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Bedding down the Treasure Valley Pollinator Project – and your plants – for winter

A yellow and black striped bee with fuzzy legs crawls on a bright yellow flower.
Samantha Wright
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A bee snacks on one of 64,000 flowering plants planted this year in the Treasure Valley.

It’s been a crazy weather year – hot when it should be cold, dry when it should be wet, and smoky, so smoky. Through it all 64,000 flowering plants, planted all over the Treasure Valley, thrived and provided food for bees, birds and other pollinators.

The Treasure Valley Pollinator Project grew the plants in response to growth, which is changing the landscape of the valley by replacing farmland and open space with new development. Project participants signed up to help pollinators like bees and butterflies by planting these flowers to provide critical food and habitat.

We’ve followed the project over the past year and wanted to see how things went, so we asked the Ada Soil and Water Conservation District’s Jessica Harrold, who coordinated the project, back on Idaho Matters. Gemma Gaudette asked Harrold about what motivated her to take on such an ambitious undertaking.

Jessica Harrold: It was in part because we couldn't host the in-person workshops that we were used to having. We wanted to make this accessible and something that people could really engage with and participate in at home. And what better way than just by creating this little oasis in your own backyard?

Gemma Gaudette: And I must say, when you talk about a little oasis, you grew 64,000 flowering plants for this project. Can you talk about all the work that went into this idea?

A raised flower bed features dozens of flowers, including sunflowers and marigolds, along with a hanging bird feeder and a small water fountain. Condominiums are in the distance.
Samantha Wright
This little oasis of flowers was planted in a tiny community garden in Garden City, thanks to the Treasure Valley Pollinator Project.

Harrold: Yes, that is a really ambitious number for a first-year project, but we thought that making a really big impact to the pollinator spaces in the Treasure Valley was important. And so 64,000 flowering plants went out into the community. Over 700 people participated in this project. These plants filled up two greenhouses out at Peaceful Belly Farm that grew all these flowers for us, and a lot of them also found homes with local cities. Meridian, Eagle and Boise all received flowering plants as well for their public spaces and pollinator gardens.

Gaudette: And you had hundreds of people sign up and take home these plants. So what kind of response did you get from participants?

Harrold: The response that we got was overwhelmingly positive. We have received so many comments from people - just how excited they were to start creating these pollinator habitats in their own backyard and how really engaged they were. They learned so much. They started really paying attention to the bees and the insects that they were seeing in their garden. And we also have this social media group. I was astounded by people talking to each other about their gardens, they were sharing photos of the plants and how they were doing. They were helping each other identify insects and flowers and giving gardening tips. And just the community that came together around this project, I think, was one of the best results that we had overall, the engagement and joy that it brought to people.

Gaudette: So what plants did people like the most? Was there a specific one?

Harrold: I don't think there was, everybody really seemed to share a wide variety of photos, I think that they were definitely posting their most favorite flowers and the most beautiful spots in their garden that they were really pleased by. I think we saw almost every flower posted. So, I think it was just everything as a whole. I know somebody was very impressed that her Cosmos got over six feet tall, I think this year. So, there were people who were astounded by how big these flowers get. I think that sometimes the varieties that you might get at a big box store versus ones that are started on small farms, they're meant for really small gardens and they don't get kind of wild. But these got huge and they provided so much habitat for all of the insects.

Gaudette: So, you mentioned this group, which was a Facebook group, and it really was a big part of the project, so, you know, talk a little bit more about that because, you just mentioned about how people could post pictures, ask questions. I mean, especially during a pandemic, I would think that this was able to bring people together and create a community.

And just the community that came together around this project, I think, was one of the best results that we had overall, the engagement and joy that it brought to people.
Jessica Harrold, coordinator of the Treasure Valley Pollinator Project

Harrold: It really was, yeah, we started a group for people participating in the project, although I think more people joined just to learn about pollinators, which is fantastic too. And so, they were sharing photos. We also posted a bunch of resources on the page as well for people. And we were there to answer questions, although a lot of the time before we even saw a question, it had already been answered by a couple of different people. We had a wide variety of people who participated from brand new gardeners to even really experienced gardeners, and so those experienced gardeners were able to help give their expertise as well. More than just the district staff. So, it was a really wide variety of people who were able to pitch in.

Gaudette: So, Jessica, how do you feel about the project?

Thousands of little green plants cover the ground inside a giant white tunnel-shaped greenhouse.
Michael Martin
More than 64,000 flowering plants were grown in greenhouses at Peaceful Belly Farm in Caldwell for the project.

Harrold: I'm ecstatic about how it turned out, and I just really love it, and I can't wait to continue this going forward.

Gaudette: You'll have a lot more information right next month, but you're going to continue the project next year, is that correct?

Harrold: Yes, this will definitely be an ongoing project with the conservation district, and we are working on finalizing everything and people will be able to purchase their plants and all of the details will be announced in December.

Gaudette: OK, so what tips do you have for folks who are getting ready, getting their plants ready for winter? Because I know you gave people annual and perennial plants, so can we start with the annuals and what should they do with those?

Harrold: So, yeah, no, there are tons of things that you can do to prep for or to really winterize your pollinator habitat, and the biggest thing that you can do is actually doing nothing at all. There's a lot of benefit to leaving all of the plants standing throughout the winter and to leave leaves in your yard and garden to having all of that plant matter provides great cover for pollinators for pollinating insects, protecting them against all of the snow that comes and all of the winter rain and cold weather by giving that insulation and then also all of the decomposers in the ground, like the earwigs use that too, and it just creates a really sheltering environment for them. And like, you know how, if you're raking up yards, I know I find a lot of the little fuzzy caterpillars in my leaf piles if I start cleaning stuff out and I always try to leave those. But honestly, I don't really break up my gardens or do much garden cleanup until the next year when I'm starting to plant again.

Gaudette: Gotcha. OK, so then what if you have perennials? What's the best way to prep them for the cold weather?

Harrold: I kind of leave those alone, too. I know that some of my perennials, like the lavender, even still is blooming now, and I've seen these out there on it. So, I'll do a lot of that really late into winter when a lot of bees aren't active at all. And then I'll work on cutting it back. But it's not a terrible thing to just kind of let things be and let your garden rest, and then you can get really excited for your garden cleanup in the spring.

Gaudette: OK, so then if you're somebody like me and I don't know what in the world I have an annual or perennial, I mean, I have to Google what that even means. So generic advice. Basically, would it be leave things alone? Is that what I'm hearing from you?

Harrold: That's what I do. But maybe I'm also just a lazy gardener [laughs]. But no, it's just all of that ground cover. Right? It's so important to all these insects to provide all of that space. So, I don't think there's any harm in just letting things stand. You can reach out to the University of Idaho Master Gardeners program, though if maybe you want to get a head start on your gardening for next year. They do have a lot of great resources available. They have a hotline that you can call into and ask all of these questions if you have questions about a specific plant. And I think they are a really great resource. But no, I don't think there's any harm in also just taking a break from your garden.

Gaudette: Well, perfect, I love that advice. I want to thank you so much for coming back in and talking with us about this.

Harrold: Thank you so much.

A bee hovers in the air directly above the round brown center of a flower with bright yellow petals.
Samantha Wright
Bees and other pollinators found new food supplies in the Treasure Valley this year with the new project.

Samantha Wright is a news reporter and producer for Idaho Matters.