How do we shift our thinking?

Rudbeckia laciniata and butterfly E Jemez Dana Ecelberger

Weidemeyer’s Admiral on Rudbeckia laciniata/Cutleaf Coneflower E. Fork Jemez | Photo: Dana Ecelberger

Blog Post by Dana Ecelberger

Becoming a Bee City requires a shift in our thinking from traditional gardening styles toward a more native approach that favors leaving patches of bare ground for the 70% of ground nesting bees native to New Mexico, a slightly wilder look, the use of predominantly locally native plants, and a serious reduction in the use of pesticides. Pajarito Environmental Education Center has paired with Los Alamos County and Parks & Recreation to identify areas in the County that can be transformed into beautiful, fire-safe pollinator paradises that everyone can enjoy. Read on to find out more about why all of this is important and how you can participate.

I come from a formal landscaping background, and I have an aesthetic bias toward English cottage gardens rich in showy European and Asian perennials, shrubs and bulbs with neatly raked and manicured lawn paths and beds. So, how did it come to pass that I am now designing more natural landscapes for pollinators?

As a professional landscape designer, it has taken me a minute to shift my thinking away from showy and manicured to pollen and nectar rich and a bit “wild”. It has taken some time for me to learn to appreciate the subtle beauty of native plants and to see the potential in piles of leaves and dead stems left standing through winter. It has even taken me some time to shift my vocabulary away from phrases like “year-round color” to “year-round resources” and “Fall clean-up” to “Leave it alone through winter”. The impetus for this shift has come through understanding that our insect populations on planet Earth are crashing, and the reality that, without insects, we humans won’t last long.

Traditionally, when we design gardens that are dense with decadent blooming perennials and highly controlled lawn and bed areas, we are designing mostly sterile landscapes. We spray pesticides to get rid of the insects we have deemed undesirable, fertilize with chemicals, and use gas powered, loud blowers to wipe every last trace of Nature away from the surface of the ground. We aren’t considering the pollinating insects that depend on leaf litter and dead stems to overwinter beneath and within. We don’t think about the fact that pesticides kill pretty much everything they touch, even the beautiful butterflies and bumblebees we want . We are basically designing OUT Nature. Turning our thinking toward utilizing more native North American plants for our native pollinators starts to open up wonderful doors of possibility. The most widely accepted definition of “native”, at this time, is that the plants and animals of a place that were there before European colonization of North America.

If more homeowners would make the switch to planting more native plants in their landscapes they would not only decrease the need for pesticides but also lower their water bills and mowing time. Natural lawns are drought tolerant and, with proper selection, do not require mowing. Following a pollinator friendly maintenance regime means not having to blow leaves each Fall. Raking them to the perimeter of the garden, or allowing them to remain in the beds, will provide overwintering habitat for the native bees and other insects and will add nutrients and structure to the beds so that fertilizer is not needed. Native plants are usually drought tolerant, requiring less water, and most do not want a rich soil which means we don’t need to fertilize the beds. Most of them are less prone to attack by pests. And, there are beautiful, showy species of native plants for all areas of the country (see the Recommended Native Plant List on our Bee City Los Alamos webpage for ideas).

This is not only true for homeowners, but also for municipalities as well. Cost savings in water, maintenance and installation are huge on a larger scale. The average turf lawn costs from $4,000 to $8,000 an acre whereas a full installation of native grasses and other native plants runs between $2,000 and $4,000 an acre. Multiply that by all the savings possible by cutting the watering budget. Many established native landscapes only need about 0.5 inches every two weeks as opposed to between 5000 and 8000 gallons of water per day per acre of turf! The average traditionally maintained golf course in America applies approximately 50,000 pounds of pesticide per year. At an average cost of $22.00 per pound that really adds up. Native grasses and other plants generally do not require treatment with pesticides as they are less prone to attack by pests.

Bee City Los Alamos, and our host organization Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC), together with the Los Alamos County Parks & Recreation, are partnering to create a pollinator demonstration garden on Bathtub Row next to the Senior Center and the County Extension Office. Over a 5-year span, we will be converting the open area there into several different types of pollinator habitat. Starting with the center area of the big field, we will be planting native trees and shrubs that are beneficial to pollinators and birds, with a swath of native meadow flowers and grasses and finally a more formal area of showy perennials that would work well in any high visibility landscape. Next year we hope to create a Fire-Safe native area around the Extension office. And, then move onto native plantings that are good under existing trees. Volunteers are gladly welcome at all stages of this project. We will begin by weeding and prepping the area on April 6th from 8-noon. Then, planting in late Spring. We will need volunteers to hand water the area, help to weed out any invasive species that germinate, and help with Fall planting of trees and shrubs. Please contact us at PEEC or email us at:

Together we can make a difference!

For more information, visit the Pollinator Resource Center on our website, and Follow our blog for more information, and tips on how you can be a part of the great work being done in Los Alamos County to help pollinators.

1 thought on “How do we shift our thinking?”

  1. Thank you very much. Los Alamos is First Community Wildlife Habitat in New Mexico, certified by National Wildlife Federation in 2016. Also our Nature Center has Dorothy Hoard Memorial Gardens with three Mesa gardens, Pollinator, Native and the common plants .
    Now I am excited we are going to teach community with this project.
    At Nature center we have NWF handouts about gardens for butterflies and pollinators.
    It will be nice to encourage through Pajarito Environmental Education Center arrange Garden tours in summer so people learn in person. We did have tours many years ago and successful.
    Master Gardners also have tours.
    All the best.

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