Thumbs Up North Bay: Co-existing with Critters – Heritage Gardeners and Nipissing Naturalist Lead the Way

The year 2020 has been challenging to say the least. But even at the worst of times, there are always things worth celebrating. We love North Bay. What’s not to like about the amazing natural setting nestled between two beautiful lakes. The natural features are truly stunning but there is another side to our city that we don’t recognize and celebrate enough. Our people! We all know who they are. Those people that make an effort to truly make this a wonderful city to live in. These are the people and places that they have created that go above and beyond our expectations. They inspire us with their commitment to building a strong and happy city through their citizen-led improvements.

Thumbs Up North Bay seeks out these individuals and the wonderful places they help create that make our community a place where we want to be. Thumbs Up North Bay recognizes their efforts by painting our Thumbs Up Award at the amazing places they have created (Don’t worry we are using water soluble chalk spray).

At the Gateway, we’ve offered to help by featuring the award winners with a more in depth exploration of the people who make this city what it is. We hope you will share the little gems you have discovered in our community that give us a sense of place so we can recognize them and feature them in the future.

Thumbs Up North Bay #1: Sweetman’s Gardens

If you enjoy this article, I’d urge you to check out some of our other pieces. A ton of effort has been put into producing meaningful, thoughtful local content and we know you’ll enjoy it!

When we think about “the environment”, we often conjure up images of a global crisis in which the Earth’s climate is changing. Confronting such a large, global scale issue as an individual inevitably leads us to feel small, insignificant, and frankly, helpless. While the solution lies in the collective actions of individuals, the psychology of humans is a large barrier to attaining those mass movements of collective action. The actions of which a movement is made up of feel negligible in isolation, and as a result it is difficult to motivate people to do them.

In other words, your actions in response to a global crises might feel like a drop in the bucket, but ultimately, everyone contributing their drop is how we get through it.

In my role as an educator, I often ask students faced with a big task:

“How would you eat an elephant?”

Of course, after the first few times the response, “One bite at a time” comes with some heavy eye-rolling. I mean, I don’t condone eating elephants, but hey, the analogy rings true.

Well in terms of the health of “the environment”, Melanie Alkins, of the Heritage Gardeners in conjunction with the Nipissing Naturalists, have come up with a great way to take a bite out of large issues on a local scale.

Travelling along the Kate Pace Way on Memorial Dr., you might notice the beautiful gardens planted along the road. Through one such garden, Melanie is working to show locals the way they can become more integrated with our local ecology through the choices they make in the design of their own outdoor spaces.

Garden Bed #1, the Wildflower Garden, includes features that benefit the local wildlife and is the focal point of this award.

Melanie started the garden last spring, when a holding bed for the city’s gardens became overgrown, and was going to be removed. Melanie seized the opportunity to create a green space that specifically aims to meet the needs of local wildlife and the insects that help pollinate our plants and keep our food supply steady.

The issue of maintaining pollinators is a big one, with their drastic impact on plant ecology, which impacts everything from food to green space to microclimates. Estimates say that about half of bee colonies die for no apparent reason, and Federal and Provincial governments in Canada are investing large sums to find out what we can do to reverse the trend.

Garden #1, you can see the smaller bee hotels on the left side of the image, while the critter condo is also visible near the photo’s centre

This garden, with its inclusion of pollinator hotels and critter condos, aims to educate the people of North Bay. It shows us the way that if we all make small changes that will make a big difference with large scale issues like the pollinator crisis and climate change.

Additionally, and almost more importantly, it educates us on a different way of being; one where we accept and embrace our connectedness with nature rather than viewing our world and the natural one as separate.

Melanie in her Garden!

We discussed her vision for the garden, and the inclusion of pollinator hotels and critter condos, and the way our well being as humans are inherently connected to the health of the environment:

R: I’m wondering if you could start by speaking about the pollinator crisis, and how those concerns are leading to human intervention, like the pollinator hotels you’ve installed downtown?

M: It’s an occurrence we’re seeing where insects and pollinator are declining across the board. There’s lots of reasons why it’s happening, climate change, so changes and shifts in the climatic pattern. Critters are used to aligning their life decisions to natural patterns. So insect emergence is an example where with shifting temperatures, or highly variable weather patterns that are less predictable, its causing asycronicity, resulting in birds arriving but the insects for them to eat not emerging when they normally would. So too is flowing times of key food sources for pollinators. If the temperatures are too cold or too hot we get a late frost that kills the flowers. This creates a gap in the food source for the pollinators. There’s also our own human choices, like use of pesticides and insecticides which can result in poor water quality and contamination, which results in poor reproductive success of the insects and pollinator health, which has implications on our food production and native ecosystems that rely on these species for pollination, or for food for themselves

Household cleaners, and other choices we make have vast and crucial impacts on the natural world around us.

What we’ve been trying to do is advocate to rethink about how we use our space. It’s thinking about using alternatives to chemical pesticides, having gardens as an alternative to grass. This helps with addressing habitat fragmentation, which is a huge issue where the insects can’t get from one food source to the next, or their plants they need tolay their eggs on. So we’re advocating for people to try to reduce their use of chemicals, to try to think about the food they eat, what they use to clean their house, and how they use their yard and their space. Using organic soils and solutions to manage perceived pests in your space. 

The big message for me is that we can coexist, and that it’s fun to coexist with nature. Sharing your space with nature is a good thing, because it helps people stay connected, grounded, and helps the whole ecosystem when we’re connected and aware of our surroundings. 

We have our own native pollinators species that serve a purpose. If we don’t have pollinators our food system collapses. Boom, it’s done.

But it’s not just about us, sure there’s a huge food security issue there, but there’s also so many ecosystems and critters that rely on pollination: our forests, our wetlands, our grasslands. Pollination perpetuates them all. It’s not just about us and food, although we are most motivated by the things that we need and that make our lives comfortable. It’s about those native plants an animals that rely on pollinators to perpetuate themselves and their food sources (i.e the seeds they eat!)

It’s more than just us.

R: So how does your project address these concerns?

The pollinator garden is a nature garden really. The easy and most obvious thing about the garden is about raising awareness about pollinators. So we have in there the pollinator condo (the large one), but really it’s a critter condo. The smaller ones are for solitary bees, they lay their eggs there and they hatch in the spring. We’re always worried about debris-free manicured lawns, but those spaces are important habitat for bees, birds, rodents, etc.

The bigger one now has multiple uses, things can go in there and lay their eggs, get out of the weather, escape predators. If you bring it back to nature that might be a dead tree or a stump that has all different sized cavities, and maybe its not alive but it still has form and function.  Those are removed from the landscape because we have an idea of how things should look. This is a fun way to do it isn’t a dead tree that could be a hazard, but it looks cool and has function.

The Critter Condo

R: So who’s responsible for the garden? How was it funded?

M: I’m team lead for this garden for Heritage Gardeners, which I’m on the executive of and am the education coordinator. I’m involved in multiple organizations and I’m always trying to cross promote everyone and give recognition to organizations doing cool things. We received funding through the Heritage Gardeners for an old holding bed that got out of control (holding beds are where plants are stored until they have homes). They were just going to sod it over, but I said don’t, I‘ll take it on! We got funding to make it a wildflower garden, but I wanted to make it a nature garden and Nipissing Naturalists, joined in and played an important role as well, especially Kaye Edmonds who was also instrumental in getting the garden where it is.

R: Is there plans to put in more of the condos or hotels? What would you look for in a location.

M: The garden is a conversation piece to inspire others to do the same – to welcome nature into their space. There are other pollinator condos, one in Laurier Woods for example. But the message is that this garden is to inspire others to do the same on their property. This is just year 2, it will eventually turn into micro habitats, showing what they can look like, why they’re important, and that they’re easy to put into your yard. It doesn’t have to look ugly or gross. You can both make a space attractive and serve these functions. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

[I’m not sure this was a pun, but if it was, gosh it was incredibly well executed]

Bees are the species one considers when worrying about pollinator decline. They’ve become almost a charismatic symbol for the importance of everything in an ecosystem.

R: We’re not talking about one species, we’re talking about pollinators in general, and even beyond that in terms of integrating with the nature around us and not seeing ourselves as separate from it. Can you speak to the projects importance in terms of that context?

M: For me, I’ve grown up in North Bay, in the bush, I’m a biologist, I really value the importance of nature. Richard Louv coined the nature deficit disorder. We really underestimate nature and the value and healing powers that it has. It’s about getting out into nature and grounding yourself, taking time to relax, or exercising, walking, gardening, biking, paddling, whatever you’re doing, being with nature has mental, physical, and emotional benefits. Some of us can’t afford to get out into the wilderness or aren’t as mobile, but you can appreciate nature by bringing it into your space. It’s just about showing people how to do it at small, medium and large scales.

Being in nature has many benefits

R: It’s funny you say that, nature at different doses is a big theme on this blog. I often make the argument we have large and medium scale nature in our city, but there’s a deficit of small scale nature. This project seems to address that void

M: For me it’s just being a catalyst to help people do it, to inspire them to do it.

R: Well Melanie, thank you from Thumbs up North Bay for all that you’ve accomplished with your project. Your effort is making our city a better place.

Thumbs Up North Bay Thanks You

For the hard work Melanie. Heritage Gardeners, and Nipissing Naturalists have done to set an example of the ways that we can coexist with the natural world, they have been awarded with Thumbs Up North Bay. Head down to the garden, and check out the critter condo and pollinator hotels. They might just inspire you to make your own backyard more friendly to small scale nature. Their aim was to start a conversation and inspire, and we hope that this award helps them to accomplish just that.

Garden Bed #1 for the Heritage Gardeners, specifically Melanie Alkins, have been awarded the second Thumbs Up North Bay award, in recognition of their active effort at improving our urban ecology and inspiring and educating residents of our city on pollinator decline. You can find the chalk spray award along Memorial Dr., check it out before the rain washes it away!

We’re all in the same boat, and while as humans we try to separate ourselves from nature, viewing ourselves as outside it, we’re a part of the web of connectedness, the chain of cause and effect that the world runs on. We can learn to act sustainably, to understand our responsibility to ourselves, our community, and the nature with which we are inextricably linked. Thank you to Melanie, and all those who remind us of how we can make small changes that allow for better connections between us and the nature upon which we rely. 


Pass through The Gateway: Check out some of our other articles about making North Bay a better place to live!

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