Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Bees and butterflies are free!

My involvement with the Minnesota Chapter of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC Mn) has provide me with a welcome opportunity to do some writing and photography and blogging on each of the three Dynamic Green Homes (DGH) the chapter has worked on. Each of those projects has involved a rain garden. If you're interested, here's a link to the first DGH rain garden. Be sure to take a look at Part 2 while you're there. The two DGH rain garden projects currently underway were designed by the Capital Region Watershed District and Ramsey Conservation District. The list of plants to be used are all natives. No invasive species. Here's a link to the District's web page on Rain Gardens. Rain Gardens are becoming increasingly popular in Minnesota. There's even one, or two, depending on how you count, at our local library.

rain garden in bloom, Summer 2014
rain garden in bloom, Summer 2014
Photo by J. Harrington

So rain gardens are beneficial for ground water recharge, reducing polluted urban storm water runoff, and aesthetically attractive, depending on what's planted, and, they can also benefit our local pollinators, including bees and butterflies, again, depending on what's planted. Unfortunately, those of us in the sustainable development arena don't always do a very good job of connecting the dots for those trying to learn what it's all about. Neither the plant listing on the DGH pages about rain gardens, nor the District's page on Rain Gardens, mentions which rain garden plantings are also attractive to bees, butterflies and moths, so we haven't done as good a job as possible identifying yet another reason to have a rain garden. The folks at Blue Thumb do mention pollen and nectar near the bottom of their page on why do a rain garden, but they don't identify specific plants. Rain gardens are even appropriate in a greater Minnesota urban or suburban setting such as the Green Communities single family rehab pictured below, but can bee much more attractive with bee-friendly plants.

rain garden retrofit at a Northfield, MN rehab
Photo by J. Harrington

This limited dot connecting might have been more acceptable before we began learning our honey bees and monarch butterflies are in trouble and need help. But, now wet know and can appreciate the added value if we are aware of how to add it. I went in search on the Internet for some "connect the dot" information about rain garden plants and pollinators, and found a great resource through the Vermont "Smart Waterways" web site. It's a planting list for rain garden plants that specifically lists those flowers that are attractive to pollinators, by category. It turns out, not surprisingly, that many of the plants native to Vermont are also native to Minnesota. So, we can compare the planting list for the St. Paul rain gardens with the plants listed in the Vermont resource. When we do the comparison, we notice that trees and shrubs have no specific information about attractiveness to pollinators, but flowers do. All of the flowers in our local planting list serve pollinators. Fox sedge is supposedly wind pollinated and has no real flowers so it's not particularly beneficial to pollinators. All in all, though, we're doing pretty well. I'm not sure though if it's because we, and our partners, had pollinators in mind or if we just got lucky.

In many urban settings, rain gardens are complemented by green roofs (or the other way around). I'm not sure the photo below is a rural green roof, but neither am I sure what else it could be. Rain can trigger different responses in the wild or at home, even if we think we're at home in the wild.

old silo with a "rural green roof?"
Photo by J. Harrington


By Peter Everwine 

Toward evening, as the light failed
and the pear tree at my window darkened,
I put down my book and stood at the open door,
the first raindrops gusting in the eaves,
a smell of wet clay in the wind.
Sixty years ago, lying beside my father,
half asleep, on a bed of pine boughs as rain
drummed against our tent, I heard
for the first time a loon’s sudden wail
drifting across that remote lake—
a loneliness like no other,
though what I heard as inconsolable
may have been only the sound of something
untamed and nameless
singing itself to the wilderness around it
and to us until we slept. And thinking of my father
and of good companions gone
into oblivion, I heard the steady sound of rain
and the soft lapping of water, and did not know
whether it was grief or joy or something other
that surged against my heart
and held me listening there so long and late.

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