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Jane Sorenson: creating pollinator habitat

Jane Sorensen is a multifaceted educator and farm and nursery owner with a passion for pollinator habitat. At the 2020 Vermont Beekeepers Association winter meeting, she was awarded the title, Friend of the Bees. Jane provides educational opportunities for the public and at UVM, where she is a professor.

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How would you describe the work you do?
My main job is really co-owner of River Berry Farm, an organic small-fruit and vegetable farm where we also sell bedding plants. Though I love my work, my passion is pollinator habitat. Over the last ten years or so I have found a way to mesh my farming livelihood, landscape architecture background and passion for pollinators as I give talks in the region and teach a course at UVM on Landscape Design for Pollinators and grow and sell plants for pollinators on our farm and on an online nursery, Northeast Pollinator Plants. Through this work I have found there is real lack of locally collected wild seeds, so my latest effort is to encourage and organize wild seed collecting in the New England and New York states region through a website, Northeast Wild Seed Collectors.
Have you always had a passion for pollinators?  If not, when and how did you become interested in designing and creating pollinator habitat?
In 2009, UVM asked if I would teach a few landscape design courses while they search for a permanent professor.  As I had retired from landscape architecture some twelve years earlier, I decided to get up to date by attending some sustainable landscape design and this is where my interest in pollinator habitat was piqued.  One in particular was the Pollinator Short Course being given by the Xerces Society, where I had the thought this could be a great design course for UVM, and it all grew from there.  In 2016 I was honored to serve on the Vermont Pollinator Protection Committee that developed recommendations to the Vermont Legislature and Best Management Practices for homeowners and various industries for protecting and enhancing pollinator habitat.
Why is creating and maintaining pollinator habitat important?
As we continue to domesticate the landscape, it is up to us to create habitat in our landscapes.  Some eighty percent of global flowering plants rely on pollinators to make their next generation.  Reduction in pollinator populations and diversity directly impacts global plant diversity and all life dependent upon these plants. It is hard to overstate the importance of pollinators.  And, of course, there is also our human food production, with estimates that some thirty-five percent is dependent upon pollinators.
What can people with limited money and space do to support pollinators?
Be an advocate for pollinators in your community by sharing information with decision makers and volunteer to plant pollinator gardens on public lands, seek donations for plants from those who can afford to do so. 
If you have some land for which you are responsible for maintaining, consider where you really do not need lawn and simply stop mowing.  It is very likely there are latent wildflower seeds still viable in the soil that will germinate.  Initially, there will likely be lots of grasses. After three years or so, survey the rewild area weekly to see, and take note of, what is in bloom. In the fall, review your weekly notes and look for gaps in the flowering.  The goal would be at least different species blooming at time of various colors.  As resources allow, start adding wildflowers that fill those bloom gap times.  When selecting plants for pollinators, it is wise to choose native plants, generally not cultivars, due to a long co-evolutionary history between the plants and the pollinators.  Just like us, pollinators prefer food they are used to, and in many cases, will not be attracted to, cannot access, or simply cannot digest plants that are exotic to them. 
Grow your own seeds for pollinator plants and plant a pollinator garden.  (See the end of this for suggestions of plant collections.)  You can set up an inexpensive “grow light” with a little lumber and a shop fluorescent light fixture. Be aware that many native wildflowers need several months of cold-moist stratification, i.e. mix the seeds with some moist potting mix in a plastic freezer bag, and store in the refrigerator for however many days recommended on the seed packet.  So, best to purchase your seeds in the fall so you have time for this process. 
Ideally your pollinator garden is not planted in amended soil, as wildflowers do not need soil rich in nutrients like we commonly add through compost and fertilizers to our annual gardens.  If that is your only option, do not fret it. Your plants will stretch for a few years but will eventually settle into their more normal growth patterns.

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Why is plant diversity important for pollinators?
There are over 4000 species of native bees, our most important pollinators, in North American and some 275 native bee species in our little state of Vermont.  Unlike honeybees, ninety percent of our native bee species are solitary, meaning the adult female works alone to provision and tend her nest.  Meanwhile, the prolific bumblebee species all nest socially, with several generations developing and emerging to feed over the season. Each species has a different phenology, or cyclical timing of breeding, hatching and emerging to feed, that meshes with the timing of native plant species flowering, so it is important to offer a diversity of forage options to accommodate the diversity of pollinators. 

Most bees are generalists, able to collect pollen and nectar from a variety of native plants, though each bee species will have limitations and preferences due to their body size and tongue length.  Some bees and other pollinators are specialist and require specific plant species on which to forage, or in the case of butterflies and moths, on which to lay their eggs where their larvae will exclusively feed.  
As a minimum, Xerces Society recommends providing at least three native plants species flowering at a time, say, three early, three mid, and three late, and add at least one native bunch grass.  Through one research effort, Xerces found that after adding twenty well-selected native plants, there was a leveling out in the diversity of pollinators attracted.
Another factor to consider is that native bees prefer to forage on one plant species at a time, one reason they are such effective pollinators.  Therefore, Xerces recommends planting at least six, ideally eight, plants of each species to allow for efficient foraging.
Taken this all together, here is a bit of a guideline for an ideal pollinator garden:
•   Provide 10–20 nectar- and pollen-rich plants offering a variety of flower shapes and colors generally in open sunny areas.
•   Assure constant and overlapping sequence of flowering times.
•   Plant large swaths, at least 6 of each plant species for efficient feeding.
•   Utilize mostly native plants, mostly perennials.  If you can only find cultivars, select ones with flowers most like the true native species.

So, an ideal pollinator garden would include at least 10 wildflower species x 6 plants of each species = 60 plants, allowing 4 s.f. per plant would require 240 s.f..  If you do not have that much space, do not fret it and choose diversity of plant species over quantity of each species.

What are some resources you suggest for people trying to learn about planting for pollinators?
Native Plants:  If your local garden center of nursery does not offer native plants, let them know you are interested.  Otherwise, come on over to River Berry Farm in Fairfax, VT or if that is too far from home, check out Northeast Pollinator Plants, website links to both are in the response to the first question.
Native Plant Selection:  Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center partnered with Xerces Society to establish an excellent interactive database of plants that or special value to native bees and bumblebees. Click on the tab “Native Plants”, select “Plant Lists”, scroll down and select any of the options with “Plants for Pollinators”, then can filter for your state, site conditions and plant qualities to arrive at an amazing list.  Repeat for each of the options under the “Plants for Pollinators” title.
Learn More from Books:

  • Heather Holm, Pollinators of Native Plants, 2014, Pollination Press LL.
  • Douglas Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home, 2009, Timber Press.
  • Eric Mader, et al, Attracting Native Pollinators, 2011, Storey Press.
  • Stephen Buchmann and Gary Paul Nabhan, The Forgotten Pollinators, 1996, Island Press. 
  • Donald Leopold, Native Plants of the Northeast, 2005, Timber Press.
  • William Cullina, Wildflowers:  A Guide to Growing and Propagating Native Flowers of North America, 2000, The New England Wildflower Society.  
Learn More from Websites:
What are your top three favorite plants for pollinators?
Ah, sorry, there is no way I can be limited to three nor will the pollinators.  Here are some of my favorite “collections” for different site conditions:
Pollinator Garden Collection for Sun to Part Sun, Dry to Moist
  • Early Flowering:  Penstemon digitalis (Beardtongue), Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower), Baptisia australis (Blue Wild Indigo).
  • Mid-Season FloweringAgastache foeniculum (Anise Hyssop), Monarda fistulosa (Wild Bergamot), Eupatorium perfoliatum (Boneset), Liatris spicata (Blazing Star). 
  • Late Flowering: Vernonia noveborancensis (New York Ironweed), Helenium autumnale (Sneezeweed), Symphiotrichum novae-angliae (New England Aster),
  • Native Grass: Schizachrium scoparium (Little Bluestem).
Pollinator/Rain Garden Collection for Sun to Part Sun, Moist to Wet
  • Early FloweringRatibida pinnata (Yellow Coneflower), Penstemon digitalis (Beardtongue).
  • Mid-Season FloweringAsclepias incarnata (Swamp Milkweed), Agastache foeniculum (Anise Hyssop), Eutrochium maculatum (Spotted Joe-Pye Weed), Eupatorium perfoliatum (Boneset), Liatris spicata (Blazing Star).  
  • Late FloweringMonarda didyma (Beebalm, Symphyotrichum puniceum (Swamp Aster), Vernonia novebonaracensis (New York Ironweed).  
  • Native Grass:  Panicum virginiatum (Switch Grass).
Naturalizing Pollinator Garden Collection for Sun to Part Sun, Dry to Moist
  • Early Flowering´╗┐Polemonium reptans (Creeping Jacob's Ladder), Tradescantia ohiensis (Ohio Spiderwort) Desmodium canadense (Showy Tick Trefoil)
  • Mid-Season FloweringPycnanthemum tenufolium (Slender Mountain Mint), Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed), Eupatorium perfoliatum (Boneset), Monarda didyma (Scarlet Beebalm).
  • Late FloweringSolidago speciosa (Showy Goldenrod), Symphyotrichum ericoides (Heath Aster), Rudbeckia laciniata (Green-Headed Coneflower).
  • Native Grass:  ´╗┐Andropogon geradii (Big Bluestem).
Naturalizing Pollinator Garden Collection for Shade to Part Shade, Dry to Moist
  • Early FloweringPrunella vulgaris (Self Heal), Aquilegia canadensis (Columbine), Amsonia tabernaemontana (Eastern Bluestar).
  • Mid-Season FloweringEurybia macrophylla (Big Leaf Aster), Aruncus dioicus (Goat's Beard), Eutrochium purpureum (Sweet Joe-Pye Weed), Eupatorium perfoliatum (Boneset).
  • Late FloweringChelone glabra (White Turtlehead, Rudbecka laciniata (Green-Headed Coneflower), Symphyotrichum cordifolium (Common Blue Wood Aster).
  • Native GrassDeschampsia cespitosa (Tufted Hair Grass)
Monarch Garden Collection
  • Early FloweringPenstemon digitalis (Beartongue), Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower).
  • Mid-Season Flowering:  Asclepias incarnata (Swamp Milkweed), Asclepias syrica (Common Milkweed), Eutrochium purpureum (Sweet Joe-Pye Weed), Monarda fistulosa (Wild Bergamot), Agastache foeniculum (Anise Hyssop).
  • Late Flowering:  Vernonia noveboracensis (New York Ironweed), Eupatorium perfoliatum (Common Boneset), Symphiotrichum novae-angliae (New England Aster), Solidago caesia (Blue Stem Goldenrod).

You can purchase these plants and others at Jane's Nursery: Northeast Pollinator Plants

Contact : [email protected]