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Bees, Please: Xeriscaped Pollinator Garden in the Great Plains

By Victoria Chraïbi, Fulbright Student 2009-2010,  from Hanover College to McGill University

The sun is shining, the buds are blooming, the insects are emerging. It’s the season for gardening!

Gardens are hot spots of beauty and, with increasing necessity, biodiversity. Pollinators, especially bees, are declining in North America. Pollinator gardens are popping up in urban areas to provide much-needed sanctuaries. The plant selection for original pollinator gardens were designed for areas with substantial water resources, and did not translate well to drought-stressed regions.

In Lincoln, Nebraska, I collaborated with Dr. Doug Golick of the Department of Entomology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to design a xeriscaped pollinator garden for a new outdoor classroom. The outdoor classroom serves as a teaching resource for the university and the public school district, as well as a public garden along a popular jogging path. In the ELP garden, we tackled the task of finding the best plants that are both water-wise and attractive to pollinators. This is the first garden we know of that solely focuses on these aspects in the Great Plains.

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Our research cross-checked characteristics to identify 64 perennial plant species that would fare well in Nebraska’s plant hardiness zone (5) and only require about 1 inch of water per week. With our location on the prairie, we incorporated as many native plants as possible in a context for visitors to rethink their aesthetics as garden residents rather than roadside weeds. This includes milkweed varieties to support monarch butterflies, and plants like Platte thistle which have a threatened conservation status.

We installed the garden in the summer of 2015, and now that the plants are established, I would like to take you on a tour! Let’s begin with an overview.

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The outdoor classroom includes three gardens: a larval habitat, a restored prairie, and the ELP xeriscaped garden. These installations serve two main purposes: 1) they provide different insect habitats for students to study, and 2) they give the casual passerby ideas of how to incorporate different gardening techniques and styles into their own home. The plot includes benches and tables, a leafcutter bee hotel, and the “honeycomb,” a walk-through native bee habitat and lab space.

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The ELP garden resides on a 10 m x 16 m plot, and provides one entrance to a gravel path that will eventually wind its way through the entire garden.

As I mentioned above, we focused on several native prairie plants. Our garden introduces many smaller-size varieties of common flowers like coneflower that are more aesthetic for home gardens.

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We did introduce a few foreign but well-known pollinator plants:

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We also provided a couple plants that are not necessarily great pollen producers but that are reliable home-making resources for native leaf-cutter bees.

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We are working on providing a full list of plants with their attributes and pictures on our website: pollinatorplot.unl.edu.

The plants are watered by a drip line irrigation system using direct drip lines and small sprinklers. They receive 1-3 of water per week, and are only watered on weeks when it doesn’t rain.

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The beds are filled in with a few inches’ worth of mulch. Mulch helps trap moisture, insulate the plants during winter, and suppress weeds. It also covers up the irrigation lines. Black-colored mulch provides some design elements to the landscape.

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We added some fun decor using recycled materials. A waterless “water feature” provides a small stream of tumbled glass mulch made from recycled glass.

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Two cinderblock benches provide a place to rest and watch the bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Entomology students designed mosaics for the benches using recycled glass tiles.

Five educational signs line the path so that any visitor to the garden may enjoy and learn the purpose of the garden.

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At the grand opening of the garden last fall, we invited the Entomology Department, university officials, and public school affiliates to explore the new community resource.

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The plants in the garden are thriving, and so are the pollinators. Here is a small example of our residents:img015

The Entomology Department is now using the garden for introductory entomology courses. They are working with the public school district to create course curricula at different grade levels and plan field trips to the garden to conduct experiments with entomologists. ELP enabled us to purchase some excellent research equipment that will be used as teaching tools in the garden for years to come. An evapotranspiration gauge measures the amount of water lost from the ground, so students can compare how a xeriscaped garden, restored prairie, and open lawn lose water. A GoPro camera records timelapse video of plants to track when they produce food and which insect species favor them. In this way, we hope to assess which plants really are the best at being water wise and pollinator friendly.

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Where do we head from here? As a first-of-its-kind garden in Nebraska, the ELP garden has received state funding for maintenance. UNL also has plans to collaborate with the Riemann Gardens in Ames, Iowa to redesign a portion of their garden along the same concept.

I wish to thank the Fulbright-RBC Eco-Leadership Program for funding this amazing community resource. I also wish to thank Dr. Doug Golick of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for collaborating to include the ELP garden in his own ambitious project of an entomology outdoor classroom. Entomology students, especially Kendra, were incredibly helpful in installing and nurturing the garden. The plants in the ELP garden were sourced from our local partners Finke Nursery and Stock Seed Farms. Please like the page “Journal of an Eco-Leader” on Facebook to follow updates on all of my ELP projects.

 

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