Porch Pollinator Habitat: A Native Plant Experiment

Ohio's native plants provide so many benefits to the environment. Their blooms and fruit provide food for all kinds of wildlife, from the itty bitty bugs to large mammals, including humans. Their leaves and branches provide CO2 reduction, oxygen production, and shelter for wildlife. Their long root systems provide soil stability and health as well as stormwater infiltration. At Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District we encourage you to "shrink your lawn" with native plants, but what if you don't have a lawn to shrink?

Last spring I sat on the porch of my upper floor apartment and asked myself that very question. It was at that moment that I decided to conduct an experiment for myself. Is it possible to create a pollinator habitat on a porch or balcony using potted native plants? What about the long root systems and could they even survive the winter in a pot? I don't know about you, but I don't want to spend money every year buying the same plants over and over just for them to die off.

The Experiment

  • Question: Is it possible to create a pollinator habitat on a porch or balcony using potted native plants?

  • Research: Various native plant species and their requirements, what kind of habitat I want, what kind of habitat I can provide and over-wintering techniques.

  • Hypothesis: It is possible to create a perennial pollinator habitat on a balcony or porch using careful plant selection and over-wintering the potted plants.

  • Experiment:
    - Purchased native plants from local native plant sale and store, most species in pairs. Repotted plants into larger containers and combined some into single planter boxes for diversity. Mirrored duplicate plants on each side of porch to see which areas worked better for each species and for aesthetics. Plants visited by small amount of pollinators. Seed pods formed on butterfly weed.

    - In October, placed pots grouped together on the ground on the east side of the garage and buried with leaves stuffing leaves between gaps, around, and over top of the plants.

    - In May, unburied plants and placed them back on the porch. Removed slug/snail eggs.

  • Data/Analysis:
    - Unlike native plants in the ground, potted plants require more maintence, such as regular watering, pot rotation for even growth, and repotting to accomodate growth.

    - Over-wintering technique: Leaving the plants outside to experience the seasons allows them to go into their required period of dormancy. The ground and leaves provide insulation from all sides. A porch floor allows colder tempuratures to reach the roots from below. The garage provides a wind break and placing on the east provides warmth from the morning sun. Rain and snow provide water. Leaf pile also provides habitat for hibernating and nesting insects.

    - Leaf pile was too thick on top of the plants which caused some plants to become leggy and some to stay in hibernation longer.

    - Predation of some plants is occuring. Plants are occassionally topped by insect or bird (will set up game camera for observation).

    - Some plants are still just now starting to emerge.

  • So far 14 out of the 16 plants that were over-wintered survived and have come back in the spring for an 88.5% success rate. One red mum and the butterfly weed have not shown any signs of life. One yellow mum just emerged during the last weekend of May so there is still hope for the last two plants, though the butterfly weed does not seem promising.

  • Conclusion: Hypothesis accepted.

This year I am going to try to over-winter strawberries and peppers as well. I also have a whole bunch of new native plant species arriving this week! You can order some of our native plant kits or seed packets too! They both come in a variety of habitat mixes for you to choose from. Stay tuned for updates on my potted native plant experiment!

As always, every little thing we do affects something else, even half a world away. Now more than ever we can see what an impact just a little action can make. Stay safe, stay healthy, and happy planting.

Blog Author: Kelly Parker, Stormwater Specialist II

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