Time was “a garden” consisted of a lawn, framed by sweeping beds of perennials, evergreens and flowers (oh the flowers!) — broad beds of monochromatic colour without a break in the line. Military precision was used when planting, nurturing and indeed the hybridizing of them all. It started with petunias and by the late 1970s the market was dominated by impatiens. By the mid ‘80s, 60 per cent of all annual flowers sold in Canada were impatiens. Today it is near 0 per cent (for the traditional ‘walleriana’ varieties).
Granted, the proliferation of downy mildew helped to bring the popularity of impatiens to an end, but their demise was in sight anyway.
Thank the bees.
The bees have changed the way that we look at gardens forever. With the news that honey bees have been in decline for some time, a nerve has been struck in the hearts of every gardener across the country. “What? Lose the bees? That would mean ‘no honey’!” and so the discussion began.
Perhaps it is no surprise then that Kew Gardens in the U.K., the venerable grand-daddy of all botanical gardens, has opened a special exhibit called The Hive. This giant interpretation of a beehive highlights the essential role that bees and insects worldwide play in pollinating plants and thus, “Helping to feed the planet.” (editorial, Kew Magazine).
The exhibit features a soaring 17-metre (55-ft) high aluminum structure that consists of over 17,000 moving parts. It ‘comes alive’ with ever-changing lighting and sound intended to imitate the sound of a busy bee hive. This special exhibit won the gold prize for Architecture and Landscape when it was featured at the Milan Expo last year.
As Richard Deverell, dDirector of Kew explains, “we want to tempt people to visit who, perhaps, have never visited a botanic garden before and simply don’t see any reason to do so. This requires us to do bold and ambitious things that get noticed. This includes food security — how we ensure our rapidly growing and ever-hungry human population has access to sufficient supplies of food.”
Around the ‘Hive’ they have planted 34 native wildflower species and three different species of ornamental grasses, which flower over the summer and autumn. The wildflower garden is surrounded by a hedge made up of six native evergreen species.
This multi million dollar commitment, made on the part of Kew, tells us a lot about what resonates with people today. I suggest that the popularity of the ‘pollinator’ message is not unique to the U.K. Canadians are interested in planting native flowering plants, attracting pollinators to the garden and installing insect and bee habitat in their yards with great enthusiasm.
The only trend that may be greater is that of ‘food gardening’. These topics are related as 30 per cent of our food requires insect pollination.
The truth is, all of us can make a positive impact on the world of pollinators. Here in Canada, there are more than 700 native bee species. The honey bee is not one of them as it is a European import.
At home you can do your part by planting more pollinator flowers, installing a water feature and adding insect and bee habitats in your yard.
There is another national initiative in the U.K. that flags our general concern for bees: Grow Wild. This is the biggest-ever wildflower campaign in the U.K, “bringing people together to transform their local neglected spaces using native, pollinator-friendly wildflowers and plants.” according to the Grow Wild website. It is funded in part by the Big Lottery Fund and the program has been responsible for planting more than 3.5 million square metres with wildflowers.
Where did this idea come from? Since the 1930s, there has been a 97 per cent loss of wildflower meadows in the U.K. I imagine that the discussion started there.
How much of our ‘wild flower meadows’ have we lost in Canada in recent years? Is it possible that we can replace much of it through a grass-roots lead effort to re-claim open, public spaces, like hydro corridors, in an effort to attract pollinators? Are there lottery funds or government grants available to help us do this? Are there people with energy and commitment enough to get the job started?
I think that our own botanical gardens could lead this charge and, to a degree, they are.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at markcullen.com. Look for his new best seller, “The New Canadian Garden,” published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook.