A Living Fence-Hedge: the Pollinator Fedge

A couple years ago, members of the Salvation Army Hope and Unity Community Garden (HUG) in Kitchener, Ontario, were interested in learning some tactics to control populations of cucumber beetle, potato beetle and flea beetle. I discovered that the best defense against so-called pests is healthy, nutritious garden soil. Strategies that increase soil health include composting, mulching, growing cover crops in the fall, rotating plants, and increasing the biodiversity of both plants and animals. The more habitat for insects and birds, the better balanced the growing system. The more perennial plant diversity, the more territory to provide a harmonious balance of predators to pests, thus eliminating the need for unhealthy, chemical controls, ultimately leading to happy, healthy gardeners. For example, in order to attract predators such as braconid wasps, tachinid flies, ladybugs, soldier beetles, lacewings and assassin bugs, use plants such as umbels (caraway, fennel, cilantro/coriander and Queen Anne's Lace). Generally, the predator larval stage feeds on the pest, while the predator adults feed on nectar and pollen, so some species may even be important pollinators. 

As Pollination Canada's outreach coordinator, I take great pleasure delivering presentations to community groups such as gardeners, naturalists, and school students. My presentations begin simply: “Plants rely on pollination to propagate themselves, and to produce food.” I continue to explain that pollination refers to the transfer of pollen that must occur from the male to the female part of the flower. Plants are rooted, unable to chase each other, relying instead on other ways to move pollen, such as wind and water. However, pollination is primarily accomplished via animals, especially insects, 70% of which is accomplished by bees: both honey and native bees, such as bumble bees, sweat bees and leaf cutting bees. 

Unfortunately, our bees are under pressure from loss of habitat, loss of food sources, disease, pests, climate change and chemicals – especially neonicotinoid pesticides. As these insect populations are threatened, so too are the benefits they provide us: agricultural crops, textiles, dyes, essences, spices, medicines, and providing food for wildlife.

As I mulled over these ideas, it occurred to me that community gardens generally remain barren for up to seven months a year, usually cleared by November and replanted in late May. Many community gardens prohibit perennials. Community gardens are also affected when pollinators are scarce, and this happens particularly when they are located in places, such as vacant lots or mowed fields, that lack suitable habitat for native pollinating insects. Of our native bees, 70% are ground nesters, while the other 30% are cavity-dwellers, making their homes in stems of perennial native plants and rotted wood, such as raspberry canes, for example. Native bees also need a continuous bloom of food (pollen and nectar from blooming plants) from early spring to late autumn.

My mulling culminated with the idea of the ‘Pollinator Fedge.’ A fedge is a fence-hedge, and the Pollinator Fedge is a living fence grown around the periphery of a community garden. The Pollinator Fedge provides year-round food and habitat for birds and pollinating insects, with the added value of including food plants that humans enjoy too. A pollinator fedge strives to mimic the natural ecosystem on a smaller scale, and ours is composed of mainly native, perennial, fruit- and nut-bearing trees and shrubs, wildflowers, herbs, native grasses, ground covers and vines.

The Salvation Army Hope and Unity Community Garden recognized this dilemma and granted us permission to establish a fedge around the periphery of their 100 plots, thus occupying almost 3000 square feet. We have been grateful for two grants from the Toronto Dominion Friends of the Environment Foundation that enabled us to put our ideas into action. 

Pollinator Fedges have a number of benefits: 

  • They provide continuous habitat and forage for pollinators and other beneficial insects to thrive, which increases the productivity and quality of the organic garden produce.
  • They provide some shade, ideal for growing lettuces and other cool-weather crops.
  • They act as a shelterbelt from the wind and help prevent topsoil erosion.
  • Certain plants sequester carbon (bluestem grasses) and fix atmospheric nitrogen (legumes).
  • Perennial shrubs have thick and often deep root masses that retain water in soils.
  • They demarcate the garden in a pleasing, colourful, natural way.

 

Seeds of Diversity produces a free monthly electronic bulletin. We have written four articles about the fedge, and give reference to those links at the end of this article. Included in those articles are some of the plants used to establish the fedge, so I refer the reader there if interested. In total, we now have over 75 species that grow from early spring to late autumn, offering nectar and pollen to pollinators.

As far as measuring success goes, we are in the early stages. We are polishing our patience skills as we allow the plants to grow and fill in at their own pace. One wonderful sign of success that we noted were the tell-tale markings of leafcutting bees, discovered shortly after planting four ‘Honeywood’ varieties of Saskatoon berries. As well, one of the gardeners told a neighbouring gardener that he disliked the birds he noted visiting his plot, for he thought they were damaging his cabbages. The neighbour pointed out that the birds were actually helping, for they were eating a pest of his cabbages — the cabbage looper worm! So I love this story because it underscores one of the purposes of the fedge (that biodiversity is healthy, and necessary for organic pest control), as well as pointing out how necessary the fedge is for educational purposes. In fact, this autumn while I was planting at the fedge, this gardener approached me, asking if I could provide permanent signs to label the different plants!

Our Pollinator Fedge project is a practical and publicly-visible way to address the need for suitable habitat for important pollinating insects. One of the best things we can do for bees is to plant for them – in a continuous succession of blooms from spring to fall, to nourish them with the pollen and nectar that comprises their food sources. Using native plants that have co-evolved with native pollinators also makes a lot of sustainable sense. In turn, along with other beneficial insects, pollinating insects can ensure a greater quantity and quality of garden produce. Thus, pollinator fedges serve as positive ways to take action to help nurture our native bees and other insects. It is also a pragmatic way to increase appreciation of community gardens, and the broad benefits that they bring to neighbourhoods, while creating venues for public awareness about biological solutions to garden challenges, pollinator-friendly gardening practices, and better urban food production. At the end of the day, the more people across this country who grow local fresh food in sustainable ways, the more we become a nation that is food secure, and resilient, in the face of increasing food costs and climate change.

Pollination Canada could not accomplish this alone. We were very fortunate that Wilfrid Laurier University offered us volunteer students through their Community Service Learning program. Four students taking a course called ‘Spirit and Community’ showed up at HUG for a few hours over each of four weeks, digging in their heels and the seedlings' roots. Pollination Canada gratefully acknowledges permission from The Salvation Army's Hope and Unity Community Garden and the cooperation of Garden Coordinators Jeremy Megit and Harriet Boyd. We are indebted to the Toronto Dominion Friends of the Environment for funding this phase of the Pollinator Fedge. We thank Herrle's Country Farm Market for delivering straw at a reduced rate. Thanks also to Death Valley’s Little Brother coffee shop, Balzac’s Coffee, Eco-Coffee and the Baden Coffee Company for help with coffee bags, and my carpenter bee (husband) for his skills with the winter fence.

Please visit Pollination Canada’s fedge webpage

Electron bulletin August 2015 article on the fedge

Electron bulletin November 2015 article on the fedge, includes list of plants up to that time

Electron bulletin February 2016 article on the fedge

Electron bulletin December 2016 article on the fedge