Creating a Native and Indigenous Wildlife and Pollinator Garden at Elbow Lake

By Meghan White and Lindsay Wray

Throughout the summer of 2020, we were very fortunate to have the opportunity to work as the Outreach and Stewardship Interns at the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS) and Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre (ELEEC). Together with Sarah Oldenburger, the Outreach and Teaching Coordinator, the outreach team was able to take on the rewarding project of designing a wildlife and pollinator garden at ELEEC. QUBS is very fortunate to have received funding from the Helen McCrea Peacock Foundation of the Toronto Foundation to support the development of this garden. Planting a wildlife and pollinator garden is an excellent way to provide a valuable habitat for our native pollinator species. Honeybees are usually the first pollinators to come to mind, however they are not alone, nor are they native! Insects (such as native bee species, butterflies, beetles, and flies) along with some bird and bat species are crucial pollinators in the Elbow Lake region. Unfortunately, many of Ontario’s native pollinator species are currently threatened due to the loss of critical habitats, among other reasons (such as pesticide use, and food shortage).

Creating a wildlife and pollinator garden at Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre will provide native wildlife and pollinator species with habitats where they can grow, reproduce and contribute to the recovery of local pollinator and wildlife species. In addition, this garden will be a useful resource for teaching and outreach as it will be used to educate students and the public about the importance of wildlife and pollinator gardens and how to create similar gardens in other spaces!

Monarch butterflies feeding on the nectar of milkweed plants.
Photo Credit: Mark Conboy

In May, we started researching local native pollinator plant nurseries and greenhouses, as well as native plants that would support many pollinator species. In the garden, we wanted to include a variety of colours, shapes, heights, as well as blooming times so that the garden blooms from early spring to late fall and attracts a variety of pollinators. Not only do native plants prevent the spread of invasive species, but they have co-evolved alongside native pollinators to ensure successful pollination (Corbet, et al., 2001). For instance, bee-pollinated flowers are often blue or yellow and beetle-pollinated flowers are often dull or white (Miller, Owens, & Rorslett, 2011). There are also other factors that impact the match between pollinators and flowers including the contrast between flower and leaf, symmetry, scent and tactile clues (Miller, Owens, & Rorslett, 2011). After planning our garden beds, we placed an order at a nursery that sells native plants. We also reached out to community contacts, including Lemoine Point Conservation Area and the Society for Conservation Biology at Queen’s University, who were able to provide common and butterfly milkweed plants, brown-eyed susans, cup plants, and a native seed mix for the garden. We are very thankful for the generous plant and seed donations from these organizations!

SWEP Student Meghan White plants brown-eyed susans along the back of the Nature Centre. Photo Credit: Sarah Oldenburger

As part of the wildlife and pollinator garden project we wanted to include plants with sacred and traditional meanings to the Indigenous community. The Queen’s University Biological Station has been working closely with local elders and knowledge keepers in creating land-based learning programs, signage which includes local Indigenous language and conducting medicine walks on the property. It is important to acknowledge the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee territory that Queen’s University is situated on, understand local Indigenous history, and celebrate Indigenous ways of knowing and being. As such, we were able to work closely with Deb St. Amant, the Elder in Residence in the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program (ATEP) at the Queen’s University Faculty of Education. We met virtually with Deb and discussed the importance of Indigenous traditional plants and medicines and learned about the medicinal plants present at Elbow Lake EEC. Deb suggested planting the four medicines: tobacco, sage, sweetgrass, and cedar, and provided us with knowledge on how to take care of these plants. Deb also suggested using other medicinal plants such as berries and the three sisters (corn, beans, and squash). We’ve since incorporated tobacco plants and blueberries into the garden that were supplied by a community contact and a native pollinator plant nursery.

Many of our plants arrived in early July – right in the middle of a heat wave! They were stored in a backyard for a few days before being planted in the raised beds outside of the parking lot at ELEEC. The beds for our pollinator garden were graciously built by Adam Morcom, Elbow Lake Manager, our supervisor, Sarah Oldenburger, the Outreach and Teaching Coordinator, Aaron Zolderdo, Manager at Opinicon, and Rod Green, QUBS’ Maintenance Assistant. The six 4’x 8’ raised beds were constructed with untreated cedar rails, rebar, and lined with contractors’ paper (composed of natural materials) to keep in the soil! The beds were placed on top of a gravel base at a distance far enough apart to ensure that individuals using wheelchairs and mobility devices may access and enjoy the pollinator garden. Adam and Sarah then filled the raised beds with a high-quality soil delivered by a local gardening centre.

We chose to keep the plants together in the raised beds, because the parking lot had the best access to water to ensure the survival of the plants during the heatwave. Sarah and Adam alternated watering in response to the weather of the weeks and the plants’ water needs. Unfortunately, the wild columbine was popular for some of the local wildlife and the lower leaves were chewed. Despite this, many of the plants thrived despite the heat wave!

We also dug up the gardens beds (including the rock borders!) by the Nature Centre; the invasive tiger lilies were carefully removed by Meghan and Sarah. Next, Adam rented a sod cutter and rototiller to remove some grass and expand the beds by the Nature Centre. Adam then added the remaining soil and replaced the rocks to create a rock border to define the new and improved beds beside the Nature Centre. These beds will soon be home to sun and drought tolerant plant species!

Left: The six raised beds after flowers had been planted. Right: The bed along the Nature Centre after the soil had been cut, tilled and re-soiled. Photo Credit: Sarah Oldenburger

Caption: The six raised beds after flowers had been planted and the bed along the Nature Centre after the soil had been cut, tilled and re-soiled.  Photo Credit: Sarah Oldenburger

Overall, this was a challenging but enjoyable experience. As our flowers and medicinal plants were planted late in the season, we likely won’t have any large blooms this summer, but we are hopeful that these plants will grow and prepare to bloom next summer. We know our garden will be an ongoing project with much left to do, and we hope that everyone will have the opportunity to observe native pollinators! We plan to continue monitoring the garden and start constructing habitats for our native pollinator bees. Learn more about pollination and creating your own pollinator garden with these resources:


  • Corbet, S. A., Bee, J., Dasmahapatra, K., Gale, S., Gorringe, E., Ferla, B. L., . . . Vorontsova, M. (2001). Native or Exotic? Double or Single? Evaluating Plants for Pollinator-friendly Gardens. Annals of Botany, 219-232.
  • Miller, R., Owens, S. J., & Rorslett, B. (2011). Plants and colour: Flowers and pollination. Optics & Laser Technology, 282-294.

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