How to Attract Pollinator to Your Yard in 3 Steps

A golden monarch butterfly stopping on a bush, a hummingbird sucking from a flower…a view that everyone would love to see.  The good news is, we can turn a yard into a pollinator friendly garden and enjoy such a view often.   Pollinators play a vital role for the eco-system, and for us humans, yet their populations have experienced dramatic decline in the last 20 years.  We can do something now to help slow or stop the decline.  Here, by looking at the garden as an example, we can show that in 3 steps, a space without any pollinator can become one full of it within just 2 years.

Step 1: shrink down or remove the lawn

After the historic drought in California 2 years ago, this lawn turned completely brown.  The house owner wanted to get rid of the eye sore  and have something beautiful.  They wanted a garden with  lots flowers, a garden that would bloom year round.  When they heard that such a conversion would also allow them to receive the Landscape Conversion Rebate, they decided to take on the project.

To replace a lawn makes sense, as it needs a lot of water.  A converted landscape can save water by 30-80%.   in addition, a lawn does not have the different colors and flowers that pollinators need, so it can hardly be a habitat.

Step 2: Put in plants that sport bright blossom

During the design process, plants were carefully selected to have bright blossom, and would bloom for a long time.   Luckily, many of the drought tolerant plants meeting the requirements of the rebate program can fit the bill very well.  There were a lot to choose from.  Plants like Statice, Cherry Sage, Cone Flower, Lion’s Tail were all good candidates.

The project started, very quickly a floral garden was installed.

Step 3: Wait for the blossom, and pollinators follow

The plants grew quickly.  After just a couple months, in early spring, some plants already grew to a point where they bloomed.

After just a year, the garden was in full bloom.  A dream was fulfilled:

pollinator friendly garden

Sure enough, some small visitors came.:

bees on flower

Sage 2

monarch butterfly

This humming bird really craved the flower.  It worked on every single petal:

hummingbird

hummingbird

In just 3 steps ,  a little a space without any pollinator became this magnet that attracted all types and many of them.

Another garden: same transformation

This garden also went from a lawn without pollinator to one with a lot.  The garden was designed to be a California native plants garden, so more native plants were chosen.

 

One of the plant selected was Matilijia Poppy.  This is a big California native, once a contender for the California state flower.  This is how it looks like in the field:

Planted in the garden:

M Poppy

In the first summer after planting, it grew its first flower:

M Poppy

After another year,  it grew into this full bush with its big white flowers.   M Poppy

Sure enough, bees came to visit:

M Poppy

Another California native chosen was the California Golden Poppy, also favorite for the bees:

G Poppy

At the end of summer, even though most of the poppies already faded, the bee still wanted to have what was out there:

G Poppy

Both gardens showed to us, that by replacing  lawns with landscapes of nectar plants, the pollinators would love them and come.  We could provide a habitat to them from our own yards.

A serious issue – decline of pollinators

Pollinators play a critical role for the eco system in nature, and for us humans.

When the bees flying from flowers to flowers collecting their pollens, they rub pollens from a flower onto another, pollinating the flowers, which enables fertilization and turns the flowers into seeds and fruits.   The seeds allow the next generations of the plants to grow, thus ensuring a bio system to continue and thrive.

For agriculture, bees pollinate 75% of world’s main crops.  According to USDA, bees pollinate an estimated $15 billion or more of American crops per year. It is hard to imagine a world without the bees pollinating all those crops.

Unfortunately, in the last 2 decades, the pollinators of bee, butterfly and hummingbird all experience rather significant decline, some species go as far as to the brink of extinction.  The culprit?  while the scientists are still exploring, the widespread use of pesticide, pollution, climate change, and loss of habitat all count as remarkable reasons.

Bee

According to a study by Center for Biological Diversity (author Kelsey Kopec, a pollinator researcher):

  • “Among native bee species with sufficient data to assess (1,437), more than half (749) are declining.
  • Nearly 1 in 4 (347 native bee species) is imperiled and at increasing risk of extinction.”

The rusty patched bumble bee has declined by almost 90% since 1990s that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed it as an endangered species in early 2017.  It became first wild bee in the continental United States to be listed as endangered species.

In this article “Why are bees declining“, the big reasons for the decline are described as:

“Habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation – Homelessness; General declines in wildflowers within the landscape – Hunger, Pests and disease – Sickness, Agrochemicals – Poisoning, Climate change – Changing environment”

Humming Bird

According to Ellen Paul, “the annual breeding bird survey shows that between 1966 and 2013, the rufous population on the Pacific Coast dropped an average of 2.67 per cent per year. ”  Pesticide was thought to be one possible factor for the decline, with a research going on right now to find out;  Climate change, and loss of habitat that comes with it, can be another big one.  According to Climate Central:

“the warming temperatures make it harder for these birds to eat, rest, and even reproduce… Rather than search for food in the increasingly hotter summers, some hummingbirds simply seek shade to remain cool. They are also less social during the hotter weather, suggesting they are not as likely to mate.

Suitable habitats for hummingbirds are also starting to shrink as the climate changes. Spring blooms are occurring earlier in the year, affecting the timing between blooming plants and hummingbirds’ return from their tropical winter retreat. This can leave the flowering blooms without their necessary pollinators, and at the same time birds have less food, which puts both plants and animals at risk.”

Monarch Butterfly

The most alarming decline comes from monarch butterfly.  According to David Mizejewski on EcoWatch, “populations of this once-common iconic black and orange butterfly have plummeted by approximately 90 percent in just the last two decades. The threats to the species are the loss of habitat in the United States–both the lack of availability of milkweed, the only host food plant for monarch caterpillars, as well as nectar plants needed by adults- through land conversion of habitat for agriculture, removal of native plants and the use of pesticides and loss of habitat in Mexico from illegal logging around the monarchs’ overwintering habitat. The new population numbers underscore the need to continue conservation measures to reverse this trend.”

One of the most effective conversion measures, that we can do,  is to build more habitats for the pollinators.  It can be in our front and back yards, or on the campus of a company or school.

Big tech putting native plants on their campuses

In the last several years, big high tech companies in the Silicon Valley  planted native plants around their campuses and transformed them into spaces friendly for pollinators.

Apple

At Apple’s iconic spaceship campus, the 3 acres space is filled by 9000 trees, California native and other drought tolerant plants.

Spaceship

 

native plants

The native plants that were planted just a year ago on the campus, are already serving the hungry bees the food they love.

native plants

bee

Google

At Google’s Mountain View headquarter, most of the planting areas are also filled with California native and drought tolerant plants.  Here the California native buckwheat is blooming in the heat of summer.

native plants

The bee is busy feeding on nectar

bee

Here is a parking lot on the campus.  A butterfly is working on the California native Cleveland Sage planted in the garden next to the parking lot.

 

butterfly

More plants, more pollinators

native plants

 

native plants

While we don’t have a huge yard like these, when we all put a couple native plants and other nectar plants in our garden, together they can make up this habitat that the pollinators badly need for their survival and thrive.  Let’s act today and build a garden friendly for pollinator.

 

 

 

 

 

Great Makeover Story: From Barren to Beauty (1)

This story is about an amazing transformation from barren to beauty.

When the owners moved into the house, the first thing they wanted to change was the front and back yards.  It was barren, utterly unattractive.  The main part of the front yard was this hard surface covered with sand.  It had been used as a parking space for years.  The backyard had the similar hard sandy surface as the path, with a big bush of catti plants in the middle.  When it was windy, the sands from the surfaces would be blown up and hit everything around: people, dogs, kids.  It could be messy.

Barren old front yard

Old Back Yard

The owner wanted beautiful landscapes for their yards; meanwhile, they also wanted something that is environmentally friendly, that would not use a lot of water.  To be “good” to the environment was important for them.  They wanted to be efficient for all natural resources, keeping the footprint on environment as small as possible.

Addressing the challenges of building a garden

When one looked at the front yard, the challenges for building a garden was obvious.  A big lot.  Hard surface. No top soil.  And, on a slope.  For plants to grow well, at the minimum, they would need water and soil.  How would these be addressed?

Capture and reuse rain Water

When one checked on the site, they would see two downspouts, one on each side of the house, come right down to the lot.   They pointed to hard surface, which would just let the rainwater runoff.   That is quite a waste.   Rainwater is an excellent resource of water, which can be used to water plants.   To capture and reuse rain water, one can use a rain barrel, or build a rain garden.  As the the front yard is on a slope where rain water would flow down naturally, a rain garden built close to the bottom of the slope could capture the rain water and reuse it well.

Downspout 1
Downspout 1
Downspout 2
Downspout 2

When it doesn’t rain, plants still need water to establish and grow.  For irrigation of a water efficient garden, drip irrigation is the way to go.  It can point to the root area for each plant precisely, so water can get to where it is needed exactly, without mass runoff.  Compared with a sprinkler system, drip can save water by 30-60%.

Select hardy and drought tolerant plants

As the soil under the surface is very hard from years of being used as a parking lot, it was not the best soil for many plants.  Ideally, the soil could be improved with materials such as compost and organic matters over a longer period of time; however, the option was not  available due to the time limit of the project.  This made the selection of plants especially important.

Many native  and other plants are adapted to California’s soil system and can thrive in all kinds of soils.  They can be hardy for tough environments, and need little water once established.  They also have other benefits.  A lot of them produce blossom that are good food for pollinators like bees, butterflies and birds, supporting a vibrant Eco system.

California Native Plant

Repurpose of the existing plants

For the design of the back yard, it was decided that the bush of cactus plants would go; the space would be emptied for other uses.  The catti plants thrived well in the micro system around the house, making them a a good bet for the soil conditions in the front yard.  Instead of discarding them, the catti would be reused for front yard.

Catti Bush

Building the garden

After the design of the garden was finished, the project entered installment.

Installing a rain garden

There are several parts to this.  First, proper discharge of rain water from the down spout.  Instead of letting the rainwater just go down to the ground and run off, the water would be drained into the garden.  Ditches were dug, pipes were connected.   Two  channels were also dug from the end of the pipes to the rain garden.  When it rains, rain water would be discharged out of the pipes, into the channel, then flow into the rain garden.

Pipe 1

Pipe 2

Stream 1

Stream 2

Then an area was dug for the rain garden.   The shape of the rain garden usually is round or curvy, to reduce the force of runoff and effect of erosion.

After that, plants were put into the rain garden.  There are some special requirements for such plants.  Specifically, they should be able to stand both wet and dry conditions well.  Better yet, they can add color and texture to the garden, making the garden look even more attractive.

Lastly, the whole area of the channels and rain garden were filled with pebble stones.  Once the stones were added, two “streams” and a “pond” came into life.  When it rains, all the roof’s rain water would flow into the stream,  out to the pond, seep through the pebbles, water the plants, then percolate deep down and recharge ground water, an act badly needed for our environment.

Rain Garden 1

Rain Garden 2

In big cities where surfaces like concrete is prevalent, only 5% of rain water can infiltrate deep into the soil, depriving groundwater the opportunity of being recharged.  Areas like rain garden can change that and let as much as 25% of rain water go deep under.  Recharging groundwater  is very important for keeping a healthy water system and providing backup when drought hits.

Impervious Cover

A lovely catti Area

Catti plants are favorites for many people!  They come in all kinds of shapes, colors and forms, some of them sporting splendid and beautiful flowers.  They are very drought tolerant, needing only very little water once they are established.  Catti plants can fill out a full garden, or can be integrated as part of a bigger garden, just like what was being done here.  Here they fill out the long stripe along the driveway, offering something wonderful to see and enjoy when one comes home.

Catti Plant 1

Catti Plant 2

A magnet for bees  and birds

Plants with splendid blossom provide the food that bees, birds and other pollinators depend on.  As bees’ population has been on a decline,  it is even more important that we provide places where these small creatures can feed on and take a good break.  Compared with a lawn which does not provide any food or shelter, gardens with drought tolerant and native plants can become a paradise for bees and birds.

Here, this plant was planted in a row along the pathway.  When it blooms, it has this bright beautiful blossom that is hard to miss.  It is not just us who love them,  bees and birds crave them too!

Plant for Bee

Bee

Parking Strip not to be ignored

Compared with the main garden, quite often, parking strips are “after thoughts” since they are a bit small.  However, in quite some cases they still have sizable spaces, and are an important part of the front space.  They can also be filled with the drought tolerant plants and native plants, adding to the curb appeal, and food for bees and birds.

Parking Strip 1

Adding Mulch

After the garden is finished, an important step is to cover the whole surface with mulch.  There are several benefits of this.  First, they can significantly slow down water evaporation, keep soil moist longer so reduce water required for the plants.  They can also suppress the growth of weeds, further reducing water usage.  Third, organic mulch like this made from bark can disintegrate into the soil over time, adding to the organic matters in the soil, improving soil quality and water retention capability.  Aesthetically, they provide this backdrop for all the foliage and blossom, making the space look even more appealing.

A brand new garden

Tieing all the elements together…the new garden was born!  The space has dramatically changed.  Here was how it was like:

Old Yard

And the new garden:

A rain garden doing well in rain

Shortly after the garden was finished, several storms hit the area.  How did the garden do in the rain?

All came out to be good!  Water flew into the stream and pond as designed; plants enjoyed the rain and grew well.

Off the garden, water that came down from impervious surfaces like driveway pooled into runoff, which would flow out to a sewer and empty into the streams and rivers.  There were lots of pollutants in the runoff which would hurt the animals living in the waters, and pollute the broader water system.  That is why we should limit the areas with impervious cover and try to build more rain gardens, like the one shown here.

With a design of native and drought tolerant plants, the front space of this residence has been completely transformed.  Not only has it gone from utterly unattractive to beautiful, but also become  a wonderful place for bees, birds and butterflies.   As the plants are drought tolerant, only a little water will be needed after the plants are established.  Low water use, beautiful, great for the bees – water efficient gardens can add so much charm for your space!

Bees love them, they are planted heavily around the Apple campus

Last year, 5 years after Apple’s legendary co-founder Steve Jobs unveiled the “spaceship” design for the new Apple campus, the project finally finished and the new campus started its use.  While the huge spaceship is undoubtedly the most striking element of the campus, there is another equally important yet less known feature.

It is this massive amount of plants planted on the campus, which fills out the 3 acre space – 9000 trees, and countless California native and other drought tolerant plants.

It is not something that just happened that way – it is by design.  When Steve Jobs was planning the campus, from the very beginning he was very adamant that it should just be like what Silicon Valley was  before the digital transformation.  As Steven Levy of Backchannel said,  Jobs “wanted to create a microcosm of Silicon Valley, a landscape reenactment of the days when the cradle of digital disruption had more fruit trees than engineers. In one sense, the building would be an ecological preservation project; in another sense, it’d be a roman a clef written in soil, bark, and blossom.”  Today the campus fulfills that vision.  Inside and outside, the space is fully filled with trees and shrubs, many of them California natives.

A plant that grow in abundance on the campus is California Lilac.  On an early morning in March, a stroll along the campus could find that some of the lilacs grew to be big bushes already in less than one year’s time.   They are blooming, with massive bright blue blossom.

Native plants around Apple campus

Native plants around Apple campus 2

Close up, you will see some small creatures busy at work.

A bee on a lilac

A bee on a lilac 2

Bees at work

The bees were busy collecting pollens, which is their food.  Look at the two small yellow balls – they sure have collected quite a bit of pollen!

When the bees flying from flowers to flowers collecting their pollens, they rub pollens from a flower onto another, pollinating the flowers, which enables fertilization and turns the flowers into fruits. As most flowers need pollination to grow into fruits, without these small creatures, we can’t enjoy a lot of the fruits we are so accustomed to having every day.

Look around us – from the apple we ate in the morning, to the jeans we wear (cotton), and blueberries we snacked on in the afternoon, they all have bees to thank for.  Bees pollinate 75% of world’s main crops.  According to USDA, bees pollinate an estimated $15 billion or more of American crops per year. It is hard to imagine a world without the bees pollinating all those crops!

A bee on a lilac 3

Bees on a decline

Unfortunately, in the last several decades, bees have been on a decline. According to a study by Center for Biological Diversity (author Kelsey Kopec, a pollinator researcher):

  • “Among native bee species with sufficient data to assess (1,437), more than half (749) are declining.
  • Nearly 1 in 4 (347 native bee species) is imperiled and at increasing risk of extinction.”

For one of the wild bees, the rusty patched bumble bee, its population has declined by so much (almost 90%) since 1990s that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed it as an endangered species in early 2017.  The bee became first wild bee in the continental United States to be listed as endangered species.

Why such decline?  In the same study, the author indicated that “A primary driver of these declines is agricultural intensification, which includes habitat destruction and pesticide use. Other major threats are climate change and urbanization.”

Loss of habitat is one of the top reasons for loss of bees, which makes total sense.  The bees have been feeding on the plants in their native land for hundreds of thousands of years; when the habitats are lost to farming or industrialization, the plants are gone, so are the bees.

Native plants for bees

Bees need flowers’ nectar and pollen for their food; they especially like those from native plants, which is something that they have been feeding on for hundreds of thousands of years.  The California Lilac seen here at the Apple campus, is a big California native, and a favorite for bees with its dense blue blossom.  Lilac can bloom from late spring to summer, providing a good 4-5 months of food to the bees.

Another big native plant, the state flower, California Golden Poppy, also attract bees when they bloom.

Golden poppy on a field

Golden Poppy

Seaside Daisy, and Yarrow, heavily planted around the Apple campus, are two other natives that bees love.

Seaside Daisy

Apple Park 3

Plant more natives, restore the habitat

As bees play such a critical role for the ecosystem we live in, and for our food and agriculture business, we should do everything we can to provide them a good environment, putting them back onto a path for healthy growth. One critical step to achieve this is plant more native and other pollinator friendly plants.

Apple has done this by planting massive amounts of native plants on its campus; Many city parks and nature reserves also use their vast spaces for the purpose.  Here you can see California Lilac in a city park and a nature reserve in the San Francisco Bay area.  These are all great examples, but we can do more.

Lilac in a park
California Lilac in a city park
California Lilac in a nature reserve. See the bees on the blue blossom

In the last several decades, lawns have become the dominate landscapes for most single family residences in the country. People now realize, lawns not only consume a lot of water – over half of the water is used for outdoor watering in California, but also contribute to the loss of habitats for bees and other pollinators.  The stretch after stretch of green provides hardly any food or shelter for the bees.

By replacing lawns with native and other bee friendly plants, we can gradually put back the habitats that were lost, piece by piece.  We can help restore the habitats, starting from our own house.

The owner of this place wanted to replace their back yard with something much more attractive.  They decided to put in drought tolerant landscapes, and applied for Santa Clara Water District’s Landscape Conversion Rebate Program.  During the project, when they saw a lilac, they wanted it for their garden right away.  The project was finished quickly and they received the rebate promptly.  Now, they can enjoy the lovely garden, and the striking beauty the lilac provides.  Bees surely will love the new lilac too!

This garden is filled with California natives.  It was installed in fall, by next spring the bloom was already full on, with bees busy feasting on the Golden Poppy, Buckwheat and Matilijia Poppy. On a day in summer, while the poppy was already near its end of the bloom, a bee could still be seen working on it.

A garden with native plants

By putting in a garden with lots of California natives and other drought tolerant plants, not only can you save a lot of water, but provide a habitat for the bees and other pollinators, which in turn can help build a more sustainable environment.   Spring is a great time for planting.  Start today, and see native plants’ bloom and bees tomorrow!

A Purple Dream – From Start to Bloom

When this garden was transformed from a weedy turf to a water efficient garden, not only would it save water, but a seed of a purple dream was also planted.  When the garden was being planned, the idea was to have this dream place with the purple splendor.  Lavenders lined two complete sides of the garden, as well as the parking strip.  When the garden was finished, everyone was eager to find out: when will the purple walk come into life?

weedy turf

a garden with lavender

a walk with lavenders on both sides

Growth in Spring

Spring 2017 was a season blessed with heavy rains.  After the garden was done in early spring, in two months of time, the plants had grown a lot.

lavenders grew up

While the lavenders had not bloomed, rockroses put on their pretty pink flowers, giving the garden that “pop”, just in time when the pink and red blossom from camillas receded.

Rockroses are drought tolerant, require only little water once established. Planted in early spring, the blossom broke out after just 2 months.  Tough yet pretty, this is a great choice for a water efficient garden.

rockrose

 

These other plants also grew a lot and bloomed.

Yellow Bloom

Purple Blossom in Summer

With waves of heat the summer arrived.  How are the lavenders?  The purple that everyone have been waiting is here!

purple blossom

Most lavenders had their first bloom, just couple months after they were planted.  Not a full blown purple walk yet, but very clearly heading there.

purple walk

Walking on the sidewalk, you can smell that strong aroma of lavender’s. They remind you of those wildflower meadows out in the country under the blue sky. Meanwhile, you can see dozens of bees flying in the bushes, making the buzz sound everywhere they go.

Great for Bees

Like many other native and drought tolerant plants, lavender is a bee’s magnet. Bees love to feed on them, better yet, they bloom for a long time, usually from summer to early fall, which means they can provide food to the bees for a rather long period.  As bees are on on a decline, planting more bee friendly plants like lavender has become more important.

bees on lavender

Lavenders are drought tolerant.  As a matter of fact, they don’t like to stay in wet soils.  Over-watering is one of the most common reasons that lavenders die.  Using drip irrigation, just provide enough water when first planted, then water it occasionally once established – they can grow fast and well.

drip irrigation

A Purple Dream With Less Water

When the garden was built, it was designed to be water efficient: drought tolerant plants, drip irrigation, automatic controller with rain sensor.  The garden complied with all the requirements of Santa Clara Water District’s Landscape Conversion Rebate program and received the rebate upon finish.

In just several months, this garden grew from a collection of small plants into one filled with purple splendor and color.  It adds this nice view to the house, realize the “purple dream”, filled the air with the pleasant lavender aroma.  Better yet, all these were achieved with much less water than what were required for the lawn before.  Although California is no longer in a drought,  one big lessen we learned was that water is valuable, and we must cherish and conserve it to the best we can.

As Gov. Jerry Brown said, “Water conservation must remain our way of life.”  As ourdoor watering typically accounts for half or more of a household’s water use in California, building a water efficient garden can save us a significant amount of water and go a long way towards that goal.