Pollinator Garden at Gulf Branch Nature Center

By Sue Dingwell

“If you are just growing nectar plants, you are borrowing somebody else’s butterflies,” says Jennifer Soles, “If you grow host plants, you are making your own butterflies!” This message was conveyed with verve and passion to visitors to Gulf Branch Nature Center’s Pollinator Garden last Sunday. The garden, filled with native plants, was a popular stop on Arlington’s Green Homes and Gardens tours, judging by the rapt attention displayed by those who stopped by to learn and listen.

The pollinator garden is across the road from the entrance to the park.
Jennifer Soles explains the benefits of native plants.

Between visitors Jennifer related the garden’s background story, which has followed the well-known progression of ‘the fist year it sleeps, the second year it creeps, and the third year, it leaps.” Monarch butterflies found the garden in the very first year and all the milkweed was eaten down to the ground. Jennifer despaired, but the second year, the milkweed came back, along with the other plants they had installed, and everything began to fill in. They had some trouble from aphids briefly, that year, but the predators appeared and kept them under control. This year, the garden is simply bursting with life, plants and pollinators alike are present and thriving.When creating the plant list, they decided to limit the number of kinds of plants, and to plant them in large groups. That was to make upkeep easier. It helps people to more easily identify what they are saving and what they are weeding, explained Jennifer. Maintenance on this garden has been very, very low, she asserted. The newly transplanted plants were watered in just at first, but that is the only water they ever applied. They weeded and mulched a small amount, and now that the plants have filled in, weeding is really minimal.

Bee on milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa.

On Sunday, milkweed and coreopsis were in full bloom, but in another ten days the Joe pye weed, Indian hemp, liatris, mountain mint will all be blooming as well. The mountain mint is described by Jennifer as the “La Guardia” of blooms. The pollinators will be needing traffic controllers to prevent crashes as the feast ripens. Mountain mint, Pycananthemum virginianum, is a relatively unknown plant that deserves wider use. It is not a super-showy plant, but thrives with vigor in places that other plants might shun, and it’s tiny white flowers are indeed used by a huge number of insects. It makes its best statement as planted at Gulf Branch, in large clumps. The weeds can’t penetrate, and the mass of blossoms catch the eye where just a few would be insignificant.

Cabbage White butterfly on Indian hemp, Apocynum cannabinum

The lovely garden has earned the certifications of ‘Monarch Waystation,’ and ‘Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary.’ The blooms will be resplendent and abundant for Pollinator Week, which is June 18 – 24. That would be a perfect time to go visit!

Master Naturalists already know how important pollinators are, but if you would like to help raise the awareness of other Virginians, a beautiful license plate has been designed for that purpose. The plate has the needed sponsorship of a senator, and now needs a few more subscribers, like you!  You can learn how to get yours here: Pollinatorplates@blogspot.com.

Oxeye sunflower, Heliopsis helianthoides, with pollinator

Photos by Sue Dingwell.

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