Thursday, March 19, 2015

Set it up and they will come: Pollinator Gardens at the First Unitarian Church, Hamilton

I had no idea of the extent of the native species, pollinator gardens at the First Unitarian Church when they were awarded the 2013 Green Sacred Spaces Award (Faith and the Common Good).
Walking around the property on this warm afternoon in March with Joanne Tunnicliffe, I am astounded by the passion, love and labour that this Master Gardener and Outdoor Educator of over thirty years, has poured into the space in only three years.

All around us, the grounds resound with the coming of spring. A dainty downy woodpecker is at work on a spindly tree. Noisy crows caw amongst bare branches, and Joanne pauses in her description of the virtues of the dogwood tree to imitate their harsh command.
A moment on, she tells me how the dogwood (“well loved by insects”) can serve as a centerpiece around which other native species can be planted to attract the pollinators.

“Pollinators project is also habitat for wildlife,” Joanne says. “If you set it up, they will come.”
With a small team of dedicated gardeners, she’s built a hibernaculum for snakes; an underground place for them to go for the winter, it consists of a base and log cabin topped with yard debris: “The animals and insects know about it—rabbits, snakes chipmunks song sparrow, beetles, slugs.”
Sometimes keeping the dead trees is a wonderful thing—to protect our gardens and provide homes for pollinators. “We leave things if they are going to provide habitat for the wildlife,” Joanne says, pointing out the fallen logs, “we take drills and we make holes in the base of the trees and that is where the solitary bees can go.”
Joanne explains a technique where a hole is dug in the ground and logs are buried in it, then plants are planted on top: “You will get the insects developing the soil and so on,” she says. “The solitary bees can go in, and the top of the log can be used for birds perching and pooing out seeds for you."

The garden team will also often have their dead trees turned to mulch for the soil.


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It’s a steep drop to where the train tracks run down below and a difficult hill to plant. This part of the property, where the trees where once covered in vines has been opened up and are kept well pruned. The team have documented sassafras, tulip, oak, maple, and honey locusts: “all useful to caterpillars and nesting birds.”
Serviceberry trees are one of the top prime things to be used; "the petals are very fragrant, so the more insects that come to the church, the more things that will grow.”

There is a row of nursery starters along the inside of the fence that lines the property above the train tracks. Young native trees such as spruce, cider, hemlock and pine, sit patiently, holding the soil bank up. Natural flowers grow around them, and when they need to go in other locations, they are at the ready.

“People think hostas are wonderful, we get donations by the thousands,” Joanne says. She tells congregants that their hostas are going to be very prevalent on the outside of the fence, where they create a barrier for any unwanted things coming through: “Then we get gorgeous ostrich ferns that are native and we plant them on the inside. We get a double barrier and everyone is happy.”

Further along, there’s a patch dedicated soley to native grasses. Another large corner serves as the children’s garden (they are already growing seeds inside, in preparation for spring planting): “Every Sunday, they will plant a few more plants,” Joanne beams with pleasure.

Milkweed, which is salt tolerant is left to grow next to the roadside.

Joanne points out a praying mantas egg case on a berry bush: “They get rid of detrimental insects but they leave the bees and stuff alone because they don’t like them,” she explains.

Round the side of the church is a large area and in corners here and there, the gardeners are creating habitat by planting jack-in-the-pulpits, bloodroots, ferns, begemot, yarrows, Jerusalem artichokes, "and an ancient original rose bush, highly used by the bees so we can’t get rid of them."
Joanne points out the withered leave of the “cup plant” that in summer, when it is out again, has large leaves that hold the water even on a hot day.

There’s Prairie meadow land, big blue stem, little blue stem, yellow flowers, pink Virginia mint; an apple tree whose apples serve as refreshments after Sunday sermon.
In the backyard, where the children from summer camps come out to play, there’s are
bird houses, and an owl house; “all wild, used by flickers too.”
There’s an artificial pond, where in the summer, Joanne delights in the pond plants (buried away underground for the winter). “Come spring when I reintroduce them, we have beautiful little irises and reeds,” Joanne enthuses.

With all this gorgeousness around, how can there be any resistance?  “You can’t move Aunt Hazel’s memorial, Uncle John gave us that tree, you can’t take it out,” Joanne laughs. But the congregants appreciate the beauty of what Joanne and her team are creating.
“We start on some spots with a little strip and then every year, without taking too much grass lands away, we get rid of grass because plants are more useful than grass,” she says.

She remains members of the church that, “If we plant native, it is going to grow naturally, not die. It’s low maintenance once established and is useful to the pollinators.”

Any surprises that she’s found on the property? Joanne replies that things were overgrown with vines and weeds out of weeds and, "We dug out a toilet!" (this property was originally a hardware store).

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We take a drive to Joanne’s property in Dundas, which faces directly onto Royal Botanical Gardens  (RBG) lands, where more delights await me.

A tour of the Tunnicliffe gardens reveals wintering native species, colorfully painted bird and bee boxes and shed.

Joanne and her husband Alan (who contributed largely to all Joanne’s projects by offering muscle power) are Hamilton Halton Watershed Stewards as well as RBG Stewards.

They’ve cleaned up “Mink Creek” which runs behind their property. "It was a dump when we first came her,” Joanne recalls. They made hundreds of trips to the dump at their own expense.

Joanne reports that the first spring, the place was covered with violets and jack in the pulpits because they stopped the dumping: "It was unbelievable. They must have waited twenty years in hibernation, which shows you that things will wait!