Who are we?
Ashley Hammell and Kelly Patterson McGrath created Pollinate Barrie in 2022 as a community-led, grassroots organization to educate, encourage, inspire and support native eco-system restoration within Barrie and beyond.
We work with individuals, other community groups, schools, companies and municipalities to understand the importance of pollinators and native plants, and create habitat to support them. We’re volunteers, and completely sustained and supported by volunteers–and we need your help!
Pollinators like bees and butterflies co-evolved with specific plants, grasses, shrubs and trees over millions of years. They need each other to survive–and the usual garden plants that we have replaced our native species with in our cities and suburbs are ineffective substitutes. Building safe habitats full of native Ontario plants is the only way to save the butterflies and bees that we love and depend on for our own survival.
Ontario native plants have evolved to live here: when placed in their native conditions, they thrive without costly and environmentally risky fertilizing, pesticides, supplemental watering, or even much weeding. They sequester carbon into the soil much better than most exotic species. Some prairie species’ roots travel fifteen feet down into the soil, capturing atmospheric CO2 and turning it into roots. They improve the health of lakes, rivers and groundwater by drastically improving drainage and soil stability. They are more resilient to an increasingly unpredictable climate. Crucially, they’re the foundation of the food webs of the other creatures we share this land with.
One out of every three bites of food comes from plants that require pollination from many different species. If the pollinators disappear, the food systems that collapse include OURS. We depend on bees and other pollinators for our food, but also to maintain the plants and trees that keep our air clean and our habitat livable.
Ontario native plants have been living and growing here long before we arrived, and their ecosystems were tended by our First Nations for hundreds of years before colonization. Planting, restoring and tending them now can be a powerful act of reconcilliation and collaboration with nature, instead of fighting against it. This land belongs to them, much more than it does to us, and it’s time we give as much back to them as we can.
And native plants are BEAUTIFUL–flashy, bright, long-blooming, dramatic or understated; you can choose between five foot tall candelabras of native Canada Lilies (lillium canadense), the delicious red and blue of Cardinal Flower (lobelia cardinalis) and Blue Flag Iris (iris versicolor) in your wet spots, shocks of magenta blooms on New England Aster (symphythotrichum novo-angliese), or the towering multibloom stems of Maximillian Sunflower (helianthus maximillianii), and everything in between. Choosing native plants doesn’t require you to compromise on beauty–and you may attract the stunning majesty of an Eastern Swallowtail butterfly, or the sparkle of green metallic sweat bees.
Do you like birds, and other medium-to-large-sized living things? I do. Pollinators and other insects form the base of every terrestrial food web on earth. The huge decline in songbird populations can be directly traced to the lack of native host plants making caterpillars starve before they can be fed to baby birds – ask Dr Doug Tallamy.
Do you like flowers? I do. Flowers co-evolved with pollinators–they need pollinators as much as pollinators need them to sustain their life cycle, seed, grow more plants and bloom again. Without pollinators, the sexual reproduction of a vast number of plant species becomes almost impossible–and everything leftover uses methods that make you sneeze. (I’m looking at you, turf grass and ragweed and the rest of Team Wind-Pollination).
Do you like to eat? I do. Every third bite of food we take required pollination by insects, and most of those services were done by native pollinators. If those pollinators vanished, it would take an alarmingly short time for our food production systems to collapse–and after that, you can imagine the mess we’d be in.
Do you like respecting the ecosystems you live within and benefit from? I sure do, even though sometimes it can be inconvenient. We are all part of the vast and subtle machine of life on Turtle Island, and even though our lives look different than their little lives, both are very important! Both can co-exist. We just have to make space.
The climate crisis impacts everything, and the sheer size of the problem can make it feel impossible to solve. Native plant gardening, however, is one of the few hands-on things that individuals can do to make a real difference.
Native plants that have been well-chosen for the site they make their homes do not need most of the ecologically expensive inputs that other gardening needs. Most native plants are perennials, cutting down on the amount of peat taken from the environment for commercial soil production. Fertilizer production and shipping both harms the environment, but native plant communities in the right place don’t need it. Supplemental watering is a common need of horticultural plants and turf grass, especially as heat events become more frequent–but native plants in the right place don’t need that either. Lawn mowers, leaf blowers, garbage bags, and yard waste processing all become unnecessary in a native garden. Already, the difference you can make by NOT doing things becomes clear.
It goes further – native plants generally have much larger and longer root systems than exotic horticultural plants, and those roots perform essential functions. They improve soil drainage dramatically, which improves the health of the water table and the soil – and stops dangerous runoff into lakes and rivers. Most impressively, the roots themselves actually sequester carbon, pulling it from the atmosphere and turning it into root systems sometimes reaching up to 15ft down into the ground. A pocket prairie in your yard can be a way to actually take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and replace them with breathable oxygen.
The climate crisis and urbanization threaten biodiversity, and filling your land with a thriving ecosystem is a powerful action against that
Despite our national pride in the majesty of our great outdoors, most of Canada considers a “well-maintained” property to be exclusively populated by manicured turf grass and exotic horticultural specimen flowers and shrubs surrounded by an ocean of mulch. Anything deviating from this narrow aesthetic can fall afoul of “property standard bylaws”, which are designed to prevent people from neglecting their outdoor spaces. Native gardens are not neglected outdoor spaces, but they frequently come under scrutiny from bylaw officers and grumpy neighbours, who do not always understand what we’re doing and why.
There are tactics we can use to help keep The Law off our ecosystems, though!
Signal “It’s Like This On Purpose!”
Posting visible signs from local and national organizations (like the Xerces society, Canadian Wildlife Federation, MonarchWatch, or us), including decorative elements to your garden like bird baths or statuary, and regularly being seen maintaining and inspecting the beds can all help to show your neighbours that the space is being tended and not abandoned.
Talk to your neighbours
Education is your best friend. Most people who dislike native gardens don’t understand what they’re looking at, or why they’re important. They probably have misunderstandings about bees, and they almost certainly think that butterflies are better seen and not fed. Teaching them about specialist insect/plant relationships, inviting them to take a closer look at your garden and the things that live there, and listening to their concerns so you can address them can all make a huge difference in the acceptance of native gardens. Maybe they’ll want to plant one too (we can help with that!)
Keep a garden map
If you DO wind up speaking with a bylaw officer, it’s likely they will not understand what they’re looking at either. Listing the species you have planted in your native garden, their functions in the ecosystem you’ve created, and some information about the life and progress of your garden, can all help the interaction go smoothly. Treat it like a tour–focus on educating about the amazing plants and insects you’re fostering, and myth-busting about “weedy plants” (ie. goldenrod doesn’t cause hay fever, its pollen is too heavy. Everyone’s sneezing at wind-pollinated ragweed, not solidago.). Keep abreast of what the municipal bylaws actually say, and other municipal initiatives connected to environmental causes; Barrie in particular has declared a Climate Emergency, and has declared itself both a Bird City and a Bee City, and your native garden directly contributes to the missions of all of those initiatives BECAUSE of the low-impact, naturalized way it is maintained.
Native gardens are an essential ecological lifeline for the pollinators we depend on, and that’s progressively becoming more accepted as time and the climate crisis wears on. Every visible native garden helps make it more acceptable!
Gardening as it’s traditionally done is a process of exerting control over the natural world. A garden in the popular western aesthetic is full of life bent to our will–only growing where we put them, not feeding anything, in neat rows or clumps, pruned and sculpted and replaced at will. It presupposes that the only important thing about a garden is the preference of the gardener.
This philosophy has created deserts of our gardens and land, and ushered in an extinction crisis among our birds and insects–the creatures we all depend on to keep our food systems working and ourselves alive.
We share the land we occupy with life that long predates our presence here. Those lives are not any less important because they are small, or quiet, or gentle. First Nations have understood this implicitly for as long as they’ve been on Turtle Island–they refer to the plants and animals that have evolved here as their relatives, and have lived in collaboration with their systems instead of in opposition to them. Settlers (like both the founders of Pollinate Barrie) arrived and swiftly upended this balance, and we have a heavy responsibility to make it right with everyone we’ve wronged–and to First Nations, that means the people AND the plants and animals.
Planting the species that evolved here in spaces you steward is like bringing them home. Letting them grow the way they have for thousands of years, and letting the things they feed come home too, can be an act of reconciliation that is sorely overdue. And respecting the land and the things that live on it is an anticolonial act that can be meaningful to the process of making amends for the hundreds of years of wrongs done to our First Nations.
Learn the Anishinabek names of our native plants, where you can. They are their true names, and they are as beautiful as the plants themselves.
A cultivar is a plant that has been selectively bred by growers to emphasize specific traits. Industrial growers produce cultivars for a few reasons: to sidestep some traditionally undesirable traits of a plant, to bring something “new” to entice people to purchase from them, and most of all, to patent-protect their sales–straight-species plants can be sold, but they cannot be EXCLUSIVELY sold, so there’s no way to corner the market on them.
The most frequently selected-for traits are colour and shape: double blooms, nonstandard foliage or bloom colours and patterns, shorter or taller stature in grasses, shrubs and flowers. Sometimes cultivars are bred for drought resistance, or for longer bloom times. You can often tell a plant is a cultivar by looking at the differences between it and the straight-species plant, but if you need a cheat code: any plant sold with an additional name “in quotations” is a cultivar. For example: bee balm (monarda fistulosa) is a straight-species plant. Monarda “balmy pink” is a cultivar. So is “Beauty of Cobham” Bee balm, and Monarda fistulosa “petite delight”. If it’s in quotations, you don’t want it.
What’s wrong with cultivars?
Cultivars show us the limits of the depth of our scientific understanding of plant genetics. Selective breeding for shape and colour can significantly impact the nutritional profile of a plant’s pollen and nectar–which is something that horticultural nurseries are not testing for, because it generally doesn’t impact or improve sales. Even slight changes to the colour of blooms and foliage can make the plant inedible to our pollinators, even if they’re producing pollen and nectar just fine. Double blooms can make flowers impossible to feed from entirely. Some cultivars have been studied and proven to be of a similar nutritional profile to straight species plants, but they are very rare, and the overwhelming number that have been studied have proven inferior, if not completely unusable. (For more information on this, the Mt Cuba Centre in Delaware is virtually the only institute that has studied this seriously.)
Fundamentally, pollinator support gardens are intended to be eaten, not looked at. If the plants included in them are not the highest-quality-available nectar, pollen and foliage that these creatures co-evolved with, we’ve effectively built a Cotton Candy stand when we meant to build a Whole Foods. That’s not what we want!
This is why we discourage the use of cultivars, and encourage planting from seed sources and nurseries that use straight-species native plants.
We know you love your grass. (We might not get it, but we know.) We know that the yearly leaf-dump feels like an existential threat to the safety of your beautiful green (european) turf.
But you’re here, so that means you’d like to help pollinators. So let’s put it this way.
A conservative 3/4s of all pollinators–almost ALL of them–survive the winter by hiding in undisturbed leaf litter. Caterpillars hibernate there. Lightning bugs live and mate there. Most of our moths and butterflies–cecropias, fritillaries, white admirals, Eastern commas, mourning cloaks, literally hundreds of them that you see and love every year–spend the winter in safe banks of fallen leaves, either in remarkably well-camouflaged cocoons, or as adults. Even entymologists whose whole careers are focused on the species cannot spot them in the leaves every fall.
Every fall, those bags of leaves bound for the compost heap or incinerator are filled with butterflies.
It’s not just the leaves, too–the act of raking can uproot the babies of 70% of our native bees–the ones who are stingless, solitary, and live in the ground. They can destroy bumblebee nests, which are also in the ground. They can dislodge stems that the remaining 30% of native bees are nesting in. The only bees that aren’t potentially disturbed by raking and autumn cleanup are honey bees (which, while useful and charming, are a managed species like cows and chickens, are not in species-wide decline like our native pollinators all are, and often outcompete our native pollinators for the same pollen and nectar resources).
So if your garden is trying to support pollinators, then leaving the leaves is one of the most helpful things you can do.
If you MUST move leaves, gently rake them into garden beds and leave them there. In addition to helping the pollinators, you’re helping insulate your perennial roots, keeping helpful moisture in, and adding nutrients to the soil as the leaves break down. Plus, you don’t have to pay for mulch! Everybody wins!
See our DONT List for more garden maintenance tips–most of them are just a blank cheque to do less yard work, for conservation.
When most of us think about bees, we think about honey and hives. Honey is awesome, hives are cool, and Apis mellifera (aka the Western Honeybee) is a sweet and useful little insect….but there are several important misconceptions about them that should be cleared up.
The first is that honeybees are an exotic species–they come from Europe and Africa, and have not coevolved with our plants like our 400 species of native bees did. A. Mellifera was brought over by colonists as a domesticated agricultural species, like cows and chickens. Like cows and chickens, they are bred by commercial breeders and their populations are stable, even as individual hives may suffer well-publicized collapse and challenges from the same kinds of pathogens that have challenged all domesticated animals kept in close quarters with each other.
Getting a honeybee hive to “save the bees” is about as useful as getting chickens to “save the birds”–honeybees are not the insects that need our help. They are kept well for their pollination labour and their products, have huge and powerful friends in the agricultural and animal husbandry lobbies, and regularly have urban and rural habitats and forage zones maintained for them just like we maintain grazing grounds for cows.
Native bees, on the other hand, cannot be kept in hives; the vast majority of them are solitary and live their entire life cycle in one growing season. They’re used for an incredible amount of essential pollination labour in agriculture, but their habitats are not maintained, and their populations are in steep decline. They depend on the high-quality nectar and pollen from the plants they co-evolved with in Ontario–and as those plants are disappearing rapidly, so are our native bees. In fact, native bees are frequently pushed out of important forage zones by honeybees.
When we say we need to save the bees, the bees we are talking about are our native Bumble, mason, mining, longhorn, carpenter and sweat bees–not honeybees.
Honey’s still nice though.