Planting for Pollinators on Martha’s Vineyard

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When it comes to conscious landscaping on Martha’s Vineyard, it’s all about the birds and the bees.

While the Island is fortunate to have an abundance of conservation land, these designated areas are not enough to support the unique flora and fauna that contribute to the charm and vitality of Martha’s Vineyard. It took me nearly a decade of gardening to come to the realization that my garden could be so much more than simply a space of beauty, finally discovering its potential as a foundational piece to the backyard ecosystem. We can each play a part in connecting ecologically significant tracts of land to overcome fragmentation and provide vital habitat. 

If you create suitable habitat that fits the surrounding natural landscape, you will be amazed by the abundance and richness of plants and animals that appreciate the hospitality and become your neighbors. In return, they will provide essential services that sustain life, such as pollination, clean air and water, soil formation, climate resilience, and social enrichment. 

Here are a few tips to help you along the way in promoting biodiversity. Focus your efforts on “The Three Needs”: diversity of native plants, water, and cover.

Diversity of Native Plants

Not all plants are equal in their utility within an ecosystem. Plant more oaks and other native tree species. Oaks are a keystone of Vineyard ecosystems, supporting more than 500 caterpillar species, which in turn are integral to the diet of nestling birds. We are so fortunate to be surrounded by this highly productive genus, and it is easy to take oaks for granted. In addition to oaks, many other native trees help increase biodiversity in your backyard.

Top native tree species

  • Oaks (Quercus) – white oak, black oak, post oak, scrub oak, dwarf chinquapin oak
  • Black Cherry (Prunus serotina
  • Birch (Betula)
  • Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
  • Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
  • Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida
  • American Holly (Ilex opaca)

Appreciate the natural understory

Having a productive canopy is not enough. The shrub layer is particularly important for water infiltration and providing the physical structure necessary for the completion of many life cycles. To wildlife, brushcutting the understory is analogous to stripping away all the amenities of your home. Try planting some of these native shrubs to provide the requisite resources to bolster diversity.

Top native shrub species

  • Blueberry (Vaccinium)
  • Beach Plum (Prunus maritima)
  • Hazelnut (Corylus)
  • Winterberry and Inkberry (Ilex verticillata and Ilex glabra)
  • Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
  • Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)
  • Serviceberry/Shad (Amelanchier)
  • Willow (Salix)
  • Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

Reduce lawn space where you are not actively using it

We’re urged to create manicured lawns, watering them daily, mowing them weekly, and regularly fertilizing to maintain a monoculture of turf grass. What a chore it is working against nature! Instead, entertain the idea of directing your energy and resources toward creating dynamic gardens and supporting the Island’s local flora and fauna. Nature will do much of the work for you for the nominal price of not destroying habitat. 

Let areas go unmown and don’t fret the bare spots

Bare spots are perfect nesting sites for solitary ground nesting bees that are primary pollinators.

Create pocket meadows

or plant gardens with native shrubs and perennials that cover an extended bloom period from spring through fall.

Top perennials

Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)

Joe-pye Weed (Eutrochium dubium)

Tall White Aster (Doellingeria umbellata)

Goldenrods (Solidago/Euthamia)

Hyssop-leaved Thoroughwort (Eupatorium hyssopifolium)

White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricata)

Native Grasses: Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Wavy Hair Grass (Deschampsia flexuosa)

Water 

Water is a key attribute of the backyard habitat.

Incorporate a year-round water feature

You will be amazed by what creatures are attracted to a regularly replenished water dish, particularly in the winter. Going the extra step of installing a heated birdbath may even lead to some unique visitors. Add features that create movement in the water to attract more birds and other wildlife. Place a birdbath in the vicinity of shrub cover to offer an escape from predators, but not so close that an outdoor cat can utilize that cover for hunting purposes. Be sure to regularly refresh your birdbath and practice proper hygiene to protect visiting fauna and mitigate mosquito breeding.

Add a pond, but keep the fish separate

Fish are consumers of other aquatic species. Constructing a pond without fish will promote greater diversity and serve as a refuge for amphibians and beneficial insects. The pond suggestion comes with a caveat. Not all properties are suitable for this kind of water feature. Creating a pond in a highly fragmented area could be catastrophic for animals drawn to the water. 

Cover

Increased habitat loss and fragmentation have reduced available cover for birds, bats, reptiles, and amphibians. 

Retain dead trees on your property

This is an easy way to provide nesting cavities for birds. If that dead tree poses a risk, consider just removing the top limbs and leave some of the trunk standing. If it must come down, consider laying it on the forest floor. Doing so will benefit the local ecology and recycle nutrients to support future plant communities. 

Construct brush piles or wood piles

Brush piles provide shelter from inclement weather and potential predators.

Manmade structures

Manufacture cover sources by building and mounting nest boxes and bat houses, or establish an overwintering site for snakes with a hibernaculum. Snakes are a wonderful asset in natural pest control. It is important, though, to know the appropriate locations and predator protections for these constructions, otherwise you may inadvertently create an ecological trap.

Interested in applying these actions but still not entirely sure where to start? You can sign up for a free consultation with the Natural Neighbors program and receive customized management suggestions tailored to your property. We work with property owners to develop a stewardship plan that is compatible with their time and resources to help wildlife and plants move, mate, pollinate, and thrive. To learn more, email angelal@biodiversityworksmv.org

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Angela Luckey
Angela Luckey
Angela Luckey is a biologist working for BiodiversityWorks on Martha’s Vineyard.

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