One Year in my Pollinator Garden

Painted Lady visits apple blossoms (Vanessa cardui on Malus domestica)

I joined iNaturalist in April 2021 to participate in the City Nature Challenge – 2022 edition is coming up soon! – and I had no idea at the time that it would be my go-to resource for appreciating and documenting the visitors in my pollinator garden. I was quickly drawn in by the many friendly and knowledgeable users and the potential to improve my understanding of the natural world. One year later, I’m delighted to reminisce and share highlights from my edible garden and native plant xeriscape. It has been a blast watching, photographing, and learning to identify hundreds of species of plants and animals. Please, join me for a celebration of diversity in my New Mexico neighborhood.

3 varieties of sunflowers (Helianthus) blooming in summer 2021

Getting Started

My journey to hosting a pollinator garden in Albuquerque began with an all but blank slate. The front yard was a sea of bare gravel plus cheatgrass, tumbleweeds, and goatheads, while the back featured 8 Russian olive trees and plenty of dandelions. In 2020, I decided to transform the landscaping and hired a local company to cut down the invasive trees. In their places, I planted Peach and Apple trees for fruit, Utah serviceberry (Amelanchier utahensis) and New Mexico olive (Forestiera pubescens) to feed songbirds, and Bigtooth maple (Acer grandidentatum) for shade and fall color. Thanks to the New Mexico Native Plants Society, Plants of the Southwest, Osuna Nursery, Hilltop Landscaping, the American Penstemon Society, and the ABQ Backyard Refuge Program, I found plenty of resources and support to select appropriate, drought-tolerant plants for my yard and begin to create habitat for wildlife.

Habronattus festus jumping spider

Watching the Grass Grow

At the beginning of the project, I typically saw common city birds, lizards, bumblebees, rock squirrels, paper wasps, and not much else. It takes a while for new plants to get established and for neighborhood critters to (re)discover my yard. It’s all worth it now for moments like watching an American Robin eat serviceberries, a longhorn bee sleeping on a sunflower, or munching on a fresh apple that I grew.

Large-tailed Aphideater (Eupeodes volucris hoverfly) on Arugula

When I started, I was familiar with common pollinators, like honeybees and hummingbirds, but there were so many branches of the Animal kingdom of which I wasn’t aware. (I’m doing a little better now and I hope you’ll scroll through some of our visual guides Insects – Pollinator Web.) By slowing down and observing with purpose, I find something new in the garden almost every day. It is both fun and frustrating to follow a little bee on her journey to collect pollen as I struggle to get clear pictures for identification.

Tripartite Sweat Bee on Scorpionweed (Halictus tripartitus on Phacelia integrifolia)

By The Numbers

Honestly, I have been blown away by the diversity that can exist in 0.2-acres of land. We tend to think of deserts as arid and empty; in reality, Arizona and New Mexico combined have over 1,000 species of native bees plus more than 300 species of butterflies! I have recorded more than 600 yard species in the last 12 months, using iNaturalist. They include:

  • >100 species of cultivated plants, including 20 varieties of native trees and shrubs
  • 75 bees
  • 59 butterflies and moths
  • 59 birds
  • 58 flies
  • 50 ‘true bugs’ (Hemiptera)
  • 47 volunteer plant species (“weeds” and wildflowers introduced by wind or animals)
  • 45 wasps
  • 37 beetles
  • 21 spiders
  • 12 crickets, grasshoppers, and katydids
  • 11 ants
  • New Mexico Whiptails and Southwestern Fence lizards
  • Flame Skimmer and Blue-fronted Dancer (dragonflies)
  • 2 springtails
  • 1 mayfly!
An unexpected mayfly showed up as I was leaving for work last year

Closing Thoughts

Imagine what we can do working together in our communities by planting yards full of flowers, instead of spraying chemicals and mowing lawns.

Every square inch of planet earth has ecological significance, even where we live, work, and play. If we landscape these areas with plant function as well as aesthetics in mind, we can create viable habitat where humans are, not just where humans are not … Today’s environmental challenges are so enormous that it is easy to feel helpless, as if one person can’t make a difference – despite the cliché that suggests you can. In this case, however, the cliché is right on: by choosing ecologically-effective plants for your landscape, by shrinking your lawn, and by removing your invasive ornamentals – all actions a single person can take – you will be able to make a difference that you can see, and enjoy, almost immediately. Life will return to your property!

Quote from Doug Tallamy
Lewis’ Soldier Beetles were abundant in fall 2021 on snakeweed, goldenweed, and Chamisa

11 Comments

  1. Diana Studer says:

    Years ago I read a blog about a tiny ABQ courtyard garden. Magic.

    Today I watched about a dozen waxbills enjoying a volunteer sedge – tiny birds can perch on the bendy stalks.

    1. Elliott@PW says:

      Thanks Diana! It’s the start of hummingbird season here and I could watch them dart around all day.

  2. Susan Rust says:

    Hi, Elliott,
    What a wonderful, inspirational and stunningly illustrated post this is!
    (Your Mom forwarded it me after a wonderful catch-up phone call.)
    Out here in SW Oregon, we are a recognized Pollinator City (and Tree City) and I’m looking forward to sharing your post with some of my friends here and back in TX.
    Keep posting, please!
    – Susan Rust

    1. Elliott@PW says:

      Thank you for the kind words! The Oregon Bee Atlas is a great project I’ve heard of in online talks.

  3. Jean Dyer says:

    Congratulations on 600 species in your yard! Love your post – only one problem – I live in eastern Canada so our habitats are very different. Beautiful and inspiring website.
    ~Jean Dyer

    1. Elliott@PW says:

      Thank you for visiting! I’m sure there are plenty of native plants and wildlife in your area that I wouldn’t recognize.

      1. Cathy Liss says:

        Elliott, I loved seeing your blog in person in Dallas, and it’s delightful to review it again. Scott forwarded it to me. Hoping you’ll continue this amazing pollinator project and save the planet!
        Cathy

        1. Elliott@PW says:

          Thank you so much!

  4. Rita Tomassetti says:

    Amazing!! I too started my journey in 2020 of turning my tiny yard into a native plant haven for all the pollinators. I joined iNaturalist last year to keep track of how many different species were visiting my yard. I was amazed that over 160 different species of insects had benefitted from my tiny yard!
    It’s great to see others planting natives and seeing the impact they are having in their ecosystem.

    1. Elliott@PW says:

      That’s great! iNaturalist is an amazing resource to appreciate the natural world around us.

  5. Anna says:

    Thanks for this article! You’ve inspired me to start tracking the wildlife in my urban native plant garden! It is something I have thought about doing for a while, but never thought to do through iNaturalist, until now. Looking forward to see how many plants, animals, and fungi I can record. Cheers!

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