The Power of the Pollinator–How to help and be healthier
Paul Looks with pride at his perfectly green lawn; there’s not a blade of grass out of place. No leaves stand a chance against his power blower. He spends time and money getting this perfectly lush, golf-course-like lawn to stand out. In his case, the grass is never greener on the other side of the fence.
What Paul doesn’t know is hurting him and will impact the health of his three young kids, his beloved dog, and even his future grandkids.
According to Mount Sinai professor of environmental medicine Sarah Evans: “Infants and children are most vulnerable to pesticide exposures because their nervous and reproductive systems are continually developing, and they have many future years of life over which chronic diseases may develop. To make matters worse, children are exposed to higher levels of pesticides than adults because they’re close to the ground where pesticides settle.”
Much like children, pets are very close to the ground and more susceptible to the toxic effects of commercial fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides. The chemicals we use to treat our lawns seep into the local water supply and can cause algae growth that kills local fish and insects. There’s less food for native and migratory birds and perhaps most importantly, the lack of presence of wildflowers is making it impossible for pollinators to live. The incredible power of native pollinators is misunderstood by the average gardener. It’s the way most of us have been gardening for years, but it is not beneficial to our health.
Local extinction is rampant in Connecticut. Every time a species is lost from an ecosystem, that ecosystem is less able to support us. And we are losing species at a rapid pace. In his book Bringing Nature Home, University of Delaware entomologist Doug Tallamy explains that there is hope. If we manage our own yards as organically as possible and with native plantings, we can use them to connect parks and preserves, creating corridors for wildlife to thrive. This idea inspired the Pollinator Pathway, also known as the Green Corridor.
The Pollinator Pathway project was originally organized by volunteers from town conservation organizations in Connecticut and New York working together to establish pollinator-friendly habitat and food sources for bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinating insects and wildlife along a series of continuous corridors. Most native bees have a range of about 750 meters, so the goal is to connect properties that are no farther apart than that. This project began in 2017 in Wilton. Since then, pathways have been established in over 85 towns in Connecticut and New York, and the list keeps growing.
Mary Hogue, cofounder of Sustainable Fairfield County, explains: “We need to support the circle of life. People don’t realize that fertilizer is a slow poison for microbes in the soil. Everything starts with the soil.”
“Another thing to consider as we grow our gardens is if we can get used to the imperfections of leaves being nibbled on, and understand that plants with ‘perfect leaves’ are not contributing to the ecosystem—it’s a huge cultural shift but accepting imperfection is the best way we can jumpstart nature,” Hogue notes.
Fairfield conservation director Brian Carey has applied for grants and worked to create a special project on a previously fallow field on Hoyden’s Hill Road. A grant by the Tucker Fund allows Carey to pursue this passion project alongside his many job responsibilities. A small team helps him work to transform a four-acre space to remove the invasive plants and nurture a pollinator pathway. He is using the land as a learning space to show other towns and land trusts how to create a similar pollinator meadow in open fields or home gardens. The different native warm season grasses and wildflowers were chosen to restore the site for the benefit of bees, butterflies, native insects, and plants. Once successfully established, the native plants will act to suppress the existing invasive plants and will promote the growth of new beneficial vegetation.
If you feel inspired to try giving back a portion of your lawn to pollinators, or creating your own strip meadow, it’s not as complicated as you may think. And now is the perfect time to start. “The most important thing you need to do is buy seed of good quality and genotype, as native as possible,” explains Carey. “Going to a local and reputable seed bank will help you determine the right kind of seed for your area.”
Carey believes Hoyden’s Hill will produce a thriving meadow in about 18 months to a year from now. “I hope to cut a pathway and put in benches so people can see insects and wildflowers at eye level,” Carey says with enthusiasm.
Perhaps best of all, it seems promoting the health and well-being of locals will actually take less work. The question remains, will the “lawn proud” be willing to make a shift in the way they care for their lawns and gardens? Only time and bugs can tell.
Be a lazy gardener— stay away from pesticides and herbicides. Overseed with clover; it attracts bees and has nitrogen in the roots. Pull up the mugwort and other invasive plants but encourage local plants to thrive. Get used to the idea that things don’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. Create a strip meadow of native plants that attract pollinators and birds. For a list of nurseries that sell native plants go to aspetucklandtrust.org