I remember sitting in one of my master gardener classes and first learning about the importance of native plants.

Even though I was a lifelong gardener, that night, I felt like my eyes had been opened, allowing me to see backyard gardening in a whole new way. It was then I started to understand how the choices we make in tree, shrub and plant selection can have lasting impact on the insects and animals which rely on them.

And with that, my journey began.

Populations of native bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects are in decline. They are being affected by the use of pesticides, loss of habitat and disease. Pesticide effectiveness and usage has increased, negatively impacting helpful insect populations. Humans continue to fracture tracts of land that might otherwise support pollinators for roads, housing and other development.

Many native insects and birds are dependent on specific native plants for food or shelter. Often the non-native plants we have introduced to our home gardens, while beautiful, offer little value as a food source. The combined impact can be devastating to the pollinators on which we depend.

Inspired, as a master gardener in training, I convinced my wife that we should transition our flower gardens to contain native plants. Moving to a new home a few years ago offered us a bit of a blank canvas for just such an endeavor.

Flash forward to a few months ago, when the Fayette County Master Gardeners decided to more actively promote the Pollinator Friendly Garden Certification program. The program is designed to help advise and reward gardeners who create pollinator friendly backyard gardens. It is a statewide outreach program of Penn State Extension Master Gardener Program. Certified garden owners receive a certificate and can purchase a yard sign for display.

Cultivating native plant gardens offers our native pollinators the nectar and pollen that they need to thrive. Having a pollinator garden certified begins with good native plant selection. Gardeners are encouraged to plant an array of flowering trees, shrubs and plants that will bloom in spring, summer and fall to supply food and shelter all season long.

Certified gardens also need to contain access to clean water (bird baths, springs, streams or other water features), as well as nesting locations like old wood or stone piles, nesting tubes or even patches of clear ground. Coupling these features with solid environmental gardening practices and limited or no pesticide usage can have real and lasting benefits for our pollinators. And while every pollinator friendly garden is beneficial, this is a case of “more being better.”

Flash forward once more to just a few weeks ago. I awaited my friend and fellow master gardener, Judy, to tour and review my gardens for certification. I was excited to show off the hard work my wife and I had done. But on an overly warm April morning, I also felt a bit like I was heading into a final exam way underprepared.

When she arrived, I showed her our initial native flower bed. Work on it started over two years ago. The previous owner had left us an array of lovely plants and hedges bordering our home.

This southern facing bed had become overgrown with a couple arborvitae hedges, thistle and poke berry plants. My wife and I worked to clear it, and last spring we planted natives.

As we started, Judy asks me about a plant that was emerging, and with an unwarranted amount of self assurance I replied, “It’s a weed.” She quickly advised me that it was clearly a type of aster. We laughed at my not knowing. A plant identification app let us know it was a New England aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, that I had planted the previous year.

We walked to a small stone circle garden I placed around a fake rock that covers an unsightly old gas line. Remnants of last season’s purple coneflowers caught her eye. I have a lot of purple coneflowers. That earned a positive checkmark. A little farther along and my goldenrod, Solidago rugosa, and beebalm, Monarda didyma, are up in a big way. Two more big, positive checkmarks. I felt my confidence rise.

With a quick walk around the house, we evaluated hedges and trees. Mountain laurel, smooth hydrangea, red oak and twelve blueberry hedges, all natives, were checked off. Inside I was soaring.

As I pointed out the water and nesting features in my landscape, Judy asked if I have any native violets. It was a joke. One that I missed in my nervousness and excitement. We laughed again as I noticed the carpet of little purple flowers by the thousands radiating outward over my entire backyard. One final check and the review was done.

In the end, it turns out there was no real reason to be anxious. Showing my hard work to a good friend and fellow master gardener was a rewarding experience and in reality, not like a final exam at all. I got the expert advice and feedback for which I had been hoping. The time spent outside discussing gardening plans and plants, after the turmoil and isolation of 2020, simply felt fantastic.

You may be wondering if my garden was certified as pollinator friendly. That answer is absolutely … not yet. Well, at best, it is too soon to tell. Many of my plants have not re-emerged. While it was too early for some, it is clear I have lost a fair number. Even some that have survived, like that New England aster, have not returned in sufficient numbers. I still have work to do. But that is OK.

While I look forward to a day when I can say we have a certified pollinator garden, certification is not the goal. Even in coming up short, I recognized real progress has been made. Certified or not, my gardens are already a friendlier place for native pollinators. Whether due to setbacks or new ideas, I can see that my garden will never be “done.” The reward comes from the doing. It is a journey that may lack a final destination, but it is a journey with purpose.

If you are interested in learning more about creating your own pollinator garden or getting your garden certified pollinator friendly, Penn State Master Gardeners can help. More information on pollinator garden certification is available at the following link: https://extension.psu.edu/programs/master-gardener/outreach/pollinator-certification. Contact the Master Gardener Program in Fayette County by email: fayettemg@psu.edu.

Find out more on our website at https://extension.psu.edu/programs/master-gardener/counties/fayette where we share gardening news and tips and announce webinars and special events.

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