Monday, February 23, 2015

A Morning with Bev Wagar (or Creating Pollinator Paradise in our City).

It’s a frisky winter morning outdoors in Bev Wagar’s east Hamilton garden.
Wagley, the mutt is tearing around the modest-sized yard but this Master Gardener’s not worried. “I don’t clean up my gardens in the fall,” Wagar says, “because spent leaves provide protection from the temperatures. And you have to clean up in the spring, besides.”

I’m here for a first hand demonstration on how to winter sow native plants so that I can blog about it for the Pollinator Paradise Project (Hamilton Naturalist Club and Environment Hamilton). This is a project that aims to feed pollinators such as bees and butterflies by creating habitat, and winter sowing—growing seeds in clear, mini greenhouses outdoors—is part of the process.

It might seem ironic that an urban centre like Hamilton, maligned and polluted as it is, can actually be a haven for pollinators; but with neonicotinoids in the fields, loss of habitat and fragmentation of rural lands, cities could be our best bet for opportunities to feed these helpful critters (and our local food security too).

Wagar points out the baby shoots that are growing in the makeshift greenhouses she’s made out of recycled plastic containers. The idea is to duplicate in a controlled way, what nature does when plants drop their seeds in the fall; known as “cold-moist stratification,” freezing temperatures and fluctuating night time temperatures break the seed's dormancy.

The eventual plants will likely be donated to the Pollinator Paradise Project’s east Hamilton Crownpoint partners with the Pipeline Trail—a swath of green space along a former watermain.
As we walk around, Wagar reams of exotic sounding names of plants, and I try to keep up, jotting down how I think they might be spelled. Her obvious delight in a garden she is able to visualize months ahead, at spring’s warm embrace is contagious. I’m catching the buzz.


Wagar, a resident of Crownpoint neighbourhood and a newcomer to Hamilton of three years, has a garden that when in bloom, is an oasis for pollinators in a sea of otherwise dead-boring lawn.

Here’s a woman who does not take kindly to monoculture. In London, Ontario where she had an acre of property that was the befuddlement of the locals (farmers), Wagar was behind the ‘Guerilla Garden Posse’—instigator of all things wild and beautiful. She describes their activities as a “Friday night drinking party with friends.”

But first, the evenings would begin with a mission to complete. The friends would meet at dusk with trowels in hand to garden public property. “Commander Orchid” (Wagar) tells me it sometimes got them into trouble—like the time they redid the gardens at the local library. Their nighttime shenanigans included putting little gardens the railway areas.  Sometimes, the Posse would string potted plants up on hydro poles with a sign saying, “Please water me,” and “Bring me home and plant me.” And people did. With her partner Sean, they began an annual ‘boulevard garden contest.’ Living in Old East, an industrial neighborhood, Wagar says they viewed themselves as being “community boosters.”
“It wasn’t just about the gardening, it was about raising the profile and pride of our neighbourhood.”  By the time the couple moved away, Old East had developed a reputation for being quirky gardens, and bus tours still go through and point out the “eccentric gardens” of this neighbourhood.

It’s no surprise then, that the first thing Wagar does when she gets to Hamilton is to remove all the grass on her property.

“My dream is to see more people tear out the grass and put in pollinator flower gardens,” Wagar tells me.

As is the project’s. As is mine.
I think of my measly piece of front lawn and how my neighbours angst about the goldenrod (convinced that it causes their allergies) and my kids complain about the messy milkweed.

Wagar informs me that there is an art to it: Taller plants at the back, borders should be 4 ft wide, tall medium short, something blooming all the time, “and then you get creative with your colours.” Know what their habits are—sink it in a pot or plant it where it has room to grow if you have a spreader. It sounds basic, but…

More about the person than the plant

On further probing, Wagar admits that it is not a low maintenance sort of garden, especially not at first. In her view, “It is more about the person’s available time, less about the plants.”  Left to its own devices, the garden is at risk of being taken over by aggressive plants, loosing all the good ones.
Her advice for those short on time, is to focus on shrubs and woodies (small trees) such as ‘Native nine bark’ –a shrub that bees and butterflies love, or ‘Eupatorium rugosum’ (Chocolate) that is a late bloomer for the bees to enjoy and is ‘garden worthy.’

Yes, we can.
Wagar posits that the movement to grow native species gardens for pollinators is not homegrown. It’s imported with progressives that are coming from outside the city: “The folks on my street, they don’t care,” she claims. Sounds like a challenge to me. Are we going to prove her wrong?
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The Pollinator Paradise Project will be planting pollinator patches to create a pollinator paradise along the Pipeline Trail, working with the newly formed Crown Point Garden CLub that Bev is leading.