Landscape Services plants gardens, supports pollinators with campus partners

The Pollinator Program launched by Facilities Services’ Landscape Services unit started as a way to encourage pollinators such as butterflies and bees to visit the UT Orchard located at San Jacinto and 24th Street. Urban Forestry Supervisor Jennifer Hrobar, who now manages the Pollinator Program, was inspired by discussions with Landscape Services colleagues who wanted to use milkweed plants to entice monarch butterflies to visit more areas of campus. She applied for a grant through Tree Campus USA in 2016 that provided the funds needed to install the university’s first official pollinator garden at the UT Orchard.

Hrobar said that obtaining the grant and installing the garden demonstrates Landscape Services’ commitment to promoting pollinators. The unit does so by creating and preserving a supportive habitat and educating the campus community through the Pollinator Program website, service learning projects, sustainability events, academic partnerships and social media.

She explained that the first location was selected due to its proximity to the UT Orchard. Both the UT Orchard and Pollinator Garden are close to Waller Creek, a year-round source of water that provides many shallow puddling areas on rocks and silty banks for butterflies and bees.

“It was a plain grassy corner in the open sun, begging for some flowers to attract pollinators,” Hrobar said. “I saw this area as an opportunity to plant a small spot to help attract beneficial pollinators to the orchard as well as to provide a nice spot for people to stop and enjoy a pretty area with flowers, butterflies and the bees.”

The second pollinator garden is located at the Texas Swim Center on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.

“It was planted in a newly-cleared bed that had previously held old, overgrown, non-native shrubs,” Hrobar said. “With help from staff volunteers from the College of Natural Sciences’ Campus Beautification Project, we planted a mix of native and adapted shrubs and perennials for pollinators.”

According to Hrobar, locating pollinators and caring for them differs from more traditional landscaping.

“Pollinator gardens are not managed as intensively as many other landscapes, so they often have a less ‘landscaped’ look,” she said. “Siting them in areas where they can be visible yet allow for a more natural aesthetic is key. Most people want to clean up gardens for winter, but pollinators need dead leaves and plant material such as hollow stems to overwinter. We also avoid use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, opting for controls that do not harm beneficial insects and let natural predators control the bad bugs.”

Hrobar explained that as with all plantings on UT campus, Landscape Services strives to select native and adapted plants for pollinator gardens because these plants naturally do well in campus soil and growing conditions, thereby reducing water usage and providing a more sustainable landscape.

“In addition to cultivated plants, many plants that are considered weeds in other areas, such as dandelions, horseherb, and many other turf ‘weeds,’ are allowed to coexist with the planted species as they also provide valuable habitat and nectar for many pollinators,” she said.

Hrobar noted that the pollinator gardens have some unique features that add interest both for the pollinators themselves and the community such as the Bee Condo, which homes native solitary bee species including carpenter, mason and leafcutter bees.

“If you slow down and watch, you can see bees, butterflies, moths and other insects visiting flowers and trees, other insects such as spiders, wasps and lady beetles searching for an insect meal, caterpillars feeding on plants,” she said. “You can find circle cutouts from leaves that indicate leafcutter bee activity and see carpenter bees using hollow stems and decayed wood for nesting sites. There’s always something happening in the gardens.”

Hrobar said that after installing the pollinator gardens, the next step Landscape Services took was to partner with others, both to promote the pollinator gardens and highlight the importance of mindful landscaping.

“We already had an established relationship working with the Office of Sustainability on campus sustainability projects, and they were well aware of our efforts to promote pollinators on campus,” she said. “We also worked with the Beevo Beekeeping Club by helping to get their bee site cleared and maintained, providing support with invasive tree removals, pruning trees, and adding native flowering plants for their bees.”

Hrobar worked with the Office of Sustainability to support the Beevo Beekeeping Club in achieving BeeCampus USA certification for the university earlier this year, awarded to college campuses that create sustainable habitats for pollinators, reduce the use of pesticides and raise awareness of the importance of pollinators and their habitats.