Local gardens provide protection for threatened pollinators

A monarch butterfly is attracted to a purple coneflower in the Pollinators' Garden at The Arboretum at Penn State. Credit: Nick Sloff / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- After a long winter, summer finally has arrived. And with the new season comes the activity of pollinators -- birds, bees, butterflies and more.

These animals are threatened by habitat loss, pesticides and herbicides, pollution and climate change. To help them, the Center for Pollinator Research in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, the Penn State Extension Master Gardener Program and The Arboretum at Penn State are partnering to create a large network of public and private pollinator gardens throughout central Pennsylvania, as well as provide educational programs about pollinators to local citizens.

"Approximately 90 percent of all flowering plants and 75 percent of human crops depend on pollinators to set seed and fruit," said Doug Ford, assistant dean for undergraduate education in the College of Health and Human Development and chair of the program advisory committee for the Master Gardeners of Centre County. "Any decline of pollinators will have a devastating impact on our ecosystems and consequently human health and sustainability."

That's why the three organizations are calling on members of the community to assist with the effort to protect and enhance pollinator populations. They hope that by visiting local public pollinator gardens, planting their own pollinator gardens and participating in the Master Gardener Pollinator Friendly Garden Certification Program, local citizens will make central Pennsylvania a safe haven for pollinators and the services they provide.

Visit a public pollinator garden

According to Christina Grozinger, professor of entomology and director of the Center for Pollinator Research, public pollinator gardens -- such as those at The Arboretum at Penn State and the Snetsinger Butterfly Garden at Tudek Park in Ferguson Township -- are important because they provide habitat and food sources for large and diverse populations of pollinators, they offer an opportunity to teach people about the importance of pollinators, and they showcase the breathtaking variety of pollinator-friendly plants that exist.

At the arboretum, the pollinator gardens serve as model gardens and habitats and promote biodiversity and sustainable practices that can be used in urban, suburban and rural landscapes.

"Through the arboretum's pollinator gardens, we want to communicate the importance of pollination to humans and the ecosystems on which we depend," said Harland Patch, research scientist in entomology and chair of the Center for Pollinator Research's Pollinator Gardens Committee.

"Eventually, we plan to build a series of gardens related to different kinds of habitat, such as wetlands, meadows and forests, as well as gardens intended for evening pollinators," he said. "We also have a Backyard Pollinator's Garden to help demonstrate how native and non-native plants can be mixed to support pollinator communities. Ultimately, since this is a garden, we want to promote the simple beauty of pollinator plants. Many of the best plants are not available from growers, and we would like to increase awareness with the public and encourage wider cultivation of these plants."

The pollinator gardens at the arboretum also provide opportunities for conducting research and implementing research findings.

"The gardens are created from the best available science and are an ongoing laboratory for research at Penn State," Patch said. "Other pollinator gardens have focused on a few pollinators, usually butterflies and now bees, with hummingbirds thrown in, but over the past decade, scientific research has allowed us to make more informed and targeted choices about plants to grow, nest sites and other features necessary for thriving pollinator populations. These gardens support all pollinating groups -- including beetles, flies and moths -- with a broad array of mostly native plants."

Further west, the Snetsinger Butterfly Garden at Tudek Park, at three acres, is the largest public pollinator garden in the region. It is maintained by the Penn State Master Gardener Program of Centre County, which also manages the Ag Progress Days pollinator garden program and pollinator gardens at Muddy Paws Marsh in Spring Mills, Bellefonte Children's Garden and Centre Crest nursing home in Bellefonte.

"Dr. Snetsinger [Penn State professor emeritus of entomology] and the Master Gardeners of Centre County have developed the Snetsinger Butterfly Garden into a major educational resource that reaches far beyond the Centre Region," said Ford. "Locally, through the garden's onsite demonstration gardens, Web-linked signage and Community Stewards program, visitors are provided with an interactive experience. In addition, as visitors walk through the habitat they can ask questions of master gardeners and community stewards, who are often onsite working in the habitat."

Grow your own pollinator garden

Grozinger noted that public pollinator gardens are great sources of inspiration for visitors about the types of plants they might want to select for their own gardens.

"Gardeners can choose plants based on their beauty; the type of habitat they thrive in; the types of pollinators they attract; and how they help pollinators, either by providing nectar and pollen-rich flowers, food for caterpillars or nesting habitat," she said.

Grozinger explained that the best private pollinator gardens include a variety of species of plants.

"Pollinators collect nectar and pollen from flowers, and the nutritional quality of each plant species is a little different," she said. "Pollinators typically need to feed from lots of different plant species to get the nutrition they need to survive and rear their young. Furthermore, an ideal garden will have plants that bloom at different times of the year, so the pollinators always have food."

Grozinger said some pollinators specialize on specific plant species, so by planting a diversity of flowers, gardeners can attract more pollinator species. "Pollinators also use plants for more than just their flowers -- some butterfly caterpillars eat the leaves of specific plants while others use plants to nest in."

These private gardens are important, Grozinger stressed, because the more habitat pollinators have, the more they will thrive.

"While we can plant a few large gardens in and around State College, if we have networks of pollinator gardens throughout the community, they will provide substantially more habitat and food resources for pollinators and have a much bigger impact," she said. "These home-based gardens also can help children and families get more in tune with nature and learn about a critical part of our ecosystems."

Participate in the Master Gardener Pollinator Friendly Garden Certification Program

The Penn State Master Gardener Program has extensive programs to help homeowners -- and business owners -- learn to create pollinator gardens on their properties. For example, the program manages the Snetsinger Butterfly Garden's Satellite Garden Partnership Program, which provides onsite educational programs and consultation to numerous schools and other educational, religious, community, governmental and human-service organizations for the purpose of installing their own pollinator gardens.

"With the loss of pollinator habitat as one of the most critical reasons for the decline of pollinators throughout the United States, individuals, schools, businesses and communities can play a vital role by creating pollinator-friendly habitats on their properties and in their backyards," said Ford.  

The Master Gardener Program also manages the Pollinator Friendly Garden Certification Program. This program enables homeowners to have their properties certified as "Pennsylvania Pollinator Friendly Gardens," which provide food and habitat for native insects and animals that, in turn, provide the pollination needed to protect our plant diversity and food sources.

"Gardeners who visit our website can learn all they need to know about making their landscape pollinator friendly," said Connie Schmotzer, consumer horticulture educator for Penn State Extension. "When they are ready to certify their property, they download and complete an application, which is reviewed by a Master Gardener review committee. Properties that certify receive a certificate and the opportunity to purchase a sign for their yard."

According to Schmotzer, the program began in April 2011 and has certified 346 gardens across the state since that time, including plantings at the Governor's Residence in Harrisburg.

"Pollinators are responsible for one of every three bites of food that we eat," Schmotzer said. "They also are responsible for our ecosystem as we know it. The typical suburban yard is mostly lawn and a few plants that may or may not have value for pollinators. Following the recommendations in our Pollinator Friendly Garden Program and creating pollinator friendly gardens is an important step in pollinator recovery."

Learn more:

Planting for pollinators

Certify your pollinator garden

Centre County Pollinator Garden Network


The Pollinator Garden at The Arboretum at Penn State is one of several gardens in the region surrounding University Park where the public can learn more about pollinator friendly gardening. Credit: Nick Sloff / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated June 30, 2014