A Beautiful Transformation
Many people remember the old, stone swimming pool on the Harris Center grounds, which has been transformed into our present-day pollinator garden. Once a spring-fed pool that Harris Center founder, Eleanor Briggs, went swimming in as a child, it had been filled in long ago to keep people from falling in. Alison Rossiter served on the Harris Center Board during a time when “what to do with the swimming pool” was a hot topic of discussion. She said:
“It took a couple of years to figure out what to do with it. There was a lot of discussion on what the space could be used for before what’s there today became a reality!”
Community Programs Director Susie Spikol set her creative mind toward how to turn what had become an eyesore into something useful, educational, and beautiful. She dreamed of converting the pool into a pollinator garden. As a beekeeper, she knew that pollinators are in serious decline. With funding from the Caswell Family Foundation and BuildingBridges Foundation, Susie was able to move this dream forward. Sara Dowse, longtime Harris Center supporter and master gardener, said:
“Susie was the moving force behind the garden; she made it happen!”
The Garden Committee Comes into Bloom
Once the decision was officially made to turn the old swimming hole into a garden, Susie solicited volunteers to form a Pollinator Garden Committee. Its members would be charged not only with planning what went into the garden, but also with doing the manual labor required – and the upkeep! When describing the role of the volunteers, Susie shared:
“The pollinator garden is beautiful and vibrant because these volunteers put not only their hands in the garden, but their hearts into it as well.”
Alison, Sara, Jean Govatos, and Francie Von Mertens were game for the challenge and joined the Committee. These stalwart volunteers are still the backbone of the garden today, with Mary Seebart a welcome addition to the group in 2019. Francie recalled the garden’s early days:
“There were trees growing in the swimming pool at the time! It was just a bunch of fill so kids wouldn’t fall in. After the trees were cut, I think it took a year of weeding before we could do anything with it.”
The Committee carefully researched plants – mostly native perennials – that were pollinator favorites, especially of native bees, the pollinator pros. They also researched how pesticides could affect the health of the pollinators. Francie said:
“We learned about systemic pesticides – neonicotinoids or ‘neonics’ – which kill pollinators and pests alike. We purchased plants only from growers that don’t use them. The good news is that a lot of growers have stopped their use.”
As for design, Sara said:
“The design developed in a natural way. Plants arrived in pots, and we moved them around to see what looked best.”
Layout followed the general rule of grouping the same plants together. This respects the “plant constancy” of bees that move quickly from flower to flower of the same species. It’s efficient, and it accomplishes pollination: coneflower pollen gets delivered to coneflower, not to bee balm. When you visit the garden, look for bees laden with pollen they collect to deliver to their hive or nest.
Fertile Ground for Learning
The pollinator garden not only serves the health of pollinators and gives human visitors a place to enjoy spectacular beauty, but it has fulfilled one of its initial goals of also serving as a teaching garden, starting with the gardeners. Mary, who has been enjoying learning the Latin names for flowers since joining the Pollinator Garden Committee, said:
“I’m still learning all the Latin names and which ones are native to this area; that’s been exciting!”
Jean dove into gardening books when she became a pollinator garden volunteer, with author Douglas Tallamy becoming a favorite. Jean said:
“He loves native plants and wildlife and feels all landscaping should serve nature — makes you appreciate the imperfections in our gardens and our lives. My national park is now my backyard. I garden for what’s best for nature now.”
Sara echoed her sentiment:
“It’s great fun, and I’m learning a lot about pollinators. I’ve tried to put in more native things in my garden and something that will flower in all seasons, just like in the Harris Center garden. I like the fact that the pollinator garden is meant to be a ‘teaching garden’ – making the public more aware.”
In the garden’s first few years, Science Director Brett Amy Thelen worked with several teams of Keene State College student researchers, who conducted bee surveys in the garden and presented their findings in poster sessions at the Harris Center. Alison said:
“The Harris Center came up with great ideas on what to do with the land. It’s developed into a very robust and well-rounded project.”
A Delight to Visit
One glance at the garden in any season other than winter demonstrates how successful the women were in achieving their goal of always having something in bloom for the pollinators. The garden is stunning, and the many pollinators that thrive on it are a testament to the Committee’s hard work.
Sara organizes a gardening maintenance schedule, whereby each of the five women is assigned a week of weeding and watering, taking turns from May through October. Each volunteer brings something different to the endeavor, just like each flower contributes something unique to a landscape. Mary described how going to the garden on a daily basis during her assigned weeks brings her joy:
“I clean out the bird bath, do some deadheading, and water the plants. I find it almost meditative to weed. It’s such a beautiful setting!”
“The pollinator garden is one of those things you can do when retired. We live in a beautiful area of the country. It’s a delight to visit and see how the garden grows.”
The pollinator garden is clearly a labor of love for these loyal volunteers. And the beneficiaries are all of us who are fortunate enough to visit the garden, and of course, most importantly, the pollinators that are nourished by it — although nourishment can take many forms. Jean summed it up:
“Gardening is my therapy, my joy. Every day, if you have the time to stop and look around, there’s joy to be found. I think I live in paradise!”
And a little bit of paradise is preserved for the pollinators upon whose lives our lives depend. May the garden serve as inspiration for everyone who visits and then considers what they can grow in their own gardens to keep the pollinators alive and well for generations to come.
Visit the garden. Feel free to stroll through the Harris Center pollinator garden at any time, or to simply sit on one of the garden benches and take in the view. And if you feel inspired to start your own pollinator garden, you can download our plant list to help you get started.
A tiger swallowtail butterfly feasts on the aptly named "butterfly flower." (photo © Brett Amy Thelen)
Bees dine on milkweed. (photo © Francie von Mertens)
Bees flock to globe thistle. (photo © Francie von Mertens)
For more information on the Harris Center’s 50th anniversary celebrations, please contact Lisa Murray at (603) 525-3394 or by email.