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Larri Cochran’s garden in Northampton is a pollinators’ buffet

  • A painted lady rests on purple top vervain in Cochran's pollinator garden. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Cochran finds time to tend to her garden around her work schedule in the early mornings and late afternoons. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Larri Cochran turned a plot of weeds into a pollinator-friendly garden that joins a row of similar plots to draw birds, bees and butterflies. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A honeybee works purple top vervain in Tom Gagnon's pollinator garden at Northampton Community Gardens, GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A bumblebee goes after the pollen in this purple-top vervain in the pollinator habitat created at Northampton Community Gardens, GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Bumblebees take pollen from a goldenrod plant in Cochran’s garden. LARRI COCHRAN

  • Larri Cochran teaches a class on pollinators at the Northampton Community Gardens. AMY HOLICH MOSCARITOLO

  • Great spangled fritillary butterflies pay a visit to Cochran’s milkweed. LARRI COCHRAN

  • A swallowtail lands on a zinnia in Cochran’s garden. LARRI COCHRAN

  • A monarch butterfly enjoys one of Cochran’s tithonias. LARRI COCHRAN

  • A Mexican sunflower blooms in Larri Cochran's pollinator garden. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Larri Cochran works in her pollinator garden at Northampton Community Gardens. Black-eyed Susans bloom in the foreground. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Larri Cochran works in her pollinator garden at Northampton Community Gardens. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Larri Cochran waters her pollinator garden at Northampton Community Gardens. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



For the Gazette
Thursday, September 07, 2017

Nestled among the patchwork of vegetable and flower plots at the Northampton Community Gardens is a thriving, buzzing, colorful pollinator habitat.

Native bumblebees land on the deep yellow licorice goldenrod, vigorously shaking their furry bodies to get the nutritious, protein-packed pollen to fall on them. Monarchs take a sip of nectar from the center of the brilliant orange-red Mexican sunflowers. Fritillary butterflies flutter among the tiny white clusters of native mountain mint flowers. So many varieties of butterflies — buckeye, black swallowtail, yellow tiger swallowtail, skippers, cabbage whites, and painted ladies — come to call that the Massachusetts Butterfly Club hosts butterfly walks here.

Along with the bees and butterflies, moths and hummingbirds stop by to fertilize the flowers, too, moving the pollen within and among them so they can develop seeds for procreation.

The plants were handpicked by Larri Cochran, 59, an e*commerce professional and Western Massachusetts Master Gardener of Northampton, who designed the plot to give these pollinators a home for all stages of their lives, from egg to adulthood.

This thriving slice of life is a dramatic transformation from the tangled mess it was just a few months ago. When Cochran set eyes on it back in June, it was an abandoned, 20-by-20-foot riot of weeds, a gap in a border of other butterfly plots, one created by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association as a teaching space, and two others. Cochran jumped at the chance to fill the hole to make a long, continuous swatch of pollinator-friendly plants that help sustain the vegetables and flowers in the 200-plus plots in the 7-acre community garden.

“It just made sense to expand the area,” she said as she offered a recent tour of the garden.

Building on leftovers

Though anxious to design her own space, Cochran was curious to see what leftover plants would emerge on their own.

“I had some idea ... lots of wildflowers, such as the Queen Anne’s lace, which some people would call weeds.”

She, however, would call those wildflowers a perfect base for her new garden, given that they are valuable sources of nectar and pollen.

Sure enough, Queen Anne's lace — a host plant for swallowtail butterflies — appeared, as did evening primrose, common mullein, sunflowers and daisy fleabane.

Then, she assessed what had to go.

Some wildflowers have little or no nutritional value to pollinating insects, she says. They also don’t host butterfly or moth eggs or larvae and don’t attract bees to their stems.

So, Cochran and fellow Master Gardener Carol Wasserloos, pulled out ragweeds, garlic mustard, crab grass and dandelion. Later, morning glories and other vines had to be removed.

Next it was time to add plants.

She chose those that would feed insects from caterpillars to adult butterflies as well as bumble bees, honey bees and others. These included three species of milkweed (Asclepias syriaca, Asclepias tuberosa, and Asclepias incarnata), Joe pye weed, fall-blooming asters, New York ironweed and goldenrod as well as a couple of kinds of hyssop, broadleaf mountain mint, narrow leaf mountain mint, native bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), and native grasses (Little Blue Stem) and sedges (Carex pennsylvanica).

“Then I added long-season, flowering cultivated plants like Verbena bonariensis, Thithonia (Mexican Sunflower), a couple different Rudbeckias, dwarf sunflowers, and red zinnia,.” she said. Having nectar-providing plants growing right up until hard frost is important to ensure pollinators can load up on food before the winter. Monarch butterflies, for example, will lay eggs through early September, which doesn’t give them much time to hatch and head south because temperatures need to be above 55 degrees for them to fly, she says. Other butterflies, such as fritillaries and swallowtails, will continue to go into chrysalis and over winter as chrysalis until the early spring, so it is important to support them, too.

Full-blown habitat

Walking down the grassy pathway now toward Cochran’s plot, you immediately sees the progress she has made. Red zinnias are finishing up their blooming while tall, frilly, white Queen Anne’s lace is showing off in scattered spots throughout the plot. A towering, bold yellow sunflower marks a corner. Rich, lilac-purple draws your eye first left, then right, to alternating locations of airy Verbena bonariensis while the vibrant golden yellow of multiple black-eyed and brown-eyed Susans bid a cheery greeting.

Entering the garden from the east and stepping onto a three-pronged, natural bark mulched path, you are surrounded everywhere by layers of plants that form a full-blown pollinator habitat. Almost directly in the middle of the garden is a happy old evening primrose, proudly spreading wide its almost shrub-like stems covered in small, lemon-yellow flowers as a beacon to winged creatures that there is nectar and pollen here to enjoy.

“When pollinators approach a garden, it is like when we humans approach a buffet of food,” Cochran said. “We look around, see what we like and do not like, then pick our favorite options.”

Cochran says her first month of work on the garden was labor intensive. With planning and planting, she spent about 10 hours a week on her project. Then, she says, the workload settled into the rhythm it does with any garden: weeding, watering, pruning, editing, enriching the soil and adding new things along the way. “These tasks require a fraction of the time of that first month,” she said.

She has spent about $200, on the garden so far, she says. Getting started late in the planting season meant she needed to buy mature plants so they would bloom in time. Had she been able to get going sooner, she says, she could have used more seeds or seedlings and cut her costs by more than half.

Cochran says she is always careful to buy plants and seeds that are free of the pesticide neonicotinoid, which is said to be harmful to bees. “I even check the sources on seeds because some seeds come from (other countries) that do not have the same strict standards we do,” she said.

She also mixes native and non-native plants and takes into consideration the pollinators’ physiology. Bumblebees, for instance, have different tongue lengths depending on their species. The nectar and pollen in the milkweed she planted, with its smaller, tubed flowers, is more accessible to bees with shorter tongues.

Life cycle Intriguing

Cochran’s love of gardening originated in the farmland of rural New Jersey and Pennsylvania where she grew up. “I love all parts of it,” she said, “soil and setting analysis, design, planting strategy, water, nutrient, pest management.”

It was photography, though, that prompted her to pursue gardening at a higher level. During college, Cochran began using her father’s old film Nikon camera to take pictures during her travels. She eventually upgraded to a Nikon DSLR and began photographing flowering plants.

That, she says, gave her insight into the plants’ lives, and the lives of their winged friends, which made her want to learn more.

“It was teaching myself digital photography while walking around the community gardens that first introduced me to the Master Gardener organization,” she said.

Most of her garden work now is around creating pollinator habitats.

Working with the Western Massachusetts Master Gardeners, a nonprofit group of trained volunteers which offers lectures, creates gardens and works on other projects, she eventually began teaching about pollinators.

This summer she has been using her new garden, along with the other pollinator habitat plots alongside it, for the Pollinator Habitat Design classes the Master Gardeners have been offering.

“Having all four pollinator habitats in a row is beautiful,” she said, “and it brings people into the gardens who might not otherwise know about them.” The plant diversity in the gardens also attracts butterflies and bees that are uncommon in the region, she says, giving visitors a rare opportunity to seem them.

Next up, Cochran plans to add wattle fences, using downed tree branches, along the back of the pollinator gardens to provide decaying wood where bees can nest. And she will continue to add new flowering plants and grasses to ensure a broad range of colors, shapes, and nectar/pollen variety.

She says she fits her gardening work in around her work schedule in the early mornings, later afternoons and evenings. “I have a lot of energy,” she said. “Thank goodness for long summer days.”

How to connect

Larri Cochran, along with her other fellow Master Gardener teachers, are holding their last Pollinator Habitat Design Class for the year Sept. 24 from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at the Northampton Community Garden, 51 Prince St., Northampton,

They will offer a list of plants specific to this season, discuss what can be added now for spring pollen, and how to do pollinator-friendly garden clean-up.

Admission is free, but is limited to 25 people. Please contact Larri (llcochran@gmail.com) to register.