GWCCA’s new hillside urban garden connects and protects pollinators

Campus Horticulturalist Steve Ware has to fight his basic landscaping instincts when it comes to the Georgia World Congress Center Authority’s (GWCCA) new urban pocket garden.

Installed on a steep grade off of Ivan Allen Jr., Blvd. in an area known affectionally as “Goat Hill,” Ware’s latest campus horticulture venture is designed to sustain native insects, animals and pollinators, including the GWCCA’s beehives a couple of blocks away.

And instead of meticulously landscaped lawns, neatly trimmed ornamental trees and manicured bushes like you’ll see on most of the 220-acre campus’ various outdoor spaces, this new array of vegetation is designed to mimic the natural habitat.

That means no pesticides, no herbicides and no irrigation – very low maintenance.

“We’re just letting these plants take care of this hillside, and do what they do,” said Ware. Which is the antithesis of Ware and the GWCCA grounds crew’s usual approach.

The pollinator garden takes up roughly a sixth of the grassy, brush-covered five-acre plot just south of Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard and north of GWCC’s Building B which has been maintained bi-annually by herds of goats, leading to the nickname, Goat Hill.

The ultimate plan is to extend the pollinator garden over the entire Goat Hill span.

The project is a collaboration between the Authority, Baytree Landscape Contractors and the State Botanical Garden at the University of Georgia, and is part of the botanical garden’s Connect to Protect program.

Connect to Protect display marker along Ivan Allen Jr. Blvd.

According to the State Botanical Garden, “Connect to Protect is a program that combines public displays with educational materials (like the one pictured above) to foster an understanding of the role that native plants play in maintaining biodiversity in urban and suburban landscapes of Georgia.”

In eight years, 55 Connect to Protect gardens have been installed across Georgia, said Lauren Muller, Conservation Outreach Coordinator for the State Botanical Garden. The GWCCA garden is one of only three in the Connect to Protect program within the city of Atlanta, she said, including one not too far away at an apartment complex in the Old Fourth Ward.

The plants installed in the GWCCA garden were sourced from Baytree and the State Botanical Garden, and nearly 20 varieties are represented, from lantana to salvia to yucca to Ruby Spice (Clethra alnifolia) and Henry’s Garnet (Itea virginica).

The GWCCA’s garden experiment is important because trends indicate a serious decline in wild native pollinators, according to the National Academy of Science’s Report on the Status of North American Pollinators. This report also shows that providing small pockets of habitat allows pollinators to navigate corridors in which they can forage for food and pollinate.

“We’re installing these gardens throughout urban and suburban areas that provide shelter, food – whether it be pollen or nectar – and they provide places for these insects to breed, creating corridors for these urban and suburban areas,” said Muller. “With rapid urbanization, our population is expanding exponentially, we can’t rely anymore on natural areas to supply biodiversity. We just can’t – we’re losing them too quickly. We have to look to our landscapes to provide more ecological functions, we can’t just think of our landscapes as pretty places for pansies. We really need to think about them in terms of supporting biodiversity.”

Sure enough, as unConventional toured the pollinator garden on a recent bright and sunny afternoon, bees, wasps and butterflies were buzzing about, landing on the various plants and flowers.

“Native pollinators thrive in their natural environment. Too often they’re replaced with well-manicured landscapes or non-native plantings which reduce the food source for pollinator species like the honey bee. With three beehives on campus and a lot of acreage, this effort is a natural (pun intended) way of supporting our local ecosystem,” said GWCCA Corporate Social Responsibility Manager Tim Trefzer. “And because every resident is impacted by the environment, this contributes to our mission of enhancing the overall quality of life for all Georgians.”