A garden for pollinators

Posted on: July 13, 2017 | Written By: Doug Oster | Comments

A host of tiny orange bugs ramble through the pink globular flowers of milkweed plants in front of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. They are aptly named milkweed bugs and are one of the species Frank Pizzi is glad to see populating the pollinator garden that welcomes visitors.

A native bee visits a coneflower at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium. This is in a garden outside the education center.

A native bee visits a coneflower at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. This is in a garden outside the education center.

 

 

Frank Pizzi, curator of horticulture and grounds at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium looks over the plants in the pollinator garden near the entrance of the zoo.

Frank Pizzi, curator of horticulture and grounds at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium looks over the plants in the pollinator garden near the entrance of the zoo.

The curator of horticulture and grounds walks the perimeter of the garden examining the plants, which are covered with a host of good bugs. The garden was created about a decade ago with an eye on educating visitors about the importance of helping pollinators.
“It’s a perfect environment because it’s wide open, full sun, we were just taking out lawn,” Pizzi says. “That space has actually been enlarged three times.”
The general public interest in pollinators is one thing that drove the expansion. The garden has an informative sign at the entryway and a place to get brochures with detailed information about native pollinators and more.
“People are thrilled just to see how much activity there is down there, particularly by insects that they never really saw as pollinators,” he says.
Many believe bees are the only insect doing that job, Pizzi says, but it’s evident with one look around the garden, there are countless others moving the pollen and enjoying the nectar.

Two milkweed bugs mate on a milkweed plant in the pollinator garden at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium.

Two milkweed bugs mate on a milkweed plant in the pollinator garden at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

There are many native plants in the garden and also some hybrids too. As long as the plant gives the insects what they need, it’s fair game to be planted.
“The one that gets the most attention from the bugs is mountain mint,” he says. “It is just loaded with pollinating insect, it’s very easy to grow and tough as shoe leather.”
The deer don’t eat it either. There are lots of plants from the daisy family in the garden, huge perennial sunflowers, bee balm, Joe Pye weed, St. John’s wort, coneflowers, milkweed and many more. This garden isn’t just beautiful and beneficial to the insects, but easy for the staff to take care of too. These tough varieties are spaced so that they will crowd out any unwanted plants.
“It has been as close as you can come to managing a living system at low maintenance,” Pizzi says. “The gardener will tell you, he goes down there twice a year. After the first year, there was no room for weeds.”
Occasionally something pops up or tries to creep in at the front edge of the beds, but is taken care of quickly. The garden is not only functional, it’s also so beautiful that it’s become a destination for wedding photos.
An accidental shipment of lavender ended up being a great addition to plantings around the zoo, because it’s great for pollinators. Lavender can be tricky to grow in our climate; it’s critical that the soil is well drained, Pizzi says, and that the plant gets full sun. The plants around the zoo are thriving and come back year after year.
The pollinator garden can be easily duplicated in a smaller scale in a home garden too, he says. “The plants are easy to find, to get established, to manage and maintain.”

A butterfly visits a lavender plant in a garden bed at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium.

A butterfly visits a lavender plant in a garden bed at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

More and more gardeners are discovering the importance of planting for pollinators and can learn a lot from visiting the garden at the zoo.
“Our food supplies cannot continue to prosper without pollinators,” Pizzi says. “Turning any part of your yard into a mixed population of perennial blooming things that produce pollen and nectar is critically important to preserving all of those populations, whether it’s honeybees or natives.”
Peggy Anne Montgomery is brand manager for American Beauties Native Plants (abnativeplants.com). She’s been involved in horticulture for most of her 54 years and is passionate about getting natives into the hands of gardeners.
“I love all plants, but I truly believe we need to look at native plants in our landscape to try and get some balance back in our environment,” she says.
There’s a misconception that natives are weeds, she says. It doesn’t help when one of the most useful and pretty is named butterfly weed.
Deciding what a native plant is can be problematic, because everyone has a different definition.
“We include the straight species and naturally occurring cultivars,” Montgomery says.
If the plant evolves on its own, American Beauties considers it a native. When it comes to pollinators, natives provide an important role for the insects.
“Natives can be host plants,” she says. “They can provide the place where insects can raise their young and we can have a continued supply of insects.”
Looking out the back window, she surveys her own garden in Wilmington, Del., to see what’s blooming. The variety of butterfly “flower” (Asclepias tuberosa) she loves is ‘Hello Yellow.’ “It’s a more yellow, golden flower with a very round habit. Sometimes I can sneak a second bloom out of it.”

This butterfly "flower" often called butterfly weed is a great pollinator plant. Asclepias tuberosa 'Hello Yellow' from American Beauties Native Plants acts as a host plant for many pollinators and provides nectar.

This butterfly “flower” often called butterfly weed is a great pollinator plant. Asclepias tuberosa ‘Hello Yellow’ from American Beauties Native Plants acts as a host plant for many pollinators and provides nectar.

She will trim some (but not all) of the fading blooms off to encourage more flowers. Anything from the asclepias genus will be a host plant for monarchs and other pollinators. Phlox ‘Jeana’ (Phlox paniculata) is another winner in her Wilmington, Delaware garden.
“I’ve been growing it here for five years and I’ve never had powdery mildew on it,” she says. “The flowers are much smaller but there are hundreds of them and it flowers for an extended period.”
It’s such a pollinator magnet that it’s a running joke in the household because every time anyone looks out at the garden there’s a butterfly or other insect on the blooms.
“I like all echinacea (coneflower),” she says. “My favorite is ‘pallida’ it’s just a beautiful, slim, graceful flower with retracted petals. It’s very simple but very beautiful. ‘Magnas’ has super strong stems, stays perfectly upright and has a tough flower.”
Montgomery leaves most the seed heads intact, because the goldfinches feast on them during the winter.
She digs deeper for some “crazy’ additions to the garden — “Eryngiums (eryngium yuccifolium) like ‘Rattlesnake Master’ is a really cool looking plant, they are awesome and attract pollinators. Rudbeckia maxima is a black-eyed Susan with 5- foot-tall stems.”
One reason she grows these plant in her own garden is to see how they do in the real world, but also gets the same thing all gardeners do out of their landscape.
“I get a sense of peace. I really enjoy weeding, it’s a sort of an act of meditation,” Montgomery says. “I like being close to nature; it’s just beauty and wonder. We walk around in the garden at night; it’s a place where I remember to be grateful.”
Doug Oster is the 535mediarack home and garden editor. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or doster@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @dougoster1. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodygardens.com.

Details: pittsburghzoo.org
American Beauties Native Plants are carried locally by many garden centers and nurseries. abnativeplants.com

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Doug Oster is manager and editor of Everybody Gardens with a passion for gardening and a love of sharing is experiences with other gardeners. You will also find Doug’s gardening contributions in the Tribune-Review each week. He’s an Emmy Award winning producer, television host and writer. Oster is co-host of The Organic Gardeners Radio show every Sunday morning at 7 a.m. on KDKA radio in Pittsburgh. Oster’s Outstanding Documentary Emmy was awarded for Gardens of Pennsylvania, a one hour special he conceived and produced for the PBS affiliate WQED. Doug appears every Thursday morning on KDKA-TV’s Pittsburgh Today live at 9 a.m. “Gardening is fun, he says, enjoy every day spent outside tending vegetables, flowers, shrubs and trees.”