Tales of the City: Bee Pastures and Urban Forests

Tue, 10/12/2013 - 16:38
Perth DuPont Garden by River of Flowers

Bee Pastures

Bee Pastures, which could just as easily be called ‘Pollinator’ Pastures, are alternative forms of Urban Meadows, created by planting wildflowers in clusters of five or more plants, which offer pollinators an intensity of nectar and pollen. These nectar-rich drifts of wildflowers save bees much foraging time. Bee Pastures are easy to plant and manage, and the clusters of wildflowers are separated by wood bark or other ground  cover materials, to prevent any grasses or unwanted plants emerging. Bee Pastures are not at all naturalistic-looking although in the wild, plants often set seed in such radiating cluster patterns. 

Forget-me-Not Bee Cluster © Sustainable Bungay

Bee Pasture with wildflowers that bloom during different seasons or over a long period can feed pollinators over the year, and if they have a variety of flower shapes, the clusters will attract a range of pollinators. Wildflowers that provide good food sources for caterpillars such as those from the Pink and Pea families, should be included if you want butterflies and moths in your garden.  Creating habitat for wild bees is important because they don’t have hives to go home to; sheltered areas of soft even sandy soil are great for ground nesting wild bees, and Bee Hotels, made from bundles of hollow stems or drilled holes in wood, appeal to cavity living wild bees. Rose Titchener of Sustainable Bungay has written some great tips on gardening for pollinators.

Bee Hotel © Wild about Gardens

Bee Lab at UC Berkeley
During my trip to North America this year, I was honoured to be invited by Professor Gordon Frankie, research entomologist at UC, Berkeley to meet him and his team, who have been documenting wild bees at several northern California sites for years, at the Bee Lab and the experimental Bee Garden on the Oxford Tract at UC Berkeley. The Bee Garden (or Pasture) is a visual delight. It's over half an acre spread of wildflowers (natives, native cultivars and non-natives) planted in clusters, making easier to identify the plants and monitor the visiting bees. Gardens have become increasingly important places for urban wildlife and can be even more so if planned and designed with the specific goal of attracting wild bees and other pollinators.

Californian Sea Holly cluster © Tony Hisgett

There were wildflowers that ranged from the instantly recognisable Sunflowers and Asters, as well as Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Island Coral Bells (Heuchera maxima), Douglas Iris (Iris douglasiana), Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium bellum), Hummingbird Sage (Salvia spathacea) and native cultivars of Penstemon, Verbena and Scabiosa. The University’s allotment garden lies right next door to the Bee Garden a perfect pollinator paradise of food and flowers!

Western Blue eyed Grass  © PD Tilman

Some of the main species of bees including leafcutter bees, sweat bees, cuckoo bees, carpenter bees and sunflower bees, are described in UC Berkeley Bee Lab’s charming and accessible website, Help A Bee. For anyone wanting to know more about wild bees in the UK, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust website in the UK is a great resource.

The gorgeous Bee Garden at UC Berkeley, California showed me how much impact perennial wildflowers can make when clustered together. I think planting drifts of wildflowers using seed or seedballs, in public spaces such as city centres or parks would have much public appeal. Seedballs are an amazing way to add wildflowers to such city spaces and roadside verges, vacant lots and roundabouts. 

Urban Meadow at London Fields © River of Flowers

City councils have the resources to create Urban Meadows in large spaces such as parks and open spaces.  Most that I have seen, have tended to be annual meadows, which require re-sowing every year, and often contain North American wild plants such as Cosmos and Coreopsis as in the London Fields Meadow above. Nothing wrong with that but River of Flowers recommends planting a higher ratio of native wildflowers to non-natives because the young of butterflies, moths, hoverflies, ladybirds, lacewings, parastitic wasps and flower beetles, usually cannot feed from the non-natives even if they provide super nectar for the adults. No babies, no grownups! In urban smaller areas, such as in raised beds in city centres, a Bee Pasture of mainly native perennial wildflowers would look just as beautiful as an urban meadow, and as nourishing for pollinators. 

Urban Forests

Of course, Urban Meadows and Bee Pastures are not the only way to 'feed the bees that feed us'. Urban Forests provide fantastic forage, a huge nectar and pollen source concentrated in one area that saves bees the energy they expend when flying around to forage. Wild flowering fruit trees could be grown with cultivated fruit trees in urban orchards, and there is space in the understorey to foster wildflowers such this golden sea of long-flowering dandelions.

Dandelions in a Plum Orchard © Stratford-upon-Avon Beekeepers

Trees are magnificently sustainable too and I can imagine nothing lovelier in a city than a majestic grove of flowering wild cherry or lime or sweet chestnut trees, clustered together in groves in a park or flowing individually along the street like a 'river of trees’. I saw many native wild flowering trees thriving in North America cities, including the Serviceberry (Almelachier spp.), the Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) and the Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), so golden in the fall. Trees in Urban Forests make such sweeping grand gestures. What better way to raise the profile of your city by creating more Urban Forests in the parks and along the streets!

Black Locust Trees in Camouflage © Marie Viljoen 66 Square Feet

Friends of the Urban Forest

Street trees benefit people and pollinators alike. Homeowners in San Francisco are responsible for the care of the sidewalk or pavement in front of their homes, which gives innovative nonprofit groups, such as the Friends of the Urban Forest, a unique opportunity to broker the planting of street trees between residents and the City of San Francisco, something they have been doing for over 30 years. 

Tree sign © Friends of the Urban Forest

The Friends of the Urban Forest's website explains well why we should plant trees in cities. Trees replenish city air with oxygen, remove carbon dioxide and pollutants, shade people and vehicles, and reduce the heat trapped by concrete and polluted air, which tends to overheat cities. A study by Columbia University has found that trees lower the incidence of asthma attacks. Another study found that the presence of trees slows drivers down, and reduces the frequency and severity of crashes. Trees inspire people to linger about for longer and interact more with one another. 

Friends of the Urban Forest 'river of trees' © River of Flowers

In partnership with the San Francisco Department of Public Works, Friends of the Urban Forest has set up the 'Sidewalk Garden Project’. San Francisco’s urban watershed of hidden rivers, including one called the Wiggle, are mostly covered with the impenetrable surfaces of concrete, asphalt and buildings, so stormwater has no place to go but into the sewers. Any heavy storm sends polluted wastewater cascading straight into the San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean but plants grown in the sidewalk gardens can absorb the rain before it reaches the drains, even more so if trees are planted too. Each single tree can intercept over a 1000 gallons of rainwater per year!

Rain Gardens in San Francisco © EPA

Urban Projects in the UK

Street projects are going on in the UK too. In South London, the Guerilla Gardener has created an amazing River of Flowers in Elephant and Castle that flows from the urban meadow at the Mobile Gardners Park and along the streets of Camberwell towards Burgess Park. Further south, the enterprising Edible Bus Stop has mixed and matched edibles with ornamentals beside bus stops in Lambeth. Moving north, The Kings Cross Skip Garden has recycled skips in construction sites near Kings Cross Station, and turned them into greenhouses and food beds with the youth volunteers from the Global Generation. And at the Southbank Center, an urban orchard bloomed last summer. Octavia's Orchard, a stunning temporary display of fruit trees and flowering meadows created by What If Projects in collaboration with the National Trust, was eventually adopted by local community groups. A river of flowers for pollinators indeed! 

Octavia's Orchard © JAILmake



Perth DuPont Community Garden in Toronto © River of Flowers