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Between the Rows

Between the Rows: Pollinators Welcome

When we think of pollinators, we think of honeybees, being trucked to orchards in the spring or to pollinate vast mid-western fields in the summer. The decline of the honeybee, because of disease, mites, and the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder, has been in the news for some years. The concern is that crops will be threatened by insufficient pollination and our food supply will be in danger.

Knowing all this, Tom Sullivan, a former beekeeper, is taking a larger view of the array of pollinators available to farmers and gardeners, pollinators that often work quietly and almost invisibly.

I visited Sullivan in his small garden in “The Patch,” where flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruit trees attract and benefit all manner of pollinators, including some of the 356 (and counting) kinds of native bees. He showed me the simple bee box he made that would attract some of these native bees and give them the conditions they need to lay their eggs. Of course, buzzing bumblebees and all kinds of other pollinating insects like the tiny hoverfly were also working the flowers in the garden.

Sullivan did not come to his passion for pollinators all at once. He has a degree in education but, as a young man, he joined many others in their desire to go back to the land. Living and farming in New Hampshire, he found training at The Rural Education Center (TREC), founded in 1979 by Stanley Kaymen. There he met and was inspired by Bill Mollison, who awoke his interest in permaculture, a system of sustainable agriculture. TREC soon became Stonyfield Yogurt and Sullivan was able to use his skill as mason and tile setter to build the first Stonyfield Yogurt building in 1984.

His skill as mason has supported his agricultural dreams and efforts over the decades and he was always taking advantage of opportunities to learn more. A move to the Boston area found him working for the Boston Parks Department, doing landscape construction, and getting additional training through the Urban Environmental Practices Program at Roxbury Community College.

When Boston became “too much city,” Sullivan moved out to western Massachusetts and ultimately to Montague City. His new friendship with Dave Jacke and Jono Neiger, both Conway School of Landscape Design graduates, led him to the school and his own graduation in 2008. By this time, the news was filled with stories of Colony Collapse Disorder. Dan Conlon of the Warm Colors Apiary invited Sullivan to a 2008 pollinator conference at the University of Massachusetts. “I was just blown away,” he said.

As Sullivan gave me the tour of his garden, he explained that his first desire was “to support the whole ecosystem with pollinator habitat expansion because our native bees, and so many other insects and native plants, are being affected by loss of habitat. There is also indiscriminate use of pesticides and herbicides, so freely applied by home owners and to a lesser extent by farmers. Multiple forces are at work that we must counter with abundant well-functioning ecologies.”

One way he expands pollinator habitat is by reducing his lawn. He does have a shady spot where he and friends can sit on a bit of lawn, but his yard is densely planted with vegetables and herbs mingled with flowers, including bee balm, butterfly weed, garlic chives and asters that attract pollinators. He went on to explain his Yard by Yard project. “If we only gave up 3 feet around the perimeter of our properties, we’d add a lot (of habitat) and it would be beautiful —- or even more so with a good design. Yard By Yard is a concept — my idea of making more connectivity between habitats with our yards being the conduit.”

While he has designed his garden to be attractive to pollinators, it is also attractive to visitors. A large apple tree provides an oasis of shade in this sunny garden, flowers are in bloom in every season and a large handsome bamboo trellis supports green beans. Sullivan wouldn’t know what to do with vegetables grown in rows. They are arranged between curving paths that can lead you into a corner where you’ll discover a real surprise — fig trees. The fig trees need to be brought inside for the winter, but they were bearing fruit when I saw them.

He has even planted a strip in front of his house with pollinator-friendly plants, again reducing lawn.

In other words, Sullivan’s desire to provide habitat for pollinators goes beyond what he needs for his small vegetable garden. With the recognized importance of our local food system and the growth of local small farms, he wants to teach us all how we can participate in protecting and creating pollinator habitat. “The deepest part of me is teaching,” he said.

To this end, he has launched a website, PollinatorsWelcome.com, and a garden design and installation business. He has also found himself in demand as a speaker for garden clubs and other organizations like the Hitchock Center. Later this summer, he will be speaking at the Northeast Organic Farmers Association conference in Amherst, and then at the Garlic and Arts Festival in Orange.

Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.

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