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Your Pollinator Garden Pathway: Think Linear and Local

Like Velcro®, Jacuzzi® and Kleenex®, the term Pollinator Pathway®is actually a registered brand name. It refers to a civic project founded in 2007 by “design thinker” Sarah Bergmann. Its now-famous pilot enterprise was the creation of a mile-long, 12-foot-wide system of connected greenspaces planted with the intention of helping native plant pollinators move through the urban, Seattle, Washington, landscape.

The Pollinator Pathway’s original linear garden became a section of a far-reaching system of design/ecology pathways and the impetus for a world-wide effort to fill in gaps between local and regional green spaces to improve ecological health and diversity. It’s a fascinating and enlightening undertaking that’s had significant impact, and I encourage you to visit the project’s website, where you can learn about the history, goals, latest news and even how to participate.

In the meantime, there’s keen interest in pollinator gardens here in Northeast Georgia these days. Even those of us who don’t identify with the urban focus of the pathway project or strictly comply with all of the project’s criteria can contribute to the ecological benefits by applying many of the same principles in our own rural, farm and suburban gardens and landscapes.

Think linear and local when planting pollinator gardens

Linear gardening. One of the project’s most important concepts is thinking about pollinator gardens not as islands in the landscape, but as linear garden corridors planned and planted to create bridges from one pollinator garden to the next. This is critical because as land has been subdivided through the years, and commercial, farm and residential development has led to land uses becoming fragmented from one plot to the next, natural pollinator corridors have been interrupted. Some pollinators have extensive ranges, but many species can only fly a couple of hundred feet at a time. If they’re confined to isolated plant islands, they may have limited food and shelter, and their limited reach will restrict their ability to achieve their potential as pollinators. Not only are the short-range, existing pollinators less able to do their jobs, but in many cases, their diversity and numbers are declining due to habitat loss, widespread pesticide use, disease and invasive species. They need all the help they can get!

And by the way, linear doesn’t necessarily mean a straight line here. Your pollinator garden pathway can be straight, curved or even meandering. The key is that the garden needs to progress from point to point from one end toward a destination in the distance. In other words, the plantings in it should progress in sequential steps to create an uninterrupted passageway for pollinator travel.

Local, native plants.

There are lots of good reasons to preserve and grow plants that are native to the area where they’re being planted. Pollination is one of the most important. The native pollinators we need to support, like bees, butterflies, beetles, moths, hummingbirds—even bats—and many more, have evolved to depend on specific native plant species that have adapted to local soils, climates and conditions. The pollinators in Northeast Georgia have no use for plants from China or Japan, or other “exotics.”

The monarch butterfly is a good example of the relationship between native pollinators and native plants. The monarch is a prolific pollinator in the landscape. It relies on the native milkweed plant for survival. If there are no native milkweed plants in the area, there will be no beautiful monarch butterflies—and one less species to pollinate the native plants. Two compelling reasons to plant milkweed in your garden!

Here are some of my favorite choices flowers, shrubs and trees that are as attractive to pollinators as they are to homeowners.

Echinecia - Coneflower
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a tough, native wildflower perfectly suited for pollinator gardens. Coneflowers are low maintenance, easy-to-grow perennials that love sunny areas. Once established, they are relatively drought tolerant. The cheerful blooms attract butterflies and pollinating bees. Later in the season, birds will enjoy the dried seed heads, so don’t cut them off!
Veronica spicata - Speedwell
Speedwell (Veronica spicata) is an easy-to-care-for, sun-loving and drought-resistant perennial with tall flower spikes in purple, blue, pink or white. They are a favorite of pollinators and butterflies—including hummingbirds. Cut back the spent flowers for a rebloom!
Gaillardia - Blanket Flower
The blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) is another native wildflower that’s good to know about if you have tough, dry areas to fill. The cheerful, orange and yellow flowers are favorites of butterflies, and your garden will always have bees when this plant is in bloom. The sun-loving, low-maintenance perennial doesn’t like to be over watered.
Aster with Butterfly
The native New England aster (Aster novae-angliae) is an important food source for pollinators. Flowering in late summer and early fall, these asters offer bees a welcomed food source at a time of year when food is getting scarce. They’re an easy-care wildflower that can be planted in natural areas, used for borders or featured in containers.
Rudbeckia - native black eyed susan
Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) are must-have native wildflowers for pollinator gardens. They’re ideal for difficult, dry spots and sunny areas where erosion is a challenge. Great for naturalizing steep banks, too. The bright, cheerful flowers bloom all summer long, and bees and butterflies are crazy about them.

Don’t forget to add shrubs to attract bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects to your garden. They provide homes, hiding places and loads of nectar and pollen.

Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)
Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) is a favorite for the pollinator garden. The native, ornamental shrub has an enticing fragrance that drifts in the breeze, drawing in bees, butterflies and passersby. Available in white or pink, summersweet prefers sunny, but moist, conditions. Don’t worry about deadheading them after the blooms have faded; finches adore the seeds.
Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)
The native, black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) shrub has spring blooms that bees and other pollinators love, plus glossy, black berries in late winter that can offer birds and other wildlife a survival food source. Chokeberry is a good solution for erosion control and does well in natural areas. It can handle part shade but will fruit better if exposed to plenty of sun. Look for good fall color, too, from this attractive addition to your pollinator garden
Mountain Gordlinia
As for trees, consider the mountain gordlinia (Gordlinia grandiflora). It’s the result of a rare intergeneric hybridization between our native Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha) and loblolly bay (Gordonia lasianthus). It has a reputation for being a little tricky to grow, but the rewards are worth the trouble if you’re up for trying it out. It usually grows to a height of around 20 feet or so, and it produces fragrant, saucer-like, white flowers that are pollinator magnets, blooming in summer and sporadically almost until the first frost. Best grown in rich, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade.

The best pollinator garden pathways have a diverse assortment of plants of varied heights, so don’t forget vines and ground covers.The perennial sweet pea vine attracts bees and butterflies and mixes of clover species are very appealing to bees and other pollinators, too.

If you’re interested in creating a pollinator garden pathway, you can start small by adding native plants that attract pollinators native to this area. The Georgia Pollinator Partnership (formerly Greater Atlanta) is a good resource, where you can also learn how to meet the criteria to become a certified pollinator garden. And the Pollinator Partnership website has a great section on selecting native plants for pollinators that are specific to the Northeast Georgia portion of the Central Appalachian region.

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