Planting Pollinators at Norman Bird Sanctuary

The state treasure showcases the value and beauty of pollinator-friendly gardening practices.
pollinators

Aster and northern blue flag iris are two native flowers planted to attract pollinators at the Norman Bird Sanctuary. In the past five years, the property’s stewards have prioritized the development of pollinator habitats at the 325-acre sanctuary. Right, a bumble bee hovers near an allium, a member of the onion family. Photography by James Jones.

Coastal dunes, salt marshes, forests, ephemeral ponds, grasslands: The Norman Bird Sanctuary’s diversity is part of its draw. On any given day, at any time of year, the 325-acre property stirs with life, both wild and civilized. Just a couple of months ago, an unseasonably warm February afternoon drew a father and son to the duck pond, several pairs of hikers to the trails and lone photographers seeking the source of a hoot that cut through the woods.

Before the guests venture around the barn and visitor’s center to begin exploring any of these habitats, one of the first things they will see is a meticulously groomed garden enclosed by a stone wall and white gates. Mabel’s Garden, as it is called today, was a feature original to Paradise Farm before the property’s establishment as a nature preserve by Mabel Norman Cerio in 1949. In addition to its historic value, the garden has, in a sense, come to embody Norman Cerio’s founding mission that the property serve “for the propagation, preservation and protection of birds.”

“It was originally a cutting garden, but we were looking to make it more sustainable,” says property director, Joseph McLaughlin. With help from University of Rhode Island Master Gardener volunteers, the space has become a showcase for native pollinators and non-chemical management practices. Why is cultivating pollinator habitats so important?

“Thirty-five percent of our food relies on insect pollination,” says McLaughlin. “The grains, fruits and vegetables we consume need insects to pollinate the plants. It’s a $3 billion service that wild native bees contribute to the food industry.”

Pollinators include butterflies, bees, wasps, moths, birds and bats, among others. According to the Wildlife Society, monarch populations have decreased by 90 percent over the past two decades. The recognizability and notable decline of monarchs prompted the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), an agency of the Department of Agriculture, to launch a national campaign to preserve monarch habitats. With funding from NRCS in 2004, Norman Bird Sanctuary endeavored, not only to shift the focus of Mabel’s Garden, but to restore native pollinator plants in its forty-four acres of grasslands.

pollinators

Mabel’s Garden was formally a cutting garden. Since 2004, the sanctuary has worked with the National Resources Conservation Service and URI Master Gardeners to improve sustainability and prioritize the propagation of native plants on the property. Photography by James Jones.

“Those fields have been farmed for 300 years or more to feed humans and livestock,” McLaughlin explains. “Over that time invasive plants have crept in.”

Invasive species have been around since European settlers made their way to these shores. In the years since, many have become popular among home gardeners and, as a result, are widely available at many commercial nurseries for their aesthetics and hardiness. But species such as multiflora rose (brought here from Asia to serve as rootstock for rose bushes) and spotted knapweed (imported from Europe in the 1800s because it’s pretty) can suffocate native plants.

To combat their own infestation, McLaughlin says the sanctuary began by brush cutting, plowing and harrowing all forty-four acres of grassland. Then volunteers picked out the invasive roots by hand. Once that was complete, two seed mixes — one called a Rhode Island wildflower mix and the other a Rhode Island monarch mix — were sown in the fields. While the mixes vary slightly, both include seeds highly attractive to pollinators such as milkweed, little bluestem, narrow leaf, mountain autumn, New York ironweed, Joe Pye weed, common sneezeweed, boneset and black eyed Susan.

While NRCS was willing to pay for herbicides and pesticides to help mitigate invasives during the restoration process, McLaughlin says the property committee ultimately decided against the use of chemicals.

“It’s about the bigger picture,” he explains. “With such fragmentation of the landscape, it’s really important to remember that each little bit of chemical adds up. This is about survival of the whole picture. The sanctuary is called the Norman Bird Sanctuary and it’s for the propagation of birds, but everything is connected. We’re enhancing the birds’ habitat but we’re also enhancing what the birds eat. It’s a basic concept, but it’s common sense.”

pollinators

Clockwise from top left: A Rhode Island monarch mix is sown in this pollinator field in late November. “Cold stratification of the seed is essential over the winter for spring germination,” explains Joseph McLaughlin. In the early spring, buckwheat, a smother crop, is planted in the field to weaken the soil for invasive plants. Clockwise from top left: The sanctuary erects 300 tree swallow nests every spring in a field where native pollinator seeds are sown; mature trees offer shady respites in the yard around Mabel’s Garden; a local volunteer manages four hives on the property, and the honey is sold in the gift shop; white aster attracts butterflies and bees; a bee frolics in honeysuckle. Photography by James Jones.

Early season
Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) grows one to three feet tall and features umbrella-shaped clusters of tiny yellow flowers. “It’s a great source for insects that are just coming out of their dormancy and looking for sustenance. It’s also a wonderful host plant for black swallowtail butterflies.”

Raspberry, blackberry and blueberry shrubs are also beneficial. “If there’s room on the property, it’s a good idea to put some shrubs in. Blueberries are especially pretty to look at and they’re great pollination for birds.”

Mid-season
Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) grows two to three feet tall and features aromatic leaves and little white or lavender tubular flowers. “This is probably my single favorite pollinator. It’s just a miracle plant. Butterflies, bees, flies: it attracts all kinds of good stuff.”

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) produces tall clumps of pink flowers, while the shorter butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) features bright orange flowers. “The asclepias is probably the most important host plant for monarchs.”

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) grows two to four feet tall and produces showy tubular-shaped, lavender-hued flowers in globular formations. Related to bee balm, these plants have a special interest for hummingbirds, moths and bumble bees.

Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) and Virginia rose (Virginiana rosa) — loved by leaf cutter bees — are mid-season blooming shrubs. “Ninebark has a really pretty leaf. You can get them in different colored leaves, but most are dark purple with tiny white flowers.”

Late-mid season:
Cutleaf coneflowers (Rudbeckia laciniata) grow six to seven feet tall, making them ideal for the back of a border. “The foliage has a really interesting cut leaf shape and they have strong yellow petals with a green nose. They provide seeds for the birds and are a great pollinator.”

Bottled gentian (Gentiana clausa), suitable for sun and shade, feature dark bluish-purple petals that close together at the top like a bottle. “Bumble bees pry the petals open and tumble inside.”

Late season
Goldenrod (Solidago) comes in many varieties and, says Case, “almost any kind is good in one capacity or another.” She suggests pairing it with New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), which is usually purple but can also be pink.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) shrubs produce small white globes that resemble pin cushions stuck with little white pins. These showy plants attract butterflies and moths.

“We start planting as soon as the ground is workable, but we start potting up and will have a lot of things ready to go in April,” says Case.

Blue Moon Farm Perennials, 173 Saugatucket Rd., South Kingstown, 284-2369, bluemoonfarmperennials.com.

Plant Your Own

Cultivating a garden of native pollinators doesn’t require hundreds of acres; you simply need the right plants.

“The big thing is to have diversity,” says Jane Case, owner of Blue Moon Perennials in South Kingstown, which offers the broadest selection of native plants and perennials in the state. Equally as important, says Case, is to select plants that will bloom throughout the season. “Choosing one or two from early, mid and late season can make a big difference.” While sunlight and soil conditions will dictate what will work best in your space, here are some of Case’s suggestions:

Early Season
Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) grows one to three feet tall and features umbrella-shaped clusters of tiny yellow flowers. “It’s a great source for insects that are just coming out of their dormancy and looking for sustenance. It’s also a wonderful host plant for black swallowtail butterflies.”
Raspberry, blackberry and blueberry shrubs are also beneficial. “If there’s room on the property, it’s a good idea to put some shrubs in. Blueberries are especially pretty to look at and they’re great pollination for birds.”

Mid-Season
Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) grows two to three feet tall and features aromatic leaves and little white or lavender tubular flowers. “This is probably my single favorite pollinator. It’s just a miracle plant. Butterflies, bees, flies: It attracts all kinds of good stuff.”
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) produces tall clumps of pink flowers, while the shorter butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) features bright orange flowers. “The asclepias is probably the most important host plant for monarchs.”
Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) grows two to four feet tall and produces showy tubular-shaped, lavender-hued flowers in globular formations. Related to bee balm, these plants have a special interest for hummingbirds, moths and bumble bees.
Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) and Virginia rose (Virginiana rosa) — loved by leaf cutter bees — are mid-season blooming shrubs. “Ninebark has a really pretty leaf. You can get them in different colored leaves,
but most are dark purple with tiny white flowers.”

Late-Mid Season
Cutleaf coneflowers (Rudbeckia laciniata) grow six to seven feet tall, making them ideal for the back of a border. “The foliage has a really interesting cut leaf shape and they have strong yellow petals with a green nose. They provide seeds for the birds and are a great pollinator.” Bottled gentian (Gentiana clausa), suitable for sun and shade, feature dark bluish-purple petals that close together at the top like a bottle. “Bumble bees pry the petals open and tumble inside.”

Late Season
Goldenrod (Solidago) comes in many varieties and, says Case, “almost any kind is good in one capacity or another.” She suggests pairing it with New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), which is usually purple but can also be pink. Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) shrubs produce small white globes that resemble pin cushions stuck with little white pins. These showy plants attract butterflies and moths. “We start planting as soon as the ground is workable, but we start potting up and will have a lot of things ready to go in April,” says Case.

Blue Moon Farm Perennials, 173 Saugatucket Rd., South Kingstown, 284-2369, bluemoonfarmperennials.com.

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