Despite the cool, overcast weather, the Penn State Extension Office's new pollinator garden was buzzing with activity during a recent open house.
Local Master Gardeners began the garden in May of this year, ripping out grass at the extension office's site near Mauch Chunk Lake Park and planting flowering and native plants.
Just a few short months later, the garden is thriving. While many of the plants are dying back for the fall, a wide variety of flowering bushes and flowers remain demonstrating the first key for a true pollinator-friendly garden, that it must include plants that bloom from spring through fall.
"On a warmer day, this thing is really buzzing," said John Kupec, a Master Gardener who worked extensively on the garden. He pointed out the finches waiting impatiently on nearby branches, hoping for a chance to eat sunflower seeds.
"Our hope is, with the bees struggling, that people will plant their own gardens and create mini-oasis's for the bees," said Eileen East, a Master Gardener also at the open house.
She noted that the garden promotes a self-sustaining cycle of life for many types of creatures. Blooms help to feed bees, which in turn pollinate many of the foods that humans eat. There are butterfly- and caterpillar-friendly plants, which also help to feed the birds in spring.
"Without pollinators, there would be no food crop," she said.
She added that the types of greenery most homeowners prefer, including lawns and low-maintenance shrubs, offer little to no food or protection for pollinators or birds.
The pollinator garden is certified by Penn State Master Gardeners, and is one of the first in our area to be certified. To become certified, a site must provide food and host plants for pollinators that bloom from early spring to late fall, including native trees and flowers; provide water sources such as a pond, shallow pool, or birdbath; include shelter areas such as rock piles, bee houses or dying plants; and be free of invasive plants while protecting existing natural habitat.
Private property owners are also eligible to have their gardens certified as a pollinator-friendly habitat.
The open house also showcased a "bug tub," a small plastic tub with drainage holes that served as an example for local residents without the space for a full garden.
The master gardeners noted that every pollinator-friendly plant counts, and it isn't necessary to have a full garden to make a difference.
To create a successful growing environment, whether it be a traditional garden or bug tub, first find a sunny spot. The Master Gardeners encouraged potential gardeners to consider a soil test and add any nutrients that are needed. Their pollinator garden uses primarily compost, fish emulsions and kelp, and wood chips for mulch.
Use lots of colorful blooms, starting with flowers such as bleeding hearts, sweet alyssum and columbine that bloom in May. Add a few flowers that bloom throughout the summer, such as clematis, lemon balm, sunflowers and milkweed, and your own favorite blooms. Finally, cap off the pollinating season with flowers that bloom through fall, like black-eyed Susan, cone flowers, bee balm, butterfly weed and hyssop.
Herbs such as oregano, sage and rosemary are also ideal for pollinators and cooks alike.
When it comes time to clean up the garden, proceed with care. While many homeowners prefer to rip out dying annual plants and generally clean up the garden in fall, dying plants and branches provide important places for insects to overwinter. Wait until spring to do a more thorough cleaning.
"It's a work in progress," said Kupec, who noted that he wanted to add spring-flowering bulbs this fall. "Any flowers that you can plant will help the bees. Come observe our garden, and take home ideas."
The Penn State Extension Office is located at 529 Lentz Trail in Jim Thorpe. The garden is open to the public.