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    A pandemic is a good time to keep protecting nature


    Maleea Acker

    Pollinator gardens on Victoria’s Lang Street help native plants and bees

     

    MY NEIGHBOUR CUT DOWN HIS HERITAGE APPLE this spring (which used to support the bees every spring and feed us every fall). At our shared fence, I tried to convince him otherwise: food security; habitat for wildlife; the tree was a perch for the Anna’s hummingbird that nests in my yard; wildness; beauty.

    “It’s ugly. I don’t want to look at it,” he responded. He replaced it with cedar hedging, one of the thirstiest plants in the region. You can spot them by looking for the brittle brown skeletons edging people’s yards each summer; they are dying in droves.

    The problems we had before COVID-19 hit us—increasing drought, falling pollinator numbers, decreased biodiversity, rampant development in natural areas—are still with us. The skies might look clearer, but I saw only two bees pollinating my pear tree this April. Empty seed displays at stores attest to the increasing numbers of people growing food this summer. But gardens are appearing and disappearing this summer thanks to COVID-19.

    Mike Large (who I last wrote about regarding Haultain Corners’ boulevard gardens) had a couple of ambitious summer projects before the pandemic hit. One was to work with the Oaklands Community Association (OCA) on a five-day kids gardening camp this August. But, along with all of OCA’s summer programs, it has been cancelled because of the virus. The camp would have seen construction of a garden on OCA lands, as well as some boulevard plots especially reserved for children’s plantings.

    Large also had plans to establish a new community boulevard garden in Victoria. Community gardens are notoriously overstretched; many have waiting lists that number in the hundreds, and one of the primary roadblocks to new community garden spaces is finding a location. Vacant land in cities would seem the obvious choice, but it’s harder to proceed with a new development if an established garden is present, so landowners are often reluctant. Many parks have open grassy areas, but these areas are often viewed as essential recreation spaces (even if they’re not often used).

    Why not convert a boulevard instead? Large is working with adjacent property owners, organizers and potential gardeners. But COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into the process. “I’m optimistic that a window of opportunity will open over the summer,” he tells me by email, but for now, this project is “on pause,” another of many community action casualties during the pandemic.

    But there is a project that’s ongoing despite the current emergency. A couple of years ago, Tamara Batory began organizing with nine of her neighbours because she wanted to do something to make her street “more sociable.” Lang Street runs between Cook and Cedar Hill just south of Finlayson in Saanich. It has remnant Garry oak meadow patches along its residential length. Batory and her neighbours read about the All Ireland Pollinator Plan (pollinators.ie), which is striving to create habitat for pollinating insects across that country. They were inspired.

    Around 70 percent of our food crops require or benefit from pollinators. Honey bee populations have seen drastic losses in the last decade, and 1 in 4 native bee species is at risk of extinction in North America. Native flowering plants depend on pollinators such as bees, birds and bats to reproduce. Their beneficial effects cascade through ecosystems.

     

    889045368_PaintedLady.thumb.jpg.dbf477dc4508fec9f77674a52590a964.jpg

    A native Painted Lady butterfly sipping nectar from a non-native Buddleia (Photo by David Broadland)

     

    Batory and her neighbours applied for and received two grants from the Victoria Foundation and the Native Plant Study Group to purchase native plant seedlings. They spent the winter of 2019 sheet mulching small patches of each of their boulevards, adjacent to the sidewalk, to prepare for planting. Sheet mulching adds layers of cardboard, leaves, compost and manure over existing grass in order to create a new bed. In summer 2019, they added a variety of native plants and this spring they’re enlarging the plots with the money left from the grants.

    A physically-distanced walk along Lang Street with Batory revealed Nootka rose, red-flowering currant, woolly sunflower, camas, blue-eyed Mary, nodding onion and many other native shrubs, flowers, and bunch grasses.

    As the city densifies, these pollinator corridors—which provide food and habitat for birds, insects and reptiles—will become more and more integral to biodiversity. “We would like to start sharing seed in the future,” Batory tells me. She’s also hoping to install signage that can communicate the WASANEC and Lekwungen names for plants.

    There’s no payment required for neighbours on Lang to join the pollinator gardens, and Batory hopes the movement will spread. She muses, “Maybe people will think of what they can do to help!”

    In this time of great uncertainty and sadness, stop before you cut anything down. Wait a moment, as the poet Kenneth Koch wrote, “to see what is already there.” Then add food plants or native species, don’t subtract.

    Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast, which just entered its second printing. She is still a PhD student. She’s also a lecturer in Geography, Canadian Studies, and Literature, at UVic and Camosun.

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