Within minutes of sitting in Brandi Bechard’s backyard, monarchs and bees flutter by—but the county is definitely not as populated with these pollinators as it once was.
When asked if Windsor-Essex was undergoing a bee shortage, Brandi—who has a background in ecosystem management—says that when it comes to biodiversity loss, especially within pollinating insect species, there are practices we have adopted in agriculture and urban development that have had a negative impact on our local pollinator populations. However, she believes we have the tools to help bring them back through regenerative stewardship of the land.
First, we have to understand and appreciate their role within the ecosystem. “Pollinators are a keystone group of species,” Brandi explains. “This means many other species in the ecosystem depend on the health of pollinators and the functions they provide. Their job is to pollinate wild plants that birds, deer, and other wildlife depend on, as well as the agricultural crops that humans depend on. It’s a trickle-down effect.”
With the lack of green space in the urban areas of the city, Brandi says that we can incorporate the planting of pollinator gardens.
“When you think about it, if even two houses per street planted a pollinator garden, we could create a corridor for pollinator species to follow and navigate their way through the city when travelling from one green space to another,” Brandi says.
Through her business, Ground Culture Gardens, Brandi focuses on developing designs for homeowners to follow and learn to create multifunctional landscapes and gardens that attract and sustain pollinators and other beneficial insects.
“Pollinator gardens are small but effective. If there’s a honeybee in the area searching for nectar, it’s going to zone in on your garden. Then, it will send out a message for other bees in its same colony to come.”
How to start your own pollinator garden
Brandi suggests planting native plants as a starting point, because our local pollinators have evolved in our area to know the way these plants look and smell. That’s not to say that non-native species don’t support pollinators, because they do. Take lavender, for example—it’s a Mediterranean species that does well in our climate because it’s hot, but you’ll also see pollinators buzzing around because they’re drawn to the fragrant flowers.
“Try to plant a diverse set of plants in your garden; it’ll help support a variety of pollinators,” Brandi adds. Some native plants to incorporate into your garden are black-eyed Susan; purple cone flower (a.k.a. echinacea), which is both medicinal to humans and good for native bee forage); prickly pear cactus; and common milkweed, which sustains the larval stage of monarchs through to butterfly.
“You don’t want to stick something in your yard just because it’s native. Make sure you plant for the microclimates within your yard, and choose specimens based on your sun exposure and soil,” Brandi says. “As long as you work with nature and incorporate a little garden design to make it look nice, you’re probably going to have pollinators in your garden.”
Planting isn’t just about feeding the pollinators, but also hosting them through the winter months. If there’s not a lot going on in your garden in the winter, plant some native species that will provide some visual winter interest while providing habitat in the form of leaf litter and seeds for birds. Often, native trees and shrubs will then be the first to blossom and provide the first food that pollinators can rely on come spring.
The main restriction to what you can plant is to ensure you’re not planting invasive species. Brandi suggests doing your research on what is and isn’t invasive in Windsor and Essex County. She recommends referring to ERCA’s Native Plant Guide, as well as asking the staff at your local nursery for advice on planting native species; Brandi’s go-to nursery is Flora Gardens on the corner of Hwy 3 and Walker.
When designing or renovating your pollinator garden, Brandi’s advice is to plant things in groups or masses. “Insects don’t see like we do; they get this crazy image that gets put together in their brain and directs them to the centre of the flower. If you mix different flowers all over the place, it’s confusing for the forager and they have to switch gears every time, while planting in masses makes it easy to float from flower to flower,” she says.
Brandi has offered some tips and tricks on how to get your pollinator garden to thrive through the seasons:
- You can let about 20% of your vegetable garden go to seed or flower, which will support pollinators without extra work.
- Designate a section of your yard to native plants, but not invasive species or noxious weeds. This will maintain your relationship with your neighbours while fostering the stunning native flowers that pop up.
- Plant at every level: ground covers, shrub layer (herbaceous plants and shrubs), and canopy layer (trees). For example, instead of high-maintenance grass as your ground cover, you can plant creeping thyme, which is edible for people, has pretty flowers that bees love, is low-maintenance, and smells wonderful.
- You don’t have to build a new garden from scratch; you can swap out ornamental plants for pollinator-supporting species that fit into your current design.
- You can save your own seeds by drying flowers in a paper bag, shaking the seeds out, and planting them next year. This helps spread these plants without costing you money.
- Plant species that will bloom at different times of year. By staggering bloom times throughout your garden, there will always be something attracting pollinators into your yard while looking great year-round.