Bees, butterflies, and wildflowers in the city

I’ve gotten increasingly into container gardening since moving to Queens three years ago, slowly educating myself about welcoming bees, butterflies, and birds, and tending soil. Some of the containers are large elevated beds. I’m amazed at everything that grows in them.

A couple months ago, I started planting for pollinators in an old sidewalk tree plot in front of the house. I wrote about it for the Queens Chronicle, my community newspaper.

My neighbor stopped me on the street the other day to say that she liked my pollinator garden. “Garden” is a lofty word for the clump of plants growing along the sidewalk, next to the street, where a tree used to be. But the tiny patch seems to make the bees and butterflies happy.

No matter what time of day I visit, I’ll find at least one bumblebee feasting on nectar from the coneflowers or the catmint, or a cabbage white butterfly, with its little purple-black wing dots, flitting around the blooms. I may have seen a monarch butterfly one day, though it could have been a viceroy.

When I moved to the Woodhaven section of Queens three years ago, I hoped to plant a tree in the empty tree plot along the sidewalk. The city eventually denied my request, citing proximity to power lines. This spring, reading how much even small clumps of wildflowers can help hungry and endangered pollinators, I realized I could do something equally good with the space: I could plant flowers for the bees and butterflies. . . .

I’m amazed how quickly it’s grown. It’s a bit of a tangle now, in late summer, but my winged friends approve. I’m reminding myself that “going to seed” isn’t always a bad thing.

This morning I saw two monarch butterflies and some bumblebees flitting around the Joe Pye Weed—in the backyard, where it’s not as sun-ravaged. For ten minutes or so, the butterflies dove and flew, and drank from the flowers. They left only when a cell phone was pointed at them for a picture. Some beauty is best experienced in the moment, in motion, anyhow.

On the suggestion of the novelist Maureen Gibbon, I’m reading Eleanor Perenyi’s Green Thoughts, which can be enjoyed in pretty much any order. I often think of Alexander Chee’s insights on the compatibility of writing and plant-tending.

Twenty years ago this month, my partner Max and I sold our beater cars, packed up our belongings, and moved to New York. Here’s a picture of me, with our late cat friend, Emily, in the moving van.

Tallahassee to Brooklyn, August 1999.

I’m not by nature a city person, though I’ve spent most of my life in one or another. Living near a forest in Queens suits me far better than Brooklyn did.


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