As the climate in the Southwest warms, conservationists are scrambling to find new ways to attract crucial pollinators to drought-stricken urban areas. But, one conservation group has decided to fight the changing climate in New Mexico by giving out kits of free plants. KSFR's Bryce Dix reports.
My partner and I have picked up various hobbies with all the extra time we have on our hands these days. You know how it goes– you see one thing on the internet, you buy all the stuff to try it, and it almost always ends up in the garage to collect dust. But, the one thing that stuck with us? Gardening.
That's my partner, Katie Conley filling up a watering can. She's just as new to growing plants as I am. And yes, we don't have a hose in our backyard. So, we fill our cans in the kitchen sink.
Our backyard is very small. On one side of the yard, we have a 4x4 planter I decided to build myself one day. On the other, we have many pots of blooming flowers of different varieties in a green, iron cart. I asked Katie to walk us through the multitude of plants we have successfully, although surprisingly, seen sprout in the past couple of weeks.
“So, this is a lavender plant, Conley said. “This is a pepper plant. We have some sunflowers. We have artichoke, cilantro, basil, and there's some mint over there”.
There's something satisfying about seeing all of your hard work pay off. To see something grow before your eyes essentially. Gardening takes patience, I've learned. It requires you to pay attention and be present in the moment. But I had no idea how simply growing plants and flowers with minimal water usage in my yard can have such a positive impact on the environment.
“As individuals. You know, climate change definitely does feel like this insurmountable problem that is global and obviously we do need a bigger overhaul of how we use resources. But as individuals, how we use resources in our homes and our yards and our gardens is one very easy way that we can make a difference.”
That's Kaitlin Haase. She's the Southwest pollinator conservation specialist with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. She's behind a pilot project called the Santa Fe Pollinator Trail that aims to attract more pollinators to Santa Fe's urban landscape using... You guessed it... Flowers.
“The Santa Fe Pollinator Trail is an effort to build more connected pollinator habitats in Santa Fe,” Haase said. “One big way we're doing that is through our habitat kit program. Our habitat kit program finds participants that are willing to take the time, labor, and space to plant these plants in the ground and make sure that they're surviving and are good plantings for generations to come.”
So, you may be thinking: What's exactly in these habitat kits?
“This scale of habitat kit is much smaller. We've done this in California and the Northeast on really big scales, but this one is targeted for a small-scale urban setting,” Haase said. “What we have is our flat of 32 individual, two inch plants that have eight different species. Plus, one gallon shrub or tree.”
Only 350 of these kits are available for grabs this summer. Fully grown, the plants will take up about the area of a parking space.
Haase said that our area of the Southwest is unique. It's home to more than a quarter of the bee species in North America, which makes places like Santa Fe a perfect battleground to fight climate change.
“One of the biggest threats to pollinators is habitat loss. When humans come in and change the landscape, we've converted the natural Santa Fe landscape to an urbanized setting and we're trying to bring those resources back into our urban environment,” Haase said. “The great thing about pollinators as they are able to fly and use little pockets of resources in a really developed, urban area that might not otherwise support many other wildlife species. How do we select plants that are going to withstand climate change?”
That's hard to hear. I'm guilty of planting water intensive plants myself. It's not exactly ideal to water my non-native artichoke three times a week during hot, dry spells. But in tandem with thinking about drought-resistant plants, Haase said pesticides are also adding to the problem.
“Nurseries treat their plants in the growing stages. So when you purchase plants, they might have pesticides so just something to keep in mind when you do go buy plants. Ask your nursery provider: ‘Do you treat these?’ Especially systemic pesticides, something that's going to be staying in the plant for a while.”
Pollinators aren't always insects. Mammals and birds like the hummingbird can move pollen from one flower to the next. However, Haase said that bees are hands down the most important pollinator of the bunch. That's because they don't simply drink nectar from flowers. They physically carry pollen on their bodies, making the ideal suitor for flower pollination.
“Because they are essential to plant reproduction– that means that all of our fruits and vegetables, production of seeds, the maintenance of our wild plant populations and our landscapes are dependent on these animal pollinators for moving pollen from one flower to another to help create seeds, and the next year's plant life. They're really critical to our food systems. They're also critical to food webs in nature. The insects themselves are really important food sources for birds, like caterpillars, and butterflies and moths are eaten in staggering numbers by birds. All of this is really interconnected with just maintenance of our ecosystems.”
Haase said that New Mexicans as a collective whole need to rethink the way gardens and landscaping is done in our state. I know I will. Then maybe, just maybe, we can start reversing the damage we're doing to our planet.