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At Newton City Hall, a community garden provides shelter to pollinators

The Community Pollinator Project Demonstration Garden outside Newton City Hall offers food and shelter for local pollinators. It also contains a QR code for the Pollinator Project’s online toolkit.SAM THOMAS

The temperature is falling, but bees still buzz around a small patch of foliage outside Newton City Hall. Called the Community Pollinator Project Demonstration Garden, the 200 square-foot collection of native plants is meant to give year-round food and shelter to bees, such as the common eastern bumblebee.

“We do the best we can to keep pollinators alive,” Beth Wilkinson, the former president and current board member of Newton Conservators, said. “Without them we’re really doomed.”

Bees and other pollinators are responsible for stabilizing the world’s ecosystem by supporting the production of food that keeps humans and other animals alive — without them, the world’s air, food supply, and economy would be thrown off, according to the National Park Service.

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Newton Conservators worked with the Newton Parks, Recreation, and Culture Department to create the demonstration garden, hoping to raise awareness and support pollinator populations in Newton, Wilkinson said. The garden is in its second growing season.

In an email, Ellen Ishkanian, Newton’s director of community communications, said the city is planning to add pollinator gardens to local projects, such as the Oak Hill School and the new Newton Early Childhood Program site.

“I’m thrilled to have a pollinator garden out front at Newton City Hall,” said Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller in an email. “Newton residents can see firsthand the wide variety of beautiful native plants and the bees, butterflies, birds and other pollinators they attract. All of us can help nourish Newton’s ecosystem here at City Hall and in our own yards at home.”

Pollinators are anything that transport pollen from male to female flower parts, which fertilizes the plants and allows them to produce fruits or seeds, such as bees, butterflies, birds, and moths, according to the National Park Service.

Nicholas Dorian and Jessie Thuma from the Tufts Pollinator Initiative, which aims to support pollinators in urban areas, said pollinators help produce about 75 percent of major crops like apples, coffee, and squash.

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“With fewer pollinators, our food production will be less resilient to future environmental change, which can place greater financial burdens on farmers and consumers,” said Dorian and Thuma in an email.

In Newton, many lawns contain almost no native plants, Wilkinson said. Because of this, pollinators struggle to find suitable food and shelter in some areas of Newton.

“It’s important for people to understand that [pollinator gardens] can be attractive alternatives to lawns,” Ouida Young, the former Newton city solicitor who has been helping care for the garden at city hall, said. “They don’t have to do cookie-cutter green lawns.”

Young said the garden has received positive responses from the community regarding both the appearance and the purpose of the demonstration garden. She said people have been interested in learning about pollinator-friendly gardening, and she anticipates it will become more common for residents to cultivate more native plants.

Wilkinson said providing local pollinators with a variety of native plants to support and protect future generations is important.

“The bugs, the birds, and the plants all evolved together,” Wilkinson said. “They need each other.”

The Pollinator Project Demonstration Garden at city hall contains plants such as red chokeberry, wild geranium, and butterfly weed which support native pollinators throughout these stages.

“The major hold-up, if there is one, is getting these native plants widely distributed in the horticulture trade,” Young said.

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In addition to helping pollinators, Wilkinson said native plants are easier to maintain and require less watering than nonnative plants.

Wilkinson explained the common eastern bumblebee is specifically adapted to open the native bottle gentian flower and reach the pollen, something other insects cannot do and is important to the health of the ecosystem.

There are two schools of thought regarding what kinds of native plants to cultivate in a garden to attract pollinators such as bees and butterflies, Wilkinson said. One gardening technique focuses on plants to support pollinators most in danger of extinction. The other technique, which the city hall garden follows, cultivates plants to help all local pollinators.

Wilkinson said she and Mark Feldhusen had the idea to create the garden in early 2021, and they followed the research of Robert Gegear, who created lists of plants supporting pollinators. A grant from the Newton Conservators, and additional funds from Wilkinson and Feldhusen, partially funded the garden. Now, Wilkinson, Feldhusen, and two others who work on the garden split costs among themselves to buy tools and materials such as hoses, new signs, and rabbit spray.

Tripti Thomas, a Newton resident working on certificates in Native Plant Basics and Horticulture and Design from the Native Plant Trust, said she sees gardens as a chance to create beauty and be supportive for the ecosystem.

“I derive my most amount of joy and sense of beauty from seeing my garden support life,” Thomas said.

Thomas said she gardens with a focus on the entire lifecycle of pollinators rather than just the adult stage. This includes year-round shelter, places for nesting and raising offspring, and food for young.

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The garden in Newton has perennial flowers to offer a safe place for pollinators to burrow under fallen leaves to find shelter and lay eggs during the winter.

“Once you start thinking about the entire lifecycle, you start gardening in a different way,” Thomas said.

For more information, visit the Newton Conservators’ Pollinator Toolkit, which has details about local pollinators, how to support them, and where to buy native plants.