Push for pollinators

September 13, 2018 -  By
Milkweed plant and pollinator (Photo: LandscapeHub)

Habitat creation Pollinator plants, like milkweed, help keep pollinators alive and thriving. (Photo: LandscapeHub)

Mike LaPorte says it’s an exciting time for pollinator-friendly plants. The co-owner of Owl Run Nursery in Catlett, Va., located about 35 miles outside of Washington, D.C., says customers come to him specifically for Owl Run’s selection of native plants that attract pollinators such as bees, butterflies and birds. Plant propagators are also getting in on the action, he adds, as he finds new and improved species of pollinator plants to offer these eager customers. Owl Run is selling five times more pollinator plants than it was just three years ago, LaPorte says.

“We are out in front of a lot of places in terms of pollinator gardens and things like that—we have seen sales of these plants increase massively,” he says. “The native movement and the pollinator movement have really taken off.”

While Owl Run Nursery’s pollinator plant boom may not be the norm in all areas of the country, industry experts agree that awareness of and interest in pollinators and the plants that attract them is growing. Pollinator-friendly plants are species that attract bees, butterflies and birds, as well as lesser-known pollinators such as bats, beetles, moths and flies. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, these creatures help pollinate more than 75 percent of flowering plants and nearly 75 percent of food crops worldwide. But recent studies show that a growing number of pollinator species are headed towards extinction due to factors such as habitat loss, pesticide misuse and climate change, putting the world’s food supply and ecosystems at risk. Incorporating pollinator-friendly plants—such as aster, lantana, bee balm, milkweed, oregano and penstemon— into the landscape provides important habitats for pollinators to thrive.

Pollinator habitat (Photo: Matthew Shepherd, The Xerces Society)

Low profile Many pollinator-friendly plants are relatively inexpensive and easy to maintain, requiring fewer inputs. (Photo: Matthew Shepherd, The Xerces Society)

“There is a serious increase in search activity for pollinator-friendly plants on our site but not a significant increase in sales numbers yet,” says Michael Kwiatek, a data analyst at LandscapeHub, an online source for buying and selling plants and landscape materials. “People seem curious about it until they realize they don’t want bees on their roof garden or swarming about in their backyard. Lack of actual orders for these products confirms that it is just an interest at this time.”

While perhaps not yet as popular among clients who prefer bee-free properties, LaPorte has seen a notable increase in developers incorporating pollinator gardens into their green spaces. Many of these developers install pollinator gardens as a step toward Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification or for government tax credits. Others realize these spaces may require less water, chemicals and maintenance than traditional landscapes. Regardless of the reason, LaPorte says this is a positive step for the pollinator movement.

“In the D.C. market, we are seeing green spaces on almost every building in the district,” he says. “The government is leading developers in that direction and that’s a good thing. The other good thing is people are getting used to seeing these gardens used in commercial settings, which may inspire them to do similar things on their own properties.”

Jody Shilan, president of landscape design company Jody Shilan Designs in Upper Saddle River, N.J., says that while he has not seen an increase in clients requesting pollinator-friendly plants, most customers are receptive to the idea once they learn about it. Shilan typically incorporates pollinator-friendly plants into his landscapes whether customers request them or not, because there are several species—such as purple coneflower, veronica, salvia and butterfly bush—that are colorful, low maintenance and low cost, which are the primary requests of most clients. Many are also deer-resistant.

“The issues with bees, butterflies and other pollinators are not on most people’s radar,” Shilan says. “It’s up to us to introduce those ideas to our customers and educate them about it as opposed to waiting for them to ask about pollinator-friendly plants. Once they think about it and get an explanation of what is going on, they are excited about using that kind of plant material.”

Bernadette Mach, a recently graduated research assistant at the University of Kentucky’s Department of Entomology, says it’s important for contractors to be mindful when it comes to choosing pollinator-friendly plants because “they are not all created equal.” She emphasizes the benefits of pollinator-attractive woody plants that are not susceptible to pests and diseases and that don’t need to be treated with an abundance of chemicals. She says her lab likes the late-blooming seven suns flower tree and a midseason-blooming native species of St. John’s wort, which are both beautiful, pollinator-friendly plants that do not have any major known pest issues.

“That way, you don’t run the risk of contaminating a food source, and the homeowner won’t have insects eating up all the leaves,” Mach says. “You have to use common sense when choosing a plant. Talk with someone who really knows what kind of landscape you’re dealing with and the factors that will affect the success of any plant, like soil type, wetness, drainage and pH levels.”

Mach adds that it’s a good idea for contractors to consider the placement of pollinator plants, particularly for customers who are wary about the presence of bees.

“These may not be the plants you necessarily want to put right by someone’s front door,” she says. “Take the land usage into account. Not everything in a yard has to provide pollinator resources. If there is a corner in the backyard where something bee-attractive would be beneficial, put it there.”

Remember maintenance

Maintenance is also an important aspect of pollinator-friendly gardens, which Shilan says is a good business opportunity for contractors. While pollinator gardens can be associated with having a “wild” appearance that may be off-putting to some homeowners, Shilan says this doesn’t have to be the case. Pollinator gardens can be clean and manicured, and maintenance of them can be an additional service offering for contractors. Contractors can educate themselves on pollinator garden maintenance through community college courses, garden clubs, botanical garden programs, books and even YouTube videos, he adds.

“If you have clean bed lines, then what is planted inside of the bed—whether it’s pruned or has a more organic feel to it—still looks organized and maintainable,” Shilan says. “Maintenance can provide reoccurring revenue and the opportunity for contractors to expand their businesses.”

LaPorte agrees. “The maintenance of pollinator-friendly gardens is an untapped industry, ready for someone to delve into and make it their niche,” he says. “But we are going to have to reeducate ourselves and sell our customers on something that looks completely different, moving away from perfectly manicured landscapes to a more natural look.”

By embracing pollinator-friendly plants and gardens, contractors can create attractive, low-maintenance landscapes for their customers that will make an important impact on the environment—a win-win for everyone.

“Having a multifunctional landscape can be a really desirable thing,” Mach says. “Not only can contractors create a landscape that will look beautiful season after season, but it can also provide critical ecosystems and play a vital role in the day-to-day lives of pretty much everything that lives in the natural environment. We are trying to push the idea that, with careful thought, you can have it all.”

About the Author:

Emily Schappacher is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

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