Leaves were falling from the trees as Dave Wehmeyer and John Steffens were planting a pollinator garden Tuesday afternoon at McLaughlin Field in Washington.

The plants weren’t looking their best aesthetically. Blooms on the purple coneflowers and black-eyed Susans were dried up, and other plants were equally past their blooming prime, but there’s no better time of year for plants to get their start.

Spring may be the season people most often associate with planting these types of flowers, but fall is equally as good a time to put in a pollinator garden, if not better, said Wehmeyer, Washington in Bloom co-chair.

“The ground is still warm, and the plants can really get established,” he said.

Washington has been focused on planting more pollinator gardens around town as part of the nationwide Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, which aims to register a million public and private gardens and landscapes to support pollinators.

The purpose is to preserve and create gardens and landscapes to help revive the health of bees, butterflies, birds, bats and other pollinators and reverse their alarming decline.

“The numbers of pollinators have been dropping, and if you don’t have bees, you don’t have food, because 90 percent of our food has to be pollinated,” Wehmeyer explained.

For its part in the challenge, Washington set a goal to have 100 pollinator gardens here registered by the end of 2016. So far only about 50 such gardens have been registered, said Wehmeyer.

He knows there are probably several pollinator gardens out there that have been planted, but just not registered, and he encourages those gardeners to take the time to do that. It will help the city as it applies for various grants and such, but it also may inspire others to follow suit.

“It gives credibility to the whole program, and for us to say we have 100 pollinator gardens in Washington, that helps us in the America in Bloom contest, and when the city applies for grants, it shows that our community actually cares about nature, so it’s a win-win situation,” said Wehmeyer. “When they see we care about our community and we are ecologically minded, it helps.”

Pollinator gardens can and have been planted both in private and public places around town, including at businesses like Rawlings and Mercy, and also schools like Immanuel Lutheran.

Wehmeyer smiled as he recalled how he was at the America in Bloom symposium earlier this month, and just as Washington was being announced as a winner of a special award for most impressive pollinator garden, he began receiving photos via text message from Terrie Semsch at Rawlings showing monarch butterflies hatching in the company’s pollinator garden.

“The timing was perfect,” he remarked. “Just as they were announcing our award, she was texting me these pictures. I said, ‘You’re not going to believe this!’ ”

Rawlings planted its pollinator garden in 2014 near the employees’ break pavilion. “The garden is flourishing, and butterflies and bees continue to entertain the employees as they take a much-deserved break,” the AIB judges wrote in their comments.

The pollinator garden at Immanuel Lutheran School, which was funded by a grant from Thrivent and planted by Girl Scouts, has generated an equal amount of excitement, and not just among the students and staff, said Wehmeyer.

“When they had monarchs hatching there, we actually had moms at the playground near the butterfly garden counting the number of chrysalises they saw,” he said. “They were so excited about it that they sent me a text: ‘We found six of them!’ ”

Wehmeyer hopes more businesses and schools will follow the lead of Rawlings, Mercy and Immanuel Lutheran. He sees it as an especially good fit for schools, where students already are learning about the life cycle of the butterfly in science class.

“It absolutely would be a great thing for all schools to do,” he commented. “It can be part of an outdoor classroom project and a benefit for the pollinators too.”

The size of the pollinator garden does not have to be huge, Wehmeyer said, noting the one installed this week at the corner of McLaughlin Field is probably less than 200 square feet. But it is large enough for several dozen plants that vary in their blooming season — spring, summer and fall.

People who may be wanting to start a pollinator garden but want to wait until spring to put in the plants might want to consider getting the ground ready now, said Wehmeyer.

“If you need to move sod, maybe just get your bed ready now,” he suggested. “In the spring of the year it can be really wet, so maybe now take your sod off, put your compost in there, till it up and let it sit over the winter.”

How to Get Started

If you’re looking to plant a pollinator garden, you can start by finding an area in your yard or space that receives at least six hours of sunlight, said Wehmeyer.

Plant the bed with native plants, both perennials and annuals, to provide nectar from April through October, he said. The area should also have a water feature, such as a birdbath, small fountain or small pond. It’s also important to have oak trees and flowering shrubs in the area to provide food and shelter.

If making a new bed is not an option, Wehmeyer suggests adding pollinator plants to an existing bed.

For lists of plants to use, people can go to websites like the Missouri Prairie Foundation, where plants are listed along with their height, unique qualities and types of pollinators they attract.

Help also is available at area garden centers, where the staff can point out the buffet plants, perennials and annuals that are recommended.

Registration Process

After a pollinator garden has been planted, it can be registered with the Washington Parks Department to count toward the city’s goal of 100 and the nation’s goal of 1 million. The registration process begins with an application to identify the type, location and size of the habitat, number and type of milkweed and nectar plants which are necessary for monarch butterflies to survive, and finally the types of sustainable management practices that are part of the garden, such as eliminating the use of insecticides, removing invasive species and amending the soil.

The checklist is looking to verify that the garden provides food, water, cover and places to raise young pollinators, said Wehmeyer.

People should bring the completed application along with a photo of the garden to the Washington Parks Department office at 1220 S. Lakeshore Drive.

There are metal signs available for $15 to denote the garden as a “certified pollinator.” Not all gardeners are interested in putting up the sign, and that’s OK, said Wehmeyer. It isn’t necessary, but it does serve a purpose because it can inspire neighbors to plant their own pollinator garden or, at the very least, start a conversation about the value of the garden.

“The whole idea of this is to inspire people and educating them about the value to nature and our food supply,” said Wehmeyer.

The Pollinator Garden Challenge application is available online at the city’s website (www.ci.washington.mo.us) and printed copies are available at the Washington Parks Department office.

Not a ‘Manicured Look’

Anyone planting a pollintor garden should keep in mind that not all of the plants are going to have a manicured look all or even most of the time.

“Keep in mind that the host plants are going to be eaten by the caterpillars, so the plants won’t have that perfectly manicured look that some gardeners like,” stressed Wehmeyer.

“So when you do a butterfly garden, go ahead and put in some marigolds and zinnias, because that gives you nectar, but you’re going to have other plants that they are going to eat — and that’s the whole purpose.

“In some cases the caterpillars can defoliate the whole plant,” said Wehmeyer, but that’s OK because that is the purpose of it. “You are doing it for the pollinators.”

Milkweed

There are more than a dozen varieties of milkweed that people can plant, but it’s not necessarily the prettiest of plants or one that blooms all season, said Wehmeyer, but it is of critical importance to pollinators like the monarch butterfly.

But people should be prepared for how fast milkweed can grow and how much space it will need. Swamp milkweed, for example, will get 4 feet tall in a single season, said Wehmeyer.

“But out at Rawlings’ garden, it is loaded with monarchs,” he said.

Challenge Continues

Washington’s 100 Pollinator Garden Challenge will continue into next year and beyond to encourage more and more people to plant pollinator gardens, said Wehmeyer.

“Pollinators and the whole way we look at going green, it’s the big thing now,” he remarked.

To see pollinator gardens up close, people can visit these locations:

Downtown Washington post office;

Railroad Heritage Park (the caboose near the Washington Amtrak station);

St. Francis Borgia Cemetery near the bell (planted by Joe Holtmeier);

Phoenix Park; and

McLaughlin Field.

Other Ways to Help

Along with looking for people to plant pollinator gardens, Washington in Bloom and the Washington Parks Department are always looking for more people to help maintain them.

People don’t have to be gardening experts to do this, said Wehmeyer, and it could be a good way to learn more about gardening for someone who is interested. People will be instructed on what to do, he said.

At the same time, people who are working on earning their Master Gardener certification can earn hours toward that, and students in need of Christian service hours can earn those too, said Wehmeyer.

For more information, people should call the Washington Parks Department at 636-390-1080.