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Originally published January 29, 2011 at 7:00 PM | Page modified January 31, 2011 at 4:26 PM

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Plant Life

Cultivating a healthier Seattle, one garden at a time

The fate of our food supply depends on how hospitable our gardens are to pollinators.

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Valerie Easton writes in her blog about gardens and the people who make them. A columnist for The Seattle Times' Pacific Northwest Magazine for the last 14 years and author of four books on gardening, she lives on Whidbey Island where she loves to hike, read and garden.
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BESIDES OFFERING us space to grow flowers and vegetables, our gardens serve many purposes over the seasons and over the years — as quiet retreat, buffer from neighbors or place for kids and dogs to romp.

Our gardens also play a vital though mostly invisible role in the health of our cities and suburbs. It's probably not hyperbole to say the fate of our food supply and hence our world depends on how hospitable our gardens are to pollinators. Whether or not we notice, these busy creatures do their indispensable work in urban and suburban gardens.

Picture a bee's-eye view of any neighborhood. On the ground, we may be building fences or planting privacy hedges, but an aerial perspective shows a vast patchwork of gardens that have the potential to form pollinator pathways. This connectivity of green space cultivates biodiversity in our cities. Do you suppose we could get Google Earth to show aerial views of pollinator pathways? A web of thick, green lines connecting habitat would give meaning to our "Emerald City" designation. It'd be so eco-forward to click on an aerial view to trace where homeowners are saving their city, garden by garden.

We've heard a lot about colony collapse in recent years as scientists puzzle over the fate of the honeybee. A European import, honeybees are the workhorses of pollination. When environmental designer Sarah Bergmann read about colony collapse, she realized how much agriculture will need to rely on native pollinators. Luckily, honeybees aren't the only creatures responsible for keeping plant life going on the planet. Butterflies, bumblebees, hummingbirds, flies, beetles, ants, moths and orchard mason bees compose a veritable army of pollinators that crawl, creep and flit through our gardens. They pause long enough to eat, shelter, drink and gather pollen, then move on to spread it. Because mason bees are small and solitary, not as much attention has been paid to their decline. But these little native bees, along with all the pollinators, are suffering from pollution, pesticides and loss of habitat.

Which is why the mile-long, pollinator-pathway program Bergmann launched in 2006 has the potential to be so influential. She received a Seattle Department of Neighborhoods grant to replace grassy parking strips with mostly native plants in the neighborhood along Columbia Street, from Seattle University to Nora's Woods park at 720 29th Ave. The first garden was planted in July 2008, with 16 more under way now that Bergmann has landed a second, larger grant. Neighboring homeowners have signed up to care for the new gardens, and Seattle University and enthused volunteers have joined in to make it all happen. "I'd love to be able to replicate this project in other cities," says Bergmann. "We've just been invited to consult on a pollinator pathway for Niagara Falls, N.Y."

Not only will street-side native-plant gardens enrich this intensely urban area of the city, but the planned pollinator pathway is book-ended by green. At one end, Seattle University boasts organic gardens planted specifically for wildlife and biodiversity. At the other end, Nora's Woods is a nature sanctuary.

Ready to make your own garden pollinator friendly? Think of the effect it could have if hundreds, or better yet thousands, of homeowners committed to gardening organically, and mixed just a few native plants into their beds, borders or rockeries. As the weather warms, stroll along Columbia and check out the pollinator pathway project. In the meantime, the well-designed, easy-to-use Web page (www.pollinatorpathway.com/) offers a wealth of information. Design templates for sun, shade or a combination of the two, plus color photos of recommended plants, will get you started.

Gardens rich in pollinators not only support the food web but also attract a wide variety of creatures, including birds and bats, to our gardens. The result is a vibrant, lively ecosystem stretching beyond the boundaries of individual gardens to improve the life, health and look of our city.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "The New Low-Maintenance Garden." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.

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