Environment
Features

#NoMowMay won’t save Island ecosystems—plant camas instead

Experts urge people to rethink how they can support wildlife at home

Robyn Bell
May 23, 2023
Environment
Features

#NoMowMay won’t save Island ecosystems—plant camas instead

Experts urge people to rethink how they can support wildlife at home

Robyn Bell
May 23, 2023
A bumble bee flies toward a native flower at Fort Rodd Hill. Photo: Robyn Bell / Capital Daily
A bumble bee flies toward a native flower at Fort Rodd Hill. Photo: Robyn Bell / Capital Daily
Environment
Features

#NoMowMay won’t save Island ecosystems—plant camas instead

Experts urge people to rethink how they can support wildlife at home

Robyn Bell
May 23, 2023
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#NoMowMay won’t save Island ecosystems—plant camas instead
A bumble bee flies toward a native flower at Fort Rodd Hill. Photo: Robyn Bell / Capital Daily

Over the last few years, a trend of letting your grass grow to bloom in the month of May has taken off, with the hashtag #NoMowMay. The movement, first started by citizens in the UK in 2019, aims to encourage people to put their lawn mowers away for the month of May in order to provide shelter and flowers for pollinators at the beginning of the seeding season. 

As the movement continues to grow online, more and more Island residents are starting to jump on board, but local biodiversity experts say that this effort—while well intentioned—is not enough to address the growing loss of native species, particularly in the case of the Island. The Garry oak ecosystem, for example, is found only on the southeast coast of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, and has lost roughly 95% of habitat through urbanization. By losing this habitat, native pollinators and animals are becoming increasingly endangered.

Instead of keeping the lawn mower tucked away for a month, conservation scientists would rather see a shift in focus to growing native plants to support our local wildlife—and they’re creating examples for locals to learn from.

Garry oak meadows revitalized at Fort Rodd Hill 

At Fort Rodd Hill and Fisgard Lighthouse historical site in Colwood, visitors can find a fenced-in garden with an abundance of local plants. Walking into the lush meadow, a wooden arch created by Indigenous artist Tom LaFortune welcomes visitors, showing the connection of this traditional garden to the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.

Aimee Pelletier has been working with this meadow for the last decade and has seen a major shift in wildlife on the Fort Rodd grounds.

“We’ve just been amazed at how much life is supported within the meadow, compared to the lawn that’s just adjacent,” Pelletier said, who first began planning the project after starting with Parks Canada in 2009.

“We wanted to create an example of what people could do in their own habitats and lawns to reinstate a Garry oak ecosystem,” Pelletier said, adding it was also created as a space for Indigenous harvest of traditional plants. “We wanted to tell the broader story of how important these ecosystems have always been to local nations.”

Parks Canada worked closely with Cheryl Bryce, a member of the Songhees nation and a leader in Indigenous plant knowledge, working to plant species that Lekwungen-speaking nations have traditionally relied on. Bryce ensures that plants essential for pit cooks and other ceremonies and purposes, are prioritized.

The park has an open-door policy for Indigenous people to collect traditional plants. Pelletier said they are currently planting soap berries after a request from members of these nations.

View of Fort Rodd Hill from the Garry Oak Learning Meadow. Photo: Robyn Bell / Capital Daily

The process to convert a portion of the sprawling lawn into a Garry oak meadow wasn’t without its challenges—the grounds had been trodden on through past car shows, gatherings and camping causing the soil to compact. To aerate and improve growth in the area, the team spent two years mulching and reworking the soil, though Pelletier said they’ve since learned methods to speed up the process. Maintenance is also easier than you may expect—no watering is needed, since these plants have evolved to survive the Island’s weather. 

“That’s the beauty of native plants—once they’re established they adapt to our native climate,” Pelletier said, pointing to Songhees knowledge as a guiding point for maintenance. “Meadows are traditionally maintained with fire to prevent a buildup of thatch, but we obviously can’t use fire here, being a semi-urban area.” Instead they mow once a season, waiting for the camas—known as Kwetlal in the Lekwungen language—to finish ripening as per traditional practices.

“We hope this inspires people to learn about their local ecosystems and converting even just a small portion of their yards.” If you enjoy wildlife, this is a way to introduce it back into your gardens, said Pelletier.

How to save pollinators in your own backyard

Many people know the important role that pollinators, like bees, perform for our environment. The Save The Bees campaign has gained momentum around the world, but often focuses on preserving only honey bees, overlooking the variety of pollinators that preserve ecosystems. 

“I like to say that saving just honey bees is like saying ‘I’m going to save all animals by saving sheep’,” said Pelletier. “Honey bees are an agricultural insect, so they’re not really at risk in the same way as pollinators from these lands.”

Pelletier’s husband, Brian Starzomski who works as a professor of environmental studies at UVic, said that #NoMowMay often focuses too much on this type of bee.

“Honey bees are a non-native species brought in from Europe and Eurasia—they’re great pollinators but we’re less worried about them,” said Starzomski, explaining that non-native plants that usually grow when you stop mowing will be better for supporting non-native pollinators. “Native wasps and bees, such as bumble bees or carpenter bees, do a really great job of pollinating native species but they’re in trouble—a lot of them are in quite bad shape.”

Starzomski says a better approach would be to replace parts of those lawns with native plants, such as planting camas and sea blush.

“If people want to make a difference in supporting species and boosting wildlife around them, there are better ways than no-mow May,” said Starzomski. 

While it can be daunting to make such a dramatic change to a garden, there are plenty of local resources to help people take baby steps in the right direction. Satin Flower Nursery, founded by Kristen and James Miskelly, another husband and wife duo passionate about preserving biodiversity, has been operating and teaching locals about native species since 2013. Last year, they began their Meadow Makers course, teaching people firsthand how to transform their gardens into a Garry oak meadow. They also sell seeds and bulbs of endangered local plants.

Kristen Miskelly agrees that #NoMowMay has room to grow when it comes to preserving Island ecosystems.

“No-mow May should have a more detailed explanation—how about replace-your-lawn-with-native-plants May?” she laughed.

Kristen says that it’s important to meet people where they are with gardening, saying not everyone is ready to completely eschew their pristine lawns. Instead, they can start by planting one or two plants to make a significant difference.

“We’re not advocating for everyone to remove all lawn all over—but there are so many opportunities for some lawn areas to be restored to biodiverse-rich spots while still letting people have a spot to have their picnic blanket on their lawn,” she said. “We just want people to question this compulsion to have nature separated from our homes.”

For those without a lawn, Kristen suggests small planters to create a mini ecosystem for local pollinators. “It’s a way to help nature without thinking too much,” she said.

Kristen urges people not to worry about non-native plants in their garden, but rather be mindful of invasive species that can oversimplify ecosystems, such as Scotch broom, English ivy or Himalayan blackberry that have devastated Garry oak meadows. Keeping those at bay while planting camas, sea blush, nootka rose, and other local flora will do far more for saving the last 5% of the Garry oak ecosystem than #NoMowMay could.

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Robyn Bell
Newsletter Writer
TWITTER:
robyn@capitaldaily.ca

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