The campus landscape has recently taken on a new vibrancy, more populated than ever by bright flowers, thriving herbs and bushes, buzzing bees, singing birds, and butterflies. Gardeners from the Landscape and Grounds Department have expanded pollinator gardens and sustainable landscaping practices in an effort to make the campus more beautiful and friendly to non-human neighbors.
Last semester, a group of student and faculty volunteers gathered to plant a native pollinator garden on the green between the Merrill Apartments and the tennis courts. Talia Ward ’23 spearheaded the project, collaborating with Landscape and Grounds Supervisor Kenny Lauzier. Since then, gardeners Rachael Peters and Karl Longto have taken the expansion of pollinator plants on campus in stride, doing a lot of the transformational work over the summer.
Animal pollinators like bees, butterflies, bats, and birds are threatened by habitat loss, disease, parasites, and environmental contaminants. Those who can’t find the right quantity or quality of food don’t survive, and one of the best ways to support pollinator populations is to plant pollinator friendly gardens with diverse, native plants that supply food in the form of pollen and nectar.
In the past year, Peters and Longto have further developed pollinator-friendly landscaping beyond the Merrill Green native pollinator garden and the sunflower patch behind Converse Hall. There are now 12 new pollinator gardens, various window boxes, and 17 barrels and containers around campus.
New pollinator gardens can be found by Keefe Health Center, Garman House, Charles Pratt Hall, Morris Pratt Hall, Robert Frost Library, Beneski Museum of Natural History, Converse Hall, the Emily Dickinson House, by the Amherst College sign on Pleasant Street, and the medians on 116th. The gardens contain plants such as butterfly bushes, May night salvia plants, and blueberry bushes.
The 17 new planters and container gardens around campus hold flowers including petunias and African daisies and herbs like hyssop, while the window boxes hold geraniums, spider flowers, and New Guinea impatiens. Common visiting pollinators are bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Peters’ favorite new pollinator-friendly space is the planter outside the Eighmy Powerhouse, which utilizes a repurposed wooden crate.
Peters and Longto share a passion for pollinator gardens and sustainable landscaping practices. “We work really well together,” said Peters. “We’re both really excited about new plantings and incorporating a lot of pollinators and native stuff.”
Longto has been with the department for 40 years, and while Peters started just last August, she brings a horticulture degree, as well as experience with farm management, irrigation tech, and integrated pest management to the job.
Peters explained that a change in senior staffing last year has given her and Longto free rein to transition toward pollinator-friendly planting and more sustainable practices. “It’s really given us the opportunity to shine and do what we really love doing,” she said.
The work has a dual benefit for humans and non-humans on campus. “I think it’s a lot to do with the atmosphere that we’re trying to provide [for the campus community], but also helping the pollinator population, which is very much in demise right now,” Peters said.
Peters and Longto see the entire process through, from brainstorming and design to shopping, planting, and maintenance. “Basically, where you start is [deciding] what’s going to work well here,” Peters said. “We like to incorporate things that are already on campus. I also really like either finding more rare plants or things that just aren’t really here.”
Peters and Longto prioritize shopping at local nurseries, avoiding big box stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s. “We try to go to more local places that use beneficial insects, that kind of stuff, because we like quality clean products,” Peters said. “A lot of times Karl and I will go and think: what do we see? What do we like? Where will this look good? And we brainstorm and throw it together.”
Sustainability is a central concern in their work. “Karl and I are both very sustainably minded and we like natural products,” Peters said. “We don’t use any neonicotinoids, which are a big killer of pollinators.”
Peters is also currently working to bring vermicomposting, the use of earthworms to convert organic waste into fertilizer, to campus. She plans to make compost tea — liquid produced by extracting beneficial microorganisms from composting — to fertilize all the newly planted beds. “It’s saving on synthetic fertilizers and saving money,” she said. “And plus, it’s creating something, taking away waste from certain waste sources, like Val[entine Dining Hall] and Book and Plow [Farm].”
The Grounds Department has about six or seven employees, and during the summer, they had one person dedicated just to watering the plants. With the drought, hand watering has been important for maintaining the gardens. The department is also responsible for cleaning up after students. “Even on the weekends, we have to come in and patrol the campus because a lot of times, unfortunately, people litter,” Peters said. “That’s a major problem we have to deal with.”
Despite the pollinator gardens being a large undertaking, Peters finds the work very rewarding. “There’s something about this that’s empowering, you know, giving y’all exposure to some plants maybe you haven’t seen before,” Peters said. “I’m really proud of what we’ve put together here.”