Turning A Garden City Community Garden Into A Pollinator Haven
It’s a very early July morning and I’m driving into a new housing development. It’s chaos in this part of Garden City, as cars, dog walkers and cement trucks weave their way around townhouses and apartments still under construction. There’s plenty of concrete and steel, but very little green space, and no sign of non-humans. But tucked into a little square of all this new growth are seven private homes, plus two more under construction, creating a box around a hidden community garden.
"It's so peaceful here," I sigh.
"It's very peaceful, yeah," says Audrey Nachilo, or Aud as she likes to be called. “So the community garden is shared, this is our entire little garden plot. We've had this since last year."
I met Aud and her husband Joe back in May while we were all picking up our very tiny green plant starts from the Treasure Valley Pollinator Project in Caldwell. They invited me to come see their flowers now that they’ve grown up.
"Look at these. These are happy, aren't they?" I say pointing at a cluster of pretty pink flowers. The garden is a riot of color, with yellow, red and white flowers everywhere.
"These are the cosmos and then I think this one is the zinnia, which almost looks like we were saying to our neighbor that this is very much like a cake almost in its sort of like structure. I think the cosmos have been one of our favorite additions to the garden," Aud says.
Those are just two of the 64 plants Aud and Joe got from the Pollinator Project.
"Black-eyed susans and also musk mallow, yarrow, they flowered beautifully over there," Aud says as she points at each flower. “We've also had poppies come up and then we had some nasturtiums that weren't in our trays, but somehow managed to take along for the ride. And so some nasturtiums got planted by, I think, just seeds in the individual little transplants."
The pair have been slowly building up their little corner of this garden tended by the homeowners who surround it. Aud and Joe are software engineers who work out of their house and Idaho is their forever home, their “Ida-home.” They love to sit on their porch and watch all the new pollinators coming to their flowers, including ladybugs, butterflies, hummingbirds, and of course...bees.
“I lost count of how many kinds of bees are over there on those flowers, just big bubbly ones and a little teeny tiny ones and long ones and the one with the yellow legs who looks like he's wearing three pairs of yellow sweats," I exclaim.
"Definitely," Aud replies, “And then the one with the little green on as well."
The Treasure Valley Pollinator Project encourages people to learn more about the habitat around them, something Aud and Joe have embraced wholeheartedly. With so many new pollinators, like the bees, dropping by, they’ve turned into detectives to identify them all.
“We had these very fuzzy, gray and white bees, do you remember what they were called Joe?” Aud asks her husband. “We did look them up and they’re very kind of stylish bees in their gray and white stripes,” says Joe.
And they’re not just thinking about pollinators. Aud proudly points out their new water fountain as two small finches zoom down to take a drink.
"So it's a solar fountain, and so eventually when the sun, when it picks up enough juice, it'll start to actually, you know, fountain out and the birds love it." Aud stops to point at an inquisitive squirrel. "And then this is our friend Sid. He's a little friendly, but he's a little nervous, but he'll come and drink from the fountain. So this has been a very successful addition to the garden this year of bringing water that's got energy. The birds really love it and so does the squirrel.”
Between the fountain, the flowers and a new bird feeder, they’ve seen goldfinches, doves, even a woodpecker.
Aud leads me over to a tall fence on the side of their house where giant stalks with leaves like dinner plates are growing.
"And then this is the bed that we built and I grew these sunflowers from seed, and I think this one is just reaching and reaching," Aud points high above her head at the plants. "I don't know how tall it is right now, but I think it must be eight feet at this point. And I was reading online that the tallest sunflower recorded was in Germany at 30 feet one inch. But I'm thinking this could be a 12 foot sunflower."
We all look up at the plants trying to figure out how tall they are. Aud tells me she is five-foot-two-and-a-half inches and playfully hops up on the side of the garden box for scale. The sunflowers tower over her.
"This is huge! Look at this thing," I exclaim. "Yeah, I know," says Aud, then points at a mangled leaf, "And this is where the squirrel comes along and bites, you see the dead leaf on the thing, he bites them off and then chews them like celery."
The Pollinator Project has given Aud and Joe the confidence to try out some new plants in the garden...like strawberries, beans, asparagus..."Then we've got peas and beans, but I think they've struggled a little bit with the sun, tomatoes and some peppers, we're growing some fennel and giant sunflowers, so that's where we're at right now," Aud laughs.
"They have kind of taken over and some squashes it looks like," I say pointing. "Yeah, I mean, they're flowering, but I don't know. I don't know if they're going to actually produce squashes. I'm not sure. But they're flowering so I'm not sure," she laughs again.
Aud and Joe are also trying different things in different parts of the garden. They’re learning a lot, even from their less successful attempts.
"We're attempting to grow cucumbers here, but I don't know if the heat, I don't know. We'll see," Aud says. "I think maybe I'm a more successful flower gardener than I am a vegetable gardener at this point. That's kind of how I'm feeling."
The flowers, bees and birds that have taken over this communal space have prompted a sense of community for all the people living around the garden. One neighbor is growing zinnias in her garden box, another has “amazing” squash according to Aud, another has lovely tomatoes.
"So the community garden also is great - we all meet here, and last year we did a few little wine evenings, you know, socially distanced, of course,” says Aud. “But I think it's a great place. Joe often thinks this place is more like the British village green, that it's a community place for us. And since all of our cottages look out onto the garden, I think we all take a bit of responsibility of keeping it really nice and watering.” Aud looks out at all the planter boxes. “We take care of each other's gardens when someone's out of town. So we have a little bit of a rotation, I'm out of town, will you take care of my garden? So that's kind of nice."
Joe says they plan to put several of the pollinator friendly plants they got this year from the Treasure Valley Pollinator Project into the garden next spring.
"Oh, definitely, cosmos, zinnia and some of the things with the less appealing names like yarrow and musk mallow, which sound distinctly uninteresting but they produce amazing flowers and the blue flax also is really gorgeous. And those things seem to really withstand the intense sun we get in the evenings around here. So definitely some of those," says Joe while Aud adds "More sunflowers, always more sunflowers," and they both laugh.
They plan to branch out and build their own secret garden on the side of the house with more shade tolerant plants.
The pair walk around the garden, pointing out the more vivid splashes of red and orange. But pretty flowers are just a side benefit of the Pollinator Project for the couple. Creating a space for pollinators was Aud’s driving motivation behind signing up.
"And it's just fun to see all that activity. I follow a few people on Instagram that are just avid gardeners and I'm learning some things from them. And they were saying if you've got animals in your garden and they're eating your leaves, you should just imagine that that's a good thing because they think your garden is edible and you're providing this habitat,” Aud says, pointing out a half nibbled leaf.
And I think that for us is the joy, to see that we're creating this habitat, which is, you know, is a lovely thing.
“And as you saw before, we've got birds and a squirrel and we do have a lot. It's quite quiet for the birds right now. But at times of the day, there's a lot of activity in the garden. And I think that for us is the joy, to see that we're creating this habitat, which is, you know, is a lovely thing."
But it turned into so much more. Joe says all the new plants have made their community garden more...cozy.
“Well, sometimes when the weather isn't quite as scorching as it is right now, we'll sit on the porch in the evening with a glass of wine and the solar fountain is running and there's the tinkling of water and the plants are just swaying in the breeze. And it's quite, quite delightful,” Joe smiles as Aud adds, “It’s nice.”
I leave Aud and Joe, as they watch Sid the Squirrel, goldfinches and dozens of bees moving in and out of their flowering community garden.