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Gardening is For the Bees: An Interview with Pollinator Parkways

Gardening is For the Bees: An Interview with Pollinator Parkways

Recently, I had the pleasure of walking through the Montavilla neighborhood with Sherrie Pelsma of Pollinator Parkways. For anyone who hasn’t heard of Sherrie’s group, Pollinator Parkways is dedicated to supporting our pollinating friends, specifically native bees, by creating a sustainable urban habitat.

Native bumble beeSherrie tells me that the idea of Pollinator Parkways came to her, literally, with the buzzing of bee wings. “My neighbor across the street has a little seed mix pollinator garden. We were standing around in the middle of the street, and we were actually talking about the bees, mostly about how concerned we were. I’m into macro photography and I’ve been photographing bees for years, and I just found that I see a lot less variety than I used to. My parking strip [was filled with sedums and] had bloomed. And while we were standing there I noticed the air traffic across the street. The bees and the butterflies were just shifting from her garden to mine, back and forth. I thought, imagine if everyone had a little patch like this, then the bees could move even further down the street. How cool would that be?”

Gardening for Pollinators

The sight of happily foraging bees inspired Sherrie to create a rain garden, filled with native plants. That’s where our walk started, and where I learned Sherrie’s three basic tenants of a good pollinator garden.

  1. Staggered bloom, so that something is blooming from as early in the year to as late in the year as possible.
  2. Native plants, because native plants have evolved along with local wildlife, so they both break dormancy at the same time.
  3. Chemical-free gardening.

Pollinator Parkways started as a personal project for Sherrie. About 3 years ago, she ripped up the concrete on the South side of her property, added a well draining substrate and installed a native-filled garden. Sherrie added, “At that point I was really interested in pollinator conservation. So I started doing research into how to make the most of a small space, pollinator habitat-wise.”

Rainwater Garden

Native plantsHer research paid off, and by any measure, Sherrie’s garden is a success. She estimates that this small garden handles over 30,000 gallons of rainwater a year. And it certainly meets her goal for a succession of bloom. Starting in February and blooming through November, her garden includes Red Flowering Currant, Dull Oregon Grape, Red Twig Dogwood, Camas, Penstemon, Douglas Spirea….and…Mock Orange, Douglas Aster, Nodding Onion, and Pearly Everlasting.

I could continue to list all of the plants in Sherrie’s rain garden, but I loved Sherrie’s running commentary too much, not to share a few snippets here.

“The very first plant to bloom is the Red Flowering Currant. It pumps out really great big, beautiful blooms just when you’re craving color in the garden.

“That’s Great Northern Aster, which will bloom in the fall, along with Golden Rod.”

“And this is Pearly Everlasting, which blooms late as well. Although the more important thing here is the plant body, which is really great for different butterflies.”

I think it’s safe to say that no insects in Sherrie’s immediate vicinity are in any danger of going hungry. In fact, while we were standing there, 2 different bees came along for a visit: a Queen Yellow-faced bumblebee and a Red-tailed (aka Mixed) Bumble Bee.

Red-tailed or mixed bee

Sherrie’s love of insects is a natural outgrowth of her interest in macro photography. If you’re admiring the photos on this page, you should know that Sherrie is the photographer in each and every case. More importantly, you should check out the beautiful images on her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/PollinatorParkways/.

Habitat Corridor

But Pollinator Parkways is much more than a single, solitary rain garden, it’s actually a series of native gardens. Link all of them together, and you’ve got a habitat corridor that insects can use for forage and migration. So instead of a parkway for cars, Sherrie is building a parkway for bees, as well other fauna such as butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, flies, wasps and ladybugs.

But on it’s most basic level, “parkway” refers to the physical location where Sherrie works her magic, namely in that skinny strip of dirt adjacent to the street. It’s also known as a parking strip, or alternately the “hell” strip. I asked Sherrie, why there? Her answer was that a group of neighbors on NextDoor came up with the name and the concept of working in parking strips. “Parking strips are really visible, so they can beautify the neighborhood. And they are usually smaller than a whole yard so they are less intimidating for most people.”

 

The idea of using native plants was also appealing, because hell strips are usually inhospitable places for more refined cultivars, “Parking strips are hot, the soil is compacted, dogs are using it. It’s just a brutal space. So, the plants have to be really tough. And if you want to keep weeds down, then you need plants that are aggressive.” Which ultimately is a perfect description of a native plant. Parking strips are also notoriously difficult to water, but native plants should be able to survive with our area’s natural rainfall pattern.

Just because these systems try to mimic natural areas doesn’t mean that they are maintenance free. Sherrie, the homeowners, and a slew of volunteers work hard to clear weeds and remove turf. They get the plants into the ground, and then mulch and water the seedlings until the plants are established.

We were walking and talking, and soon reached our first destination; a parking strip garden that Sherrie planted two years ago. Sherrie admits that this early project was ambitious because, at 680 square feet, it’s so large. “But it’s also robust and wild and beautiful. I really like that it’s popping all the time, something is always in bloom. And this garden has a huge variety of bees that visit.”

Native Plant Knowledge

As we wandered around the garden, I found myself asking the same question over and over again, “ What’s this plant?” Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m familiar with some Oregon natives, such as Mahonia and Vine Maple, or milkweed and Coastal strawberry. But I can honestly say that this was the first time I’d seen or heard of Checkermallow, Streambank Lupine, or Wallflower.

Native Sweat BeeDuring our conversation it became clear that Sherrie is amazingly knowledgeable about native plants, despite her protestations that she is not a professional landscape designer or a master gardener. But she starts every project like a pro, meaning that she consults with the homeowners about their needs and aesthetics. Do they like wild gardens with lots of color? Is visibility an issue around driveways? Or do the homeowners need a privacy screen? These questions, and the answers, help Sherrie to develop a plant list that makes sense for the space and for the homeowners

At this point, we headed over to our final garden on this makeshift tour. This garden was completed just last year and the plants haven’t yet grown to fill the space. Indeed, after our very wet, very cold winter Sherrie is watching this site closely to see which plants will survive and thrive.

City Repair and Solve

I take the opportunity to ask Sherrie how Pollinator Parkways is organized, because it’s clear that this is no longer a one-woman project. Sherrie explains how reaching out to other likeminded groups has helped her tiny seed of an idea become a force for nature. Pollinator Parkways works under the auspices of The City Repair Project,  a well-known, local non-profit that seeks to enhance communities with permaculture landscaping and natural building. While organizations like SOLVE  help Sherrie to tap into a wider network of eager volunteers. Even the city of Portland has recognized Pollinator Parkways with a small grant to defray the cost of the plants. Last year alone Pollinator Parkways completed work on 22 parking strip projects. And over time Pollinator Parkways has converted more than 6,000 square feet of hell strip into life affirming gardens.

I truly feel inspired by the work Sherrie is doing. If you find yourself equally inspired by what you’ve read here, I hope you’ll click on a few links. First, to the Pollinator Parkways Web site (http://pollinatorparkways.weebly.com). This site has lots of useful resources, including recommended plant lists and information on bee-safe nurseries. Or you can visit one of the native-plant nurseries that Sherrie recommends. At some point in the near future, I’m planning to visit the two native nurseries that she recommended to me: Bosky Dell  and Seven Oaks Native Nursery.

But whatever you do, I hope you’ll make a promise to yourself, or to Sherrie, or to the bees that you’ll plant some native species in your yard this year. Happy gardening!

 

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