DC Natives Create Pollinater Pathway

Co-Founder of DC Natives, Thorne Rankin, envisions a pathway for pollinators across DC. A professional landscaper, she shares her knowledge by teaching residents how to successful plant a pollinator garden primarily with native plants.

Gardening is a chance to create beauty for yourself and your DC community.  There are not many other activities that let you help our global ecosystem, get exercise, im-prove the curb appeal of your home and neighborhood and take spaces from ugly to beautiful with your own vision.  

What you may not realize is you can also help create pollinator habitats. Five years ago, two women launched a new nonprofit to create a pollinator pathway through DC.  Thorne Rankin, a native Washingtonian and professional landscaper, joined Sally Shea, an urban planner and nonprofit professional, to launch the DC Natives organization. 

Tiffany Davidson is a newly appointed Block Captain for DC Natives. She en-listed Thorne Rankin to help her plan and plant her pollinator garden this fall in her front yard at 1009 Massachusetts Avenue NE near Lincoln Park.

Thorne envisions gardens big and small on private and public spaces across DC that let pollinators, like bees, moths, butterflies, and other insects move across the city. She sees the effort larger than just gardens. “I like to think we are bridging communities through the gardens and teaching the importance of collaboration.”

A pollinator is defined by the National Park Service as “anything that helps carry pollen from the male part of the flower (stamen) to the female part of the same or another flower (stigma).  The movement of pollen must occur for a plant to become fertilized and produce fruits, seeds, and young plants.”  The pollen is a source of food for the in-sect and sometimes provides a secure place for the insect to rest and lay eggs as in the milkweed plant.  

Planting A Garden One Step At A Time

To date, 175 gardens have been planted by DC Natives. The first gardens were plant-ed in the spring of 2017 with Anne Miller and Almeta Dorsey in Ward 7. Thorne says these two women continue to maintain their gardens and have been great ambassa-dors in their community to encourage others to get involved. The Eckington neighbor-hood secured a grant for planting new gardens and is now reaping great results. 

Bluish Purple Asters (native to Va.) help brighten up the newly planted garden. Small gardens can be as successful as large ones in hosting bees, butterflies, and other insects.

Capitol Hill is just getting started and Hill resident Tiffany Davidson is the first block captain for the group. With Thorne’s help, her front yard at 1009 Massachusetts Ave, NE, was recently transformed with pollinator plants.  

Tiffany moved to Capitol Hill from Connecticut three years ago with her husband.  She has always been interested in plants and with efforts to better our ecosystems. “I was randomly searching online,” says Tiffany, “and ran across DC Natives. I was really in-terested in their mission of connecting neighborhoods through the pollinators.” She began her involvement with a phone call to Thorne who came out and assessed her current front yard garden. “I originally thought I might pull out the very formal garden of boxwoods and roses,” Tiffany noted, “but then I realized that I liked the formal structure more than I thought.” Together they conceived a plan to both keep the formal garden and add pollinators to the front of the garden.

DC Natives helps organize through volunteer block captains and have planted at least 175 gardens in the past five years.

The second step of the process is to design and select the plants to use. Thorne says pollinator gardens can involve anything from plants in a few pots on your balcony to planting the full garden to attract pollinators. Even a few plants can help the pollinators a lot. So, in the case of the Davidson garden, a compromise was struck. While main-taining the more formal elements, the front of the garden was used to bring new polli-nator plants and more color into the space. 

Native and Pollinating Plants

As a professional landscaper, Thorne can procure the plants she uses through a well-established nursery just north of Baltimore. “I like to introduce a variety of flowering plants to the gardener and work with them to create an interesting visual effect.”  She loves to put in new gardens in the fall. “Spring is overrated,” says Thorne. In the fall, there is more moisture, still plenty of sun, and the cooler air makes plants take to the soil more easily.  On the October Saturday when she  worked with Tiffany, the day was warm but not hot and recent rains left the soil easy enough to dig in.

The soil is improved by using some compost mixture before digging the hole to drop the plants into.  She uses newspapers to stop weeds from spreading.  All new gardens need 1-2 inches of topsoil and/or compost mixed into the soil.

Despite the name of the organization, Thorne uses a combination of native plants as well as other plants like zinnias, cosmos, and sunflowers. She is also a big fan of an-nual herbs like dill, parsley, cilantro, and cat nip. Pollinators are drawn to these plants especially when they are flowering. Thorne recommends keeping non-native species to 15% or less of your pollinator garden.

Native plants often used in the pollinator gardens include goldenrod, swamp milkweed or other species of milkweed, anise hyssop, ironweed, and asters.  A full list of native plants good for our region can be found on the DC Natives website, https://dcnatives.com.  You will see a surprising number of beautiful native plants available and remember to select tall to short ones for visual variety.

Organizing Block by Block

Success for DC Natives is not only hundreds of beautiful gardens across the city, but also the collaboration and partnerships that are formed along the way. Thorne and Sally Shea are interested in the growth of blocks of pollinator gardens and have de-veloped a system of block captains. Their role is to serve as outreach coordinators in the wards and neighborhoods where they live, helping develop the pathway.  

Tiffany here on Capitol Hill is happy to talk to you about creating your own pollinator garden and will help guide you through the DC Natives program.  She can be reached at Tiffanybdavidson@gmail.com.  If you are near Lincoln Park, stroll down Massachu-setts Avenue towards the Capitol and check out her garden.  Fall is a great time to get started.

If you have questions or ideas for a column, contact Rindy at rindyobrien@gmail.com.