The future pollinator habitat in the Village on the Green Park. (Staff photo by Bill Sanservino.)

Ewing Township and Mercer County have teamed up on a pilot project, the Partners of Pollinators initiative, to creating habitats to feed pollinators on municipal lands.

“The idea is that the county would partner or work with organizations that own and manage public space but not [space] owned by the county,” says Jennifer Rogers, Mercer County naturalist since 2008.

The work raises an important question. Why are pollinators vital?

According to the U.S. Forest Service website, about 90 percent of all flowering plants need the help of animals and insects to move pollen from flower to flower for the production of fruits and seeds.

“Of the estimated 1,330 crop plants grown worldwide for food, beverages, fibers, condiments, spices, and medicines approximately 75 percent are pollinated by animals,” states the website.

Pollinators are mostly insects like bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, flies and beetles, but they also include as many as 1,500 species of vertebrates, such as birds and mammals.

A number of important pollinators are facing extinction, in part due to a reduction in habitats where they feed.

In an effort to help combat this, the Ewing Green Team and the Environmental Commission created a pollinator garden last year in the central courtyard of the Ewing Senior and Community Center.

Meanwhile, Mercer County has been creating acres of pollinator habitats as it restores its parks—in response to the “alarming rate” at which populations of pollinators have been decreasing, said Mercer County executive Brian Hughes in a press release announcing the POP initiative.

Rogers says that the county wanted to expand the program to municipalities, and found a ready partner in the Ewing Green Team.

They created POP as a pilot project to convert two half-acre Ewing municipal lawn spaces—one in front of the ESCC and another in the park in the Village on the Green development—into native wildflower meadow habitats.

They chose the senior center site because it gets so many daily visitors, who will see the butterflies and bees enjoying the meadow.

“What a great way to incentivize people to do more of it on their home properties,” says Joanne Mullowney, Green Team chair.

Mullowney, a retired librarian, is excited about the POP program, which allows the county to extend its efforts in habitat restoration.

Partnering municipalities receive a lawn-to-meadow conversion on municipally owned land in exchange for an agreement to maintain the created habitat for at least 10 years. The meadows will include native wildflowers and grasses. The $2,900 cost to create the meadows will be covered by the Mercer County Open Space Trust Fund.

“Scientists have found that native plants provide what wildlife need. Most insects are very species-specific as to what they will eat—they only like to eat the things they coevolved with over the centuries,” Mullowney says. Insects may not recognize a nonnative plant as food, and if certain insects do not have native plants to eat they will disappear from the food chain.

Mullowney adds that native plants “have evolved to deal with the stresses of normal conditions—lack of rain at times and over-rain at times. They don’t need water because they have evolved without it.”

Whereas the nonnative astilbe droops if there is no rain, she says, a very similar native plant, goat’s beard, does not. But the goat’s beard also has its downside—“it doesn’t have all the nice colors that astilbe has.”

Native grasses, whose root systems go much deeper than the shallow roots of most lawn grasses, offer their own advantages. “The roots go down to the subsoil and can bring up nutrients from way down to feed the grass,” Mullowney says. “Also, they hold onto water so you don’t get a lot of runoff of chemicals into sewers and streams that then need to be processed.”

Rogers expressed excitement that “Ewing has been an extremely enthusiastic partner—so much so that they are putting forth funding to perform an additional half-acre of meadow conversion at Village on the Green.”

She estimates the cost for a half-acre to be about $1,500 for a half-acre, but quickly adds, “The amount of money that gets saved with mowing, gas, chemicals, and staff time to mow weekly ends up paying for itself in a few years.”

Because both proposed wildflower meadows in Ewing were initially lawns, the first step in the conversion is to kill the lawn with an herbicide to create a “clean, blank slate to work with,” Rogers says.

After giving the lawn time to die, they will plant an appropriate mix of native wildflower and grass seeds into crisscrossing slits in the ground.

“The goal of these pollinator meadows is to have plants in bloom from mid-May through October so they are benefitting butterflies, beetles, bees and flies for the entire growing season,” Rogers says.

The seed mixes also include a variety of colors and blooming periods “to be aesthetically pleasing to the people using the park—in addition to being pleasing to bees and butterflies.”

During a meadow’s first year, much of the plant growth happens underground in the roots, and many flowers generate only a very short cluster of leaves, close to ground level.

Because the only plants that typically grow tall during that first year are leftover weeds, the meadow is mowed down to 8 or 10 inches when it is about 24 inches tall—usually two or three times during that first season.

“You are helping the warm season grasses establish their roots, and the small plants get access to sunlight,” Rogers says. After the first year, the meadow is mowed only once a year during the late fall or winter.

“For the first couple of years we will try to do judicious weeding and make sure that no invasives get established,” Mullowney says. “Once the native plants take over, it should form a fairly good mat that is more impervious to infusion by foreign invaders.”

Once the Ewing pilot project is complete, Rogers says, “we are hoping to be able to partner with other municipalities throughout Mercer County to continue growing the POP initiative, bringing some smaller-scale restoration to smaller lands, but producing an ecological benefit in those areas. You can take half an acre of land, and it will sustain a community of pollinating insects.”

When Rogers first started working on transforming land to support pollinators, she says, “I wanted 2,020 acres of pollinator habitat in meadows by 2020.” That lofty goal was soon transformed to a more realistic one—that over the next six or seven years she would like each municipality in Mercer County to have a pollinator meadow.

By putting meadows in areas that have more walk-through traffic, Rogers hopes to make even more people aware. “If people start seeing butterflies fluttering and hear the cute sound of bees buzzing as they are pollinating, if then the idea of using native plants trickles down, then we’ve come full circle,” she says.