grow in the wild. I visited Hempstead Plains for the first time in August 2013.
Hempstead Plains

That inspired me last year to remove most of the remaining lawn in the front yard and approach it as a meadow, instead.
The Front Garden, before de-lawning, June 2014Weeding is Meditation: Removing the old "lawn" for the new short-grass "meadow" in the front yardFinal grading for the new front yard short-grass meadowThe berm, planted. Took 45 minutes, >2/min, including some rework for overly loose and linear spacing.

Schizachyrium scoparium, little bluestem (grass), in my front garden, November 2014

Rain gardens and rock gardens are both examples of creating gardens to grow plants requiring specific conditions, and to meet human needs. But we don’t need to go to so much trouble. For all the “problem areas” in our gardens, there are plants that want nearly exactly those conditions. We need only think like a plant to see these as opportunities, and embrace the habitats waiting to emerge.

Related Content

Links

What you can learn from a walk through the woods (with Claudia West), Adrian Higgins, Washington Post Home & Garden

Pine Barrens Soil Horizons

Yesterday, I transplanted a small piece of Carex pensylvanica, Pennsylvania sedge, from my sister’s property in Ocean County, New Jersey. This species is common on her property.

She lives in the pinelands of New Jersey. The canopy is pine and oak. The duff layer – the natural “mulch” of dead plant material deposited on top of the soil – is composed of mostly pine needles, with some oak leaves.

Here’s a view of the clump I extracted.


And here’s the “back” view, where the blade of the spade I was using sliced through.

I only just realized I had a nice slice of the upper soil horizons.

The slats of the tabletop are 2″ wide. The entire depth of the soil slice is only about 3″, 4″ including the duff layer.

The white is fungal mycelium that has colonized the duff layer, starting the process of decomposition.

After I moved this clump from the table, I noticed tiny beetles, at least two different species, had clambered off. They fell through the slats before I could photograph them or otherwise observe them more closely for identification.

This small slice represents at least five different macro-species – pine, oak, sedge, and beetles – and one micro: the fungus. If we could somehow inventory all the micro-invertebrates and micro-organisms, there might be hundreds, or thousands, of species in this photo.

It’s tempting to think of species as singular “things,” to be contained in our cabinets of curiosities, our checklists, our collections. Any species is not any one thing, but a population, containing genetic diversity that slowly shifts and drifts across space and time. Each species is part of a larger whole, an unbounded fractal of complex relationships.

Yes, I grow many native plant species in my garden. For one reason, I can learn to recognize them. I never want to forget how artificial my construction is. However I may hone my garden, whatever beauty I can construct here, and pleasure I may offer from it, it doesn’t compare to the transcendence I experience of wild things in their natural habitats. All this diversity at home reminds me of how much more there is, still, in the world, and how important it is to protect it.

Related Content

Links

Pollinator Gardens, for Schools and Others

I got a query from a reader:

I’m working on a school garden project and we’d like to develop a pollinator garden in several raised beds. Can you recommend some native plants that we should have in our garden? Ideally we’d like to have some perennials and maybe a few anchor bushes. Are there any flowers that we might be able to start inside this spring then transplant? Also, because the students will be observing the pollinators, butterfly attracting plants are preferable to the teachers.

Whole books have been written on this topic, but here are some quick thoughts and references for further research.

Design Notes

  • How much space is available for the garden? That will determine how many shrubs could be accommodated. Layout the woody plants first, then plan blocks of plants through the rest of the beds.
  • Is it sunny? Shady? Mixed? Trees nearby? That will determine the types of plants that can be grown. Pollinators are more active in the sun, but you can still get plenty of action in shadier gardens. Just make the most of the sun and light you get throughout the day.
  • How will it be watered while getting established? Who will water it? What happens during the summer while school is out? After the first year, once established with the right plant selections, watering needs should be minimal.
  • Are the raised beds already established, or will they be filled with soil? Many “pollinator” plants fare languish in the rich soils prepared for the vegetables and edibles more typically grown in school gardens, and would prefer ordinary, even “poor,” soils.
  • Plant multiples of the same plants in groups and patches, to make them easier for pollinators to find. It also provides a more continuous supply of nectar: if one flower or plant runs dry, another in the same patch can provide.
  • See more about what to plant, below.

Plan for Pollinators

Pollinators visit flowers for two main reasons: nectar and pollen. We want to create habitat, not just a buffet. Plan to address the four basic needs: water, food, shelter, and a place to raise young. Host plants are just as important as flowers.

2-day old caterpillars of Battus philenor, pipevine wallowtail, on Aristolochia tomentosa, wooly dutchman’s pipevine, in my garden, June 2011

Even if we limit consideration to insect pollinators, there are many different kinds, including bees, wasps, flies, beetles, butterflies, and moths. Everyone wants butterflies, the divas of the garden. Some are squeamish about bees and wasps, but they really don’t bother people. Any flowers you grow will attract them, so they’re part of the garden already.

Multiple Pollinators on Pycnanthemum muticum, Clustered Mountain-Mint, in my garden, August 2011

Bees, of course, are all-around the most effective pollinators. But not just honeybees. There are scores of native bee species happy to take up residence in a garden.

Multiple nest entrances of Colletes thoracicus (Colletidae), Cellophane Bees, in my garden, May 2008

You can setup nesting boxes for native mason bees and carpenter bees. They’re fascinating to watch, and you can see how the nest tubes get occupied over time.

Bee Houses at the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, Staten Island, May 2010

Monarch butterflies are in steep decline and need our help. Milkweeds are their preferred host plants, so planting milkweeds is the best thing you can do to help monarchs. Several milkweed species are native to NYC. Many other pollinators are attracted to the flowers, as well.

NYC-local ecotype of Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed, in my garden, June 2008

Plant Native

When planting for pollinators, the most important factors are:
  • To get the greatest number and diversity of pollinators, choose plants that have clusters of many small flowers, such as plants in the Asteraceae (asters, daisies, sunflowers, goldenrods, etc) and Lamiaceae (mints) families.
  • Include plants that bloom at different times of the year – especially very early and later in the year, when flowers are scarce – to provide a continuous supply of food for both adults and their young.
  • Differences in flower size and structure affect which pollinators they can support.
  • Insect-host plant associations can be very specific. Plants from different families support different species. So diversify the plant families you grow.
  • Plant as many different species as your space can accommodate.
  • Don’t forget to use the vertical space: include plants that grow taller and shorter. 
  • Plant in masses and blocks. Pollinators recognize they’re more likely to find pollen and nectar when several different plants, with many different flowers blooming at different stages, are available to choose from.
  • The best plants for pollinators are native to the region, and – as much as possible – from local stock. This is true for both nectar and host plants. Prefer native species over non-native, straight species over cultivars, propagated from local populations over more distant ones. 

I adapted this chart from published results of the Pollinator Plant Trial (PDF, 3 pp) at Penn State Southeast Agricultural Research and Extension Center (SEAREC)

My authority for “What’s native?” in my region is the NY Flora Atlas. You sometimes have to watch out for changes in nomenclature, but it’s an excellent resource. Resources for our adjacent states are the Native Plant Society of New Jersey and the Connecticut Botanical Society.

Your best bet for obtaining plants propagated from local stock is to work with nurseries based near you that specialize in native plants. In my area, for starting native plants from seed I recommend Toadshade Wildflower Farm located nearby in New Jersey. They have an astonishing range of native plants available, and seed for many of them. They’re passionate, experienced, and know their plants.

Related Content

FAQ: Where do you get your plants?
The 2014 NYCWW Pollinator Safari of my Gardens
Gardening with the Hymenoptera (and yet not), 2011-07-31
Gardening with the Lepidoptera, 2011-06-11

My blog posts on Butterflies (Lepidoptera), Bees and Wasps (Hymenoptera), Pollinators, Habitat, and Ecology

My Native Plants page
Retail sources for native plants

Me hosting the NYCWW Pollinator Week Safari in my Front Yard, June 2014. Photo: Alan Riback

Links

NY Flora Atlas
Native Plant Society of New Jersey: Plant Lists
Connecticut Botanical Society: Gardening with Native Plants

Biota of North America Program (BONAP): North America Plant Atlas (NAPA)
USDA PLANTS Database

Pollinator Partnership: Regional Planting Guide
Center for Biological Diversity: Native Pollinators
Xerces Society: Bring Bank the Pollinators
Wikipedia: Pollination Syndrome

Toadshade Wildflower Farm
NYC Wildflower Week

Research

Specialist Bees of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States

Megachile, Leaf-Cutter Bees

A leaf-cutter bee removes a segment from a leaf of Rhododendron viscosum, swamp azalea, in my urban backyard native plant garden and wildlife habitat (National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat #141,173). You can see other segments – both completed and interrupted – on the same and adjacent leaves.

Like carpenter bees, Leaf-cutters are solitary bees that outfit their nests in tunnels in wood. Unlike carpenter bees, they’re unable to chew out their own tunnels, and so rely on existing ones. This year, I’ve observed a large leaf-cutter – yet to be identified – reusing a tunnel bored in previous years by the large Eastern carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica.

They use the leaf segments to line the tunnels. The leaves of every native woody plant in my garden has many of these arcs cut from the leaves. The sizes of the arcs range widely, from dine-sized down to pencil-points, reflecting the different sizes of the bee species responsible.

Tiny arcs cut from the leaves of Wisteria frutescens in my backyard.

I speculate that different species of bees associate with different species of plants in my gardens. The thickness and texture of the leaves, their moisture content, and their chemical composition must all play a part. I’ve yet to locate any research on this; research, that is, that’s not locked up behind a paywall by the scam that passes for most of scientific publishing.

Although I’ve observed the “damage” on leaves in my garden for years, this was the first time I witnessed the behavior. Even standing in the full sun, I got chills all over my body. I recognize now that the “bees with big green butts” I’ve seen flying around, but unable to observe closely, let alone capture in a photograph, have been leaf-cutter bees.

As a group, they’re most easily identified by another difference: they carry pollen on the underside of their abdomen. A bee that has pollen, or fuzzy hairs, there will be a leaf-cutter bee.

An unidentified Megachile, leaf-cutter bee, I found in my garden.

Another behavior I observe among the leaf-cutters in my garden is that they tend to hold their abdomens above the line of their body, rather than below, as with other bees. Perhaps this is a behavioral adaptation to protect the pollen they collect. In any case, when I see a “bee with a perky butt,” I know it’s a leaf-cutter bee.

When they’re not collecting leaves, they’re collecting pollen. Having patches of different plant species that bloom at different times of the year is crucial to providing a continuous supply of food for both the adults and their young.

An individual bee will visit different plant species (yes, I follow them to see what they’re doing). And different leaf-cutter species prefer different flowers. All the plants I’ve observed them visit share a common trait: they have tight clusters of flowers holding many small flowers; large, showy flowers hold no interest for the leaf-cutter bees.

Related Content

Links

BugGuide: Genus Megachile