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Bring Conservation Home

Residents planting native gardens to attract pollinators

photo by Diana Linsley
October 02, 2015
The Wassermans and the Fishwicks of Webster Groves don't have to rely on Netflix, Hulu or Sling TV for visual entertainment. They enjoy the "eye candy" of pollinators aplenty in their certified backyard native gardens.

"It's been neat the last couple of summers to have this new landscaping full of bees and Monarch butterflies," said Tessa Wasserman, who lives on Slocum Avenue. "We witnessed two waves of Monarchs last summer. This year it's been all about honeybees. They've been swarming our astors."

The Fishwicks, who reside on Jonquil Drive, like to take in all the garden happenings from a screened-in porch. They've been treated to a busy, buzzing, humming show from dawn until dusk for months.

"We enjoy watching all the activity from our screened-in porch because of the mosquitoes. We have more insect predators now because of the garden, but there hasn't been a decline in the population of mosquitoes yet," said Debbie Fishwick. "We are looking into a bat house to bring some bats to feast on our mosquitoes.

"We put in two water retention ponds and plants that thrive on those water features," said Fishwick. "The plants really went bonkers with the rainy spring we had. The plants got so tall, and the flowers grew so fast, that all of the insects, pollinators and the hummingbirds just started having a ball. It's something."

Both Tessa Wasserman and Debbie Fishwick credit the Audubon Society's Bring Conservation Home program for all the excitement in their backyard. Specifically, they cite the advice and inspiration of Mitch Leachman, the executive director of the St. Louis Audubon Society.

"I went to a 'nature-scaping' lecture at the Kirkwood Library last spring as part of the Edgar Denison celebration series," explained Fishwick. "My husband Tom and I listened and we both got excited about adding native plants to our backyard and also building some water retention features.

"We've been in the same home and been gardening for 30 years, but only in the last couple of years did we start thinking about replacing ornamentals with natives," explained Fishwick. "It has not been as much work as we thought it would be it's actually fun."

Wasserman also got into revising her garden plan after hearing advice from Leachman. He spoke to the Green Space Advisory Committee of the city of Webster Groves, where Wasserman volunteers. She said his green space ideas fit exactly with what she wanted to do with her own backyard.

Since joining the Bring Conservation Home program, Webster Groves resident Tessa Wasserman says she has enjoyed her garden now "full of bees and Monarch butterflies." photo by Diana Linsley

Bring Conservation Home

Audubon's Leachman coordinates the Bring Conservation Home program in the St. Louis region. He said people can be surprised "a bird organization" is out giving advice on how to garden.

"We get 'siloed' into this thinking we are only about birds," said Leachman, "but habitat is an essential connection with birds. The beetles, small insects and caterpillars attracted to native gardens are exactly what small birds need in their life cycle. The protein is needed for their muscle and bone growth, and bird seed at feeders does not really address those needs.

"Of course, another need we meet with these gardens is food for our endangered pollinators," explained Leachman. "It's pretty hard now not to know about the great loss of Monarchs and colony collapse disorder for bees. These gardens are a way to do something to help them."

Bring Conservation Home involves two on-site visits: one, to look at a yard and make recommendations as to what should be removed and what should be planted; a second visit to make an assessment of progress and to certify the garden for its native success.

Leachman said the program is not interested in competing with garden or landscape specialists. He said the cost is $50 for the program, although it can be as little as $25 if a resident's city chooses to subsidize it.

According to Leachman, you can be a dabbler or a "full-fledged gardener" and you can make the program work for your own needs.

"I have to confess I myself am a dabbler and it's a hobby for me," conceded Leachman. "I am out so much on visits that I can only do a couple of hours a week with my own garden, but I still manage to attract 65 species of very interesting insects to my garden many of them are pollinators."

With the first freeze of the fall season only weeks away, some might wonder if it's not too late to enroll in Bring Conservation Home. Leachman said a little frost on the pumpkin should not deter anyone.

"We can look at someone's landscape and make an analysis even in the dead of winter," said Leachman. "We can tell where the shade is, where the sunshine will be, where the low spots and draining areas are. And a mid-winter assessment gives a homeowner time to plan and get fired up about what to plant for spring."

Tom and Debbie Fishwick of Webster Groves put in a pair of water retention ponds and are growing plants that thrive on those water features. photo by Diana Linsley

From Silver To Gold

Wasserman has removed all the invasive honeysuckle from her yard and replaced it with nannyberry and viburnum. She said those plants make good buffers and do not present the harm to the environment that raging honeysuckle does.

"If people knew how destructive honeysuckle is, they would all be tearing it out," said Wasserman. "I have a prairie patch now where I grow things for full sun and not-so-good soil. In my low, water-retention areas, I have planted river birch and red buckeye. They really soak up the rain.

A silver spotted skipper photographed in Tessa Wasserman's garden. photo by Diana Linsley
"I got a silver certificate the first time they came out to see what I did after their advice under the program," said Wasserman. "This summer I got a gold and was on a nature plant society tour. I doubt I will get to platinum, which is okay, because what this is really all about is bringing conservation home."

Fellow gardener Debbie Fishwick agreed with Wasserman and said that she has gotten "every penny" out of her small investment in Audubon's Bring Conservation Home program.

"I can only do my little part to help the environment, but I do get some satisfaction out of helping all the poor pollinators," said Fishwick. "We all need to help these Monarchs that are disappearing. I'm happy to plant butterfly milkweed for them, and besides, I enjoy the pretty flowers."

(A podcast of Don Corrigan's talk with Mitch Leachman is available at: www.facebook.com/corrigannews or at the web blog: into-nature.com)

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