Emerson Park Garden: Community Garden to Pollinator Garden
by Jaime Pawelek
When looking for a diverse garden to sample in San Luis Obispo, CA, in addition to the Cal Poly Arboretum, we stumbled on the Emerson Park Community Garden. While it was mostly a vegetable/herb garden we saw that there was great potential for diversifying it to encourage pollinators, especially native bees. This garden is different from the others we sample because it didn’t initially start off with a lot of bee attracting plants. Part of our research is to see if it’s possible to encourage bees by planting the right plants, and we decided this community vegetable garden would be a great place to see if this could happen. We met an enthusiastic gardener there, Barb Smith, who when approached, was immediately on board and happy to help. Barb is now the caretaker of bee plants in Emerson Garden and with her cooperation we were able to start adding bee attractive plants in 2007.
The garden is on property owned by the city and managed by the Parks and Recreation Dept. of SLO. The garden was started in February of 1996 and is located on the corner of Nipomo and Pismo Streets in an urban residential neighborhood. The roughly 13,000 sq. ft. garden houses 29 garden plots that are maintained by members of the community who have been growing mostly vegetables, but also flowers, like cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus), lavender (Lavandula spp.), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), and salvias (Salvia spp.). The gardeners with larger plots have welcomed the addition of bee plants, as well as a few gardeners with smaller plots, and 19 plots to date have added plants that we brought them. Some of the additions we made include gaillardia (Gaillardia x grandiflora), monch (Aster frikartii), Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’, toadflax (Linaria purpurea), gumplant (Grindelia stricta), and tansy leaf phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia). The plots that once had bare patches are now filled with bee (and people) attracting flowers. There are also large areas around the garden that have been filled with mostly native plants like goldenrod (Solidago californica), Brandegees sage (Salvia brandegei), CA poppies (Eschscholzia californica), as well as bog sage (Salvia uliginosa), which encourage the bees to come in and have a look around.
The response from the community has been very encouraging and nearby neighbors want to know how the garden improved so fast! Even people that have lived in the area for 20 years have said that the garden has never looked so good. Barb has even witnessed people swerving off the road, parking, and running over to the garden exclaiming, “What is this place!” Most of the community gardeners are happy to help out with the project and have been thrilled with the results, even in just one year. Most gardeners have even noticed an increase in their fruit and veggie production because of the increased activity of bees.
Barb does a great job informing the other gardeners about native bees and they are excited to be part of our project. Most of the gardeners try to grow organically, and Barb discourages the use of pesticides, telling them that they will hurt their native bee populations. She is quick to tell them about natural homemade remedies that can be used to deter pests like snails. This cooperation has led this garden to be a productive site for bees and our research and we plan to continue monitoring here well into the future.
In addition to Barb Smith and the other gardeners at Emerson, we are fortunate to have a trained local bee observer and recorder with Maggie Przybylski. She is pictured in the photo monitoring flowers in the Emerson Park garden. Maggie’s professional work is for the State Dept. of Parks and Recreation monitoring sensitive bird species in nearby wild areas, but on many of her free days she gathers valuable data in the garden and other areas of SLO.
When we visit the garden to sample and observe the bees we often meet the gardeners themselves and they all want to know what we are finding and how else they can help. We have also given informal talks to the gardeners to give them more background info on bees and their ecology. When we’re lucky we are even invited to sample the vegetable bounty the garden provides! Our preliminary findings are very encouraging and we can see the increase in abundance and diversity of bees even in just the first year.