• September 19, 2019
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Queens Chronicle

OPINION A sidewalk haven for bees, butterflies: the pollinators

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Posted: Thursday, August 15, 2019 10:30 am

My neighbor stopped me on the street the other day to say that she liked my pollinator garden. “Garden” is a lofty word for the clump of plants growing along the sidewalk, next to the street, where a tree used to be. But the tiny patch seems to make the bees and butterflies happy.

No matter what time of day I visit, I’ll find at least one bumblebee feasting on nectar from the coneflowers or the catmint, or a cabbage white butterfly, with its little purple-black wing dots, flitting around the blooms. I may have seen a monarch butterfly one day, though it could have been a viceroy.

When I moved to the Woodhaven section of Queens three years ago, I hoped to plant a tree in the empty tree plot along the sidewalk. The city eventually denied my request, citing proximity to power lines. This spring, reading how much even small clumps of wildflowers can help hungry and endangered pollinators, I realized I could do something equally good with the space: I could plant flowers for the bees and butterflies.

First I had to figure out which pollinator-friendly plants were likely to withstand the abuses of sidewalk living: drought and flooding in the summertime, salt in the wintertime, dogs marking the plants year-round. As a human companion to a Lab and general dog person, I was determined not to become someone who planted delicate flowers to wilt in the heat and then despaired over the ravages of urine.

I consulted the city’s guide to plantings, and I searched around on gardening chat rooms. My research suggested that echinacea would hold up, and catmint, too. I was less sure about the Little Joe Pye, but so far it’s endured everything that’s been thrown at it.

I’d read that monarch butterflies are increasingly endangered as once-plentiful native milkweed succumbs to development, pesticides and landscaping. Milkweed is the only plant that supports monarch larvae, and it’s extremely hardy, so I decided to plant that, too. I’ll admit I was unprepared for how relentlessly the milkweed vines wind their way around the other plants. Well, it’s a work in progress. The flowers still look pretty, at least to me.

When I first prepared the soil for the plantings a couple months ago, some kids walking home from the local school with their parents wondered what I was doing. They seemed excited when I told them, so I decided to get a couple signs — one says “Pollinator Garden,” and the other, “Save the Bees” — to let the kids and the rest of my neighbors know what I was up to.

I made sure that none of the plants were treated with neonicotinoids, which have been banned in France and are under attack from environmentalists here in the States. As the journal Nature reported in 2015, one study suggests that “Neonicotinoids and ectoparasitic mites synergistically impact honeybees,” leading to a 70 percent reduction in bees that survive overwintering.

Wildflower gardens aren’t common in my neighborhood, and I wondered how my neighbors would react, but so far, so good. Another neighbor expressed amazement at how well the plants have stood up to all the attention, we’ll call it, from local dogs, including his three, who are some of my Lab’s BFFs. The plants are perennials, and I’m hopeful they’ll come back, bigger and better, next spring.

One thing I’d do differently in the future is plant more native flowers like coreopsis lanceolata. I have some thriving in pots and this fall I hope to transfer it to the other sidewalk plot out front, alongside a tree that’s growing there. I’ve studied up on native fauna through resources like the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which has a comprehensive website and focuses on “protecting and preserving North America’s native plants through native plant lists and image galleries, conservation, education, natural landscapes, seed collection.”

The area of the sidewalk I’ve planted along the street is commonly referred to as the “hell strip.” These days, even on the hottest August afternoons, mine feels like the opposite: a place where tired and hungry bees can have a snack, continuing on their way.

Maud Newton is a writer and Woodhaven resident whose book about ancestors is forthcoming from Random House, probably in spring 2021.

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