Free for the Bees

Pollinator habitat kits are available to Santa Feans in conservation mission’s second year

“Perennial” plants earn that name because they keep giving their gifts year after year, with a tendency to reseed, reproduce more profusely and expand their footprints as time goes on.

And right now, as new native plants that went in the ground last fall through a pilot project bloom for the first time this summer around Santa Fe, an environmental conservation group is looking for people who want to participate in the program’s second round.

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation aims its exponential plant math squarely at helping to restore the available habitat for local pollinators, a natural part of the cycle of life that’s been lost to urbanization.

“There are a lot of groups that do wildlife conservation with birds and mammals and other big, charismatic kinds of things, but invertebrates are so critical to the function of our planet,” says Kaitlin Haase, southwest pollinator conservation specialist with the society. The nationwide nonprofit with 80 employees now has two working in the Santa Fe area “to make sure that we are supporting pollinators at multiple scales, from individuals and gardens to cities to counties and even the Legislature,” she says.

The tiny critters—critical for soil and water health and for the planet’s food chain—have captivated Haase.

“I have worked with many different species and many different ecosystems,” she tells SFR. “I worked with bears and elk in the Valles Caldera on one of my first internships out of college, and I gravitated towards the little things because they are just so omnipresent. Wherever you are you can basically observe a safari happening…Insects are super abundant and their lives are just so interesting to me.”

She oversees the recruitment and selection of project participants as well as education and oversight of plant distribution. Last year’s habitat-kits project in the region was new to Xerces, which has executed projects on bigger scales in California and the northeast with large landowners. The society doled out kits containing nine species of plants to 250 homes and several small, public spaces such as community gardens, city parks and multi-family common areas.

“It was super well-received. Everyone was just so excited to get the plants and I have received lots of photos and emails about how the plants are doing this spring,” Haase says. “A lot of folks have really embraced being new native plant moms and dads and are really excited to see what comes back. It is a challenge, it’s not like regular gardening because it is these tiny little native plants that go in in the fall and a lot of people want to overcare for them and water them too much. It’s all a learning experience.”

I was among those excited new native plant parents when I rehomed my seedings in our shared condo courtyard in late September. Haase advised that with soil conditions like ours, new holes picked into the compact earth should be filled with water for a few hours before planting. We tucked small, plastic label stakes next to each plant and then truthfully spent more time hoping they lived through the winter than actually watering them every one to two weeks as Haase had recommended.

Yet, when spring arrived, so too did the native plants. The sumac bush was the first to prove it had endured the hard season when tiny flowers and light-colored leaves emerged. Next, the elongated spikes of penstemon leaves appeared alongside verbena and foliage of what would, a few weeks later, reveal itself as a single Mexican blanket flower.

I wasn’t sure if others had died over the winter, but upon further inspection, and only when I crouched with my face inches from the ground, did I notice the cota had made it, too. At presstime, I’m now certain that not one but three milkweed plants have also returned. Sure, I lost the hairy aster and the clover, maybe completely, but the area contains more native plants than before. And, so much promise—I will probably faint dead away if I see a Monarch butterfly feasting on a bloom on some future day.

Fellow pollinator-garden recipient Karen Armitage had even better luck. Nearly every one of her 32 plants from the kit show perky and green on a recent tour outside her home near Fort Marcy. The sheer number of plants in the kit was daunting at first, and she too was skeptical over the winter about whether the tiny plants would take off, but she and her husband, John, covered them with rags for early frosts to enable root development and fenced them off against rabbits and deer.

“I am glad that the butterflies and the bees will have them…,” she tells SFR. “I hope that we have done our part. I think about the agricultural industry and all the plants that depend on pollinators, so I think it’s a good idea to plant these plants.”

Apply to receive a pollinator habitat kit before June 30 at conservation/habitat-kits/santa-fe. Seedlings will be ready for distribution in late summer or early fall and Xerces is particularly looking for younger households who want to participate. Kits take up about as much room as a parking space, but can be dispersed in various locations.

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