A blooming movement: Pollinator gardens proliferate as homeowners, others look to create ecosystems on their properties

Florence residents Brian Adams and Morey Phippen pose near their 13 beds of vegetables surrounded by native flowering plants.

Florence residents Brian Adams and Morey Phippen pose near their 13 beds of vegetables surrounded by native flowering plants. STAFF PHOTOS/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

A  bumblebee visits a floxglove beardtongue, which are native to New England. Some homeowners are putting pollinator gardens on their properties as an alternative to grass lawns.

A bumblebee visits a floxglove beardtongue, which are native to New England. Some homeowners are putting pollinator gardens on their properties as an alternative to grass lawns. —STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

—STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Phippen and Adam’s pollinator meadow currently consists of black-eyed susans and beardstongue, and new flowers will continue to bloom unlike frost.

Phippen and Adam’s pollinator meadow currently consists of black-eyed susans and beardstongue, and new flowers will continue to bloom unlike frost. —STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

In the second year of their pollinator meadow, black-eyed susans blossom overtake Brian Adams’ and Morey Phippen’s yard.

In the second year of their pollinator meadow, black-eyed susans blossom overtake Brian Adams’ and Morey Phippen’s yard. STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Phippens and Adams allow their meadow to grow wild, refraining from mowing and weeding unless an invasive plant is present. 

Phippens and Adams allow their meadow to grow wild, refraining from mowing and weeding unless an invasive plant is present.  —STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Heidi Dollard explains the large bushes and trees provide lots of food and habitat for bugs and birds compared to grasses or flowers.

Heidi Dollard explains the large bushes and trees provide lots of food and habitat for bugs and birds compared to grasses or flowers. —FOR THE GAZETTE/EMILEE KLEIN

Butterfly weed is a popular native plant for bees and butterflies.

Butterfly weed is a popular native plant for bees and butterflies. —FOR THE GAZETTE/EMILEE KLEIN

Dollard points out native ferns like the ostrich fern at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

Dollard points out native ferns like the ostrich fern at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment. —FOR THE GAZETTE/EMILEE KLEIN

Non-native honey bees are generalist who pollinate all types of flowers, including native common milkweed.

Non-native honey bees are generalist who pollinate all types of flowers, including native common milkweed. —FOR THE GAZETTE/EMILEE KLEIN

Heidi Dollard of Belchertown explains that common milkweed are host plants for declining monarch butterflies as honeybees dominate the flowerheads at her home.

Heidi Dollard of Belchertown explains that common milkweed are host plants for declining monarch butterflies as honeybees dominate the flowerheads at her home. FOR THE GAZETTE/EMILEE KLEIN

By EMILEE KLEIN

Staff Writer

Published: 07-05-2024 7:32 PM

Morey Phippen and Brian Adams’ yard in Florence looks nothing like the traditional blanket of green grass associated with suburban lawns.

Instead, bumblebees and butterflies bob and weave around her destined for the nearby foxglove, pink primrose, red clover and bee balm flowers. They are guided by the tune of young, hungry birds calling for their breakfast while Phippen and her husband, Brian Adams, eat theirs.

“When we sit at our deck table and look at our mountain mint, there are so many crazy looking pollinators on there like moths, wild bees and bugs we’ve never seen before that come to these plants,” Phippens said.

Phippen and Adams moved to their home in 2022 and opted to turn their acre of dirt into a pollinator meadow, an expansive type of pollinator garden, rather than a grassy lawn. This garden of native flowers, grasses and shrubs creates a habitat for native pollinators who often struggle to survive in Massachusetts’ changing climate. The climate-concious couple want their lawn to support the creatures living on the same land.

“A lot of it is driven by climate change, how to do more with less, and how to nurture the land we have where we have it, how to create biodiversity with limited time and effort from us,” Adams said.

Pollinator gardens have grown from a plea to protect wildlife into a blossoming movement. Homeowners and municipalities in western Massachusetts are “killing their lawns” and replacing the grass with trees, bushes and wildflowers that bees, butterflies and bugs rely on. These gardens grow into ecosystems, supporting native species who continue to lose habitat in the face of climate change, development and invasive species.

“[It’s about] getting people to redefine aesthetics,” Adams said. “People look at a vast green lawn and say, ‘oh, that’s beautiful,’ when in fact it’s a biological wasteland. Some people look at a meadow and say it’s so wild and not tamed and not America, but to us it’s just beautiful.”

An easy step to take

With many climate mitigation measures rely on major infrastructure, legislative and systemic changes, turning a lawn from a biological desert into a hotspot for native bugs and hungry birds is one of the few actions individuals can take to directly combat loss of biodiversity.

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“The evidence of climate change has become more obvious to people and they want to do something, and this is what they can do,” said Belchertown pollinator activist Heidi Dollard. “Not everybody can buy an electric car, not everybody can even buy a mini-split, but most people can buy some native plants and let their lawn grow.”

Dollard, co-chair of the Massachusetts Pollinator Network Advisory Board, also turned her property into a low-maintenance pollinator meadow. She got into pollinator advocacy about five years ago, and now volunteers with native plant nurseries, gives various talks on pollinators and volunteers with organizations curating pollinator gardens.

But the movement has expanded to beyond neighborhood backyards to include a program run by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation called Going Wild. Now in its fourth year, the program encourages residents about enhancing and preserving pollinator habitats.

Additionally, proposed legislation on Beacon Hill calls for a special commission to study statewide opportunities for enhancing and expanding pollinator habitat in both developed and natural areas such as farm field borders, forest borders, residential areas, parks, urban areas, industrial areas, energy transmission corridors, energy generating facilities and transportation corridors.

While annual flowers like mums and begonias decorate the home and attract honeybees, Dollard said native plants, specifically grown from seed and treated without chemicals, are key to a successful pollinator garden. At least 70% of the garden should be native plants, including native trees and bushes that supply the most food for pollinators and their larvae.

“In the past 50 years in my memory, insects have declined in most places by 70%. That’s literally the basis of the food chain. For many, many animals, if they don’t eat plants, they eat insects,” Dollard said. “So if we lose insects, we lose small mammals and amphibians and reptiles, but especially birds. It’s just terrifying to me.”

Native species, like wild strawberries and asters, attract endangered pollinators who only eat pollen and nectar from indigenous plants, like bumblebees, and provide food sources for young caterpillars who require a specific species of host plant to grow.

“Butterflies will take nectar from any flower, native or non native. They just want nectar. Most of them are not specialists,” Dollard said. “But as caterpillars they often are specialists. So if you really want butterflies, you have to plant plants that the caterpillars can eat as well as plants that the adults eat.”

Bees native to New England are also specialists, or species that rely on specific sources of food or environments to survive. These bee species, such as bumblebees, are solitary bees that pollinate a majority of the crops in Massachusetts, and they’re populations are on a steady, or in some cases steep, decline.

“Honeybees are not in trouble. They are not native bees and they don’t need our help. The bees that need our help are the native bees. There’s like 400 some odd species in New England, about a third of them are in trouble,” Dollard said.

Drawn to the movement

The diversity of New England bee and bug species draws some people to the pollinator movement. Chad Robinson in Pittsfield goes bee-watching in his pollinator garden, documenting the local bee species who visit his pollinator plots on social media. Robinson discovered the need for pollinator gardens a decade ago, and started his garden by scattering native plant seeds on the ground, adding some water and allowing nature to take over.

“I work from home, and it’s great to take a break and walk outside for 10 minutes and see Mother Earth working and it’s relaxing,” Robinson said. “Kill your lawn and plant native flowering plants, it’s a gift that keeps on giving.”

While pollinator gardens require little to no maintenance once the plants are in the ground, not everyone has as much ease starting one as Robinson.

Phippen and Adam opted for professional help from an intern at the Conway School of Landscape Design, then hired a landscape architect from Abound Design to help the vision come to life.

Madeleine and Rutilious Perkins in Amherst never set out to make a pollinator garden per say, but the two master gardeners attract tons of pollinators by simply planting native species throughout their ornamental, herbal and vegetable gardens as well as their food forest. The latter incorporates native plants into its four levels of edible plants: wild strawberries and wintergreen for ground cover, elderberry for the bush layer and native cherry and pawpaw trees for the top layer. The couple certified their garden as friendly for pollinators with a sign from the Western Mass Pollinator Network, the precursor to the Mass Pollinator Network.

“They’re beautiful, colorful and it feels good to be helping the critters,” local gardener Madeleine Perkins said. “It’s a good exercise of being mindful of how our gardening impacts the whole ecosystem or ecosystems.”

Yet everyone can make their yards more pollinator friendly, even without the skills of a master gardener or landscape professionals. Even property with no gardening space can plant pots of keystone species like mountain mint, aster or even herbs like parsley and dill to help little caterpillars and bees.

Dollard suggests residents interested in joining the movement think about how to make their entire property more attractive to pollinators by incorporating native species throughout the yard and leaving dead leaves, fallen branches and seed pods in the yard for overwintering insects and hungry birds.

“You have to think about where the insects are over the winter, and most of them are in those leaves that have fallen,” Dollard said. “If you have a native tree, and it’s got grass under it and you rake all the leaves away, you’ve just done away with that generation of insects.”

The Massachusetts Pollinator Network lists dozens of resources, from videos to native plant lists to native plant nursery locations, online, but Dollard notes that Northampton put together a species list for the “Pollinate Northampton” project. She also suggests:

■Research native keystone species to make the greatest impact.

■Purchase seedlings or starter plants from native plant nurseries or garden centers with native plants.

■Focus most of garden maintenance on the areas around the house and near pathways.

■Remove any and all invasive species that displace native plants.

“There’s so many environmental problems that seem so insurmountable, but biodiversity is something we can fix ourselves in our own property, even if our own property is just a few plants on the balcony,” Dollard said.

Emilee Klein can be reached at eklein@gazettenet.com.