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Local mom creates a pollinator garden to control the quality of food for her family

Christina Amen Smith
Christina Amen Smith is a gardener, entrepreneur and homeschool mom. (Photos: Courtesy Christina Amen Smith)

Article by: Bianca Myrick, Executive Director of Virginia Association of Environmental Education

In celebration of pollinators, I recently spoke with local gardener, entrepreneur and homeschool mom Christina Amen Smith about why she is passionate about pollinators. Smith lives in Chesterfield County with her husband and four children, and is currently working on a project to help families fall in love with gardening to encourage healthy living.

I asked Smith about what inspired her to create her own pollinator garden and she shared how several years ago she began to think about food insecurity and sustainability, and started a small vegetable garden in her backyard. “I wanted to control the quality of food for my family. I noticed the vegetable plants that needed pollination were not producing as much and were struggling. After researching, I realized they were not being pollinated enough. I began looking at everything from the lawn care we were using to how there was not a lot of plant diversity in our area,” Smith explained. “I realized that we need pollinators to be able to eat.”

After Smith created her pollinator garden and switched to organic lawn care services, she noticed many more hummingbirds, bees and wasps began to come around, and her vegetable garden began to do very well.

Red Gladiolus
Red gladiolus flower being visited by a dragonfly.

Why are pollinators important? Simply put, they provide one out of every three bites of food we eat. Pollinators are responsible for the fruits, vegetables and nuts we eat, and they support flowering plants that produce oil, fiber and raw materials. Not only do pollinators help plants reproduce but they help sustain our ecosystem and prevent erosion by helping to produce flowering plants that give off oxygen and that have roots to anchor soil in place.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a world with fewer pollinators means reduced clean air, increased erosion, less food and oil, and job loss. Recent studies show a decline in pollinators due to a variety of reasons.

What can we do to help solve this problem? There are several ways to support pollinator health, but one fun way to help our flying friends is by creating a habitat for them — a pollinator garden.

Here are some tips from Smith that she uses in her own pollinator garden:

What types of plants do you use?
“First, I grabbed everything that was colorful and fragrant. After a while, I began leaning more about native plants, so they can attract pollinators that are native to our area. I plant agastache, which bees are obsessed with, marigolds, black-eyed Susans. Herbs are also great for pollinators. I like to use lavender and dill. I try to use colors like orange and yellow to attract bees, and red for hummingbirds. Milkweed is also great for butterflies.”

swallowtail butterfly
A swallowtail butterfly pollinating Smith's Damson plum tree in early spring.

Is this something that can be done if you live in an apartment?
“Absolutely. Most of the plants I use grow well in containers or pots. I actually have containers of plants on my patio. I recommend choosing container friendly plants such as marigolds, zinnias, rudbeckia, coreopsis, anise hyssop, blanket flowers and even salvia are all great choices. A simple way to start a pollinator garden on a patio or balcony is by planting an herb garden. Many herbs attract pollinators and can be used for cooking, baking etc. Some great herbs for pollinators include mint, lavender, parsley, cilantro, dill, lemon balm and chives.”

Tips from the National Wildlife Federation
Using large pots with drainage holes at the bottom that give room for roots to grow, and allow water to drain is key. Even when planting in containers, make sure that you plant flowers close together to give pollinators hiding areas and prevent weeds. Finally, make sure to keep your plants hydrated frequently because containers and pots typically dry faster.

Kendall and Kassidy
Kendall, 12, and Kassidy, 9, help out in the spring garden, harvesting kale and snap peas.

How do you keep your children involved?
“When I first started gardening it was my own private hobby to have peace, but by the end of the first season, my girls were outside digging in the dirt. Now, when we go places, they point out plants to put in the garden. I love how it teaches them patience. They check on the plants and they learn that it takes time — that delayed gratification. Seeing more butterflies, bees and wasps has also helped them not to be afraid. They used to run and I’d call an exterminator, but now wasps are our friends. They know the wasps are going to eat the things we don’t want. I knew I had grown when a bee had landed on my arm and I just let him stay there. Five years ago, I would've taken off running. Now, I know he is just tired from pollinating and needs a little rest.”

For other ways to support pollinator health, use this Pollinator Partnership Guide: 5 Things Kids Can Do to Help Pollinators

And check out pollinator-related resources and kid-friendly events around Virginia: