Pollinator Rest Stops- Implementing Pollinator Gardens in Urban Areas

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Pollinator Rest Stops- Implementing Pollinator Gardens in Urban Areas

June 21, 2024

By: Deirdre Smith, Associate Director of Landscape & Sustainability of Ox Hill Companies- LEED

To cap off National Pollinator Week (June 17th through 23rd), we thought it would be a good idea to champion the importance of implementing pollinator gardens in urban areas.

This week-long celebration of all thing’s pollinator was initiated sixteen years ago by the U.S. Senate.  Since then, it has grown into an international celebration – promoting the valuable contribution to the environment provided by bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects as well as small mammals, such as birds and bats.

The role that pollinators play in our daily lives and their impact on the overall health of the planet cannot be overstated.  Simply put, pollinators are essential to life.

Yet pollinators are threatened – now more than ever – by global warming, pesticide use and reduction in habitat due to urban encroachment.  However, one way to counteract these threats is to create pollinator habitats, particularly in urban areas.



What is a pollinator garden? 

In fact, pollinator gardens are a recent concept.  As such, they have become emblematic of the larger mission of sustainability.  Much like the Victory gardens of the WWII era, pollinator gardens have become a visible representation of doing one’s part to help the environment.

Essentially, any green space that provides food, water, shelter and a place to reproduce (nesting) can be a pollinator garden.  It’s really that simple!  For those living in apartments, even one planter on the balcony constitutes a pollinator garden.

The thinking is that bigger isn’t necessarily better.  In fact, studies have shown that pollinators need to have multiple “rest stops” across their flight paths, much like human travelers need rest stops along highways.


Pollinator garden elements 

Let’s break it down and describe the elements of an actual pollinator garden.  In addition to providing the basics, it’s important to focus on the duration of bloom.  By installing a range of plants that bloom from early Spring through the Fall, there’s a better chance that a wider population of pollinators will be served.  A botanical all-you-can-eat buffet, if you will.  Butterflies, hummingbirds and bees are attracted to larger blossoms and tubular-shaped flowers.

Additionally, it’s vital to choose native species which are adapted to the local environment and are the best food source for pollinators in that area (as well as culturally more resilient).

It’s also important to provide host plants which enable pollinating insects – particularly moths and butterflies – a place to lay eggs.  Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed), for example, is a host plant for the endangered Monarch butterfly.  Herbs, such as parsley, dill and bronze fennel are also host plants and make excellent choices to add to pollinator gardens.

If space allows, a pollinator garden should mimic natural conditions and include a mix of trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses.  A water source in the general vicinity completes the picture.

And let’s not forget bats!  They have a bad reputation, but they are very beneficial for biological control of “pest” insects (think mosquitos).  A single bat can consume 600 insects an hour!  Providing bat houses as part of a pollinator garden is a wonderful idea.

Additionally, bee hives should also be considered as another element in the pollinator garden to support honeybees.  Other bee species, by contrast, prefer to live in underground tunnels.


Urban planning 

Integrating pollinator habitats into urban infrastructure and new developments is critical.  Features, such as green roofs and walls, parks and bioswales, can be designed with pollinators in mind.

Bioswales have the added benefit of also providing stormwater management.  These vegetated channels or trenches capture excess stormwater and filter out pollutants before the runoff goes back into the local water supply.  By adding pollinator friendly plant species, these bioswales can now provide environmental double duty.

Many jurisdictions in the DMV area are looking at ways to protect pollinators and provide habitat, despite very little undeveloped space available.

Fairfax City recently held a 5-year review meeting of the 2035 Comprehensive Plan.  Included was discussion of a green infrastructure initiative to include bio-swales to mitigate the City’s problems with stormwater run-off.  With only slight modifications, these bioswales can also become pollinator gardens – a sustainability win-win for Fairfax.

Ox Hill Companies also plans to include pollinator gardens in its developments, whenever possible.  In its The Ox, Fairfax project, the parking lot islands will be planted with a variety of nectar and host plants to create pollinator habitats instead of the usual turf grass.  Not only will visitors to the new development be able to enjoy all the activities and entertainment that will be provided, but pollinators will also be well cared for in their habitat rest stops at The Ox, Fairfax.