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Conserving Desert Pollinators and Water in the Face of Climate Change

By Kaitlin Haase on 18. April 2022
Kaitlin Haase

One of the most immediate and tangible ways we can prepare for climate change as individuals is to restore native habitat. This not only builds a greater buffer for plants and animals to survive changing conditions, but makes our own gardens and landscapes more prepared to withstand drier or wetter, hotter or colder weather by choosing plants that have evolved in a similar environment.

At my location in the desert Southwest, it's been another dry winter. A La Niña season meant less precipitation and higher temperatures over the winter, exacerbating the effects of climate change in the high desert. Brown piñon pines dot the landscape, reminding us that climate change is not some distant threat but is here now. While it will take everyone to stop rising temperatures at a global scale, I find hope in the cultivation of little patches of earth throughout Santa Fe hosting pollinator habitat kits.

The Xerces Habitat Kit programs have provided thousands of native, climate-resilient pollinator plants to conservation-minded organizations and individuals since 2019. The first habitat kit program began in California and has expanded to programs in the Northeast and Santa Fe, New Mexico. These curated native plant kits are designed to support a diversity of native pollinators across seasons and are offered to program participants at no cost. 

Choose the Right Plants for Current and Future Conditions

Ensuring these kits have appropriate plants is of the utmost importance for the Santa Fe kit program. The exceptional diversity of Southwest pollinators calls for a mix of plant species that support both generalists and specialists, and the extreme climate at 7,000 feet requires tough, adaptable species that are both cold hardy and heat tolerant. Fortunately, native plants fit the bill since they evolved with native pollinators and the extreme desert climate. 

To prioritize resilience to warming temperatures, it was critical to select native species which naturally occur in the Santa Fe area, not ones that only grow in the wettest canyons, and source seed from plant populations of the arid Southwest region which are adapted to drought. Many other considerations were made when selecting the kit species, from functional considerations such as the duration and timing of flowering and the types of pollinators each species would support, to practical considerations like nursery production, seed availability, and ease of cultivation. Ultimately, a total of eighteen native species were selected to optimize the pollinator value and climate-resilience value of the kits.

Santa Fe Extension Master Gardeners and the habitat kits they are about to put in the ground at the Santa Fe County Extension Office Demonstration Gardens. The eighteen species in the kits are native, climate-resilient species which will support a diversity of native pollinators across seasons. (Photo: Kaitlin Haase / Xerces Society)

Growing native plants is one step in a whole dance of pollinator habitat creation, and there are many other elements to consider when protecting pollinators and addressing climate change. While our habitat kits supplied plants to many budding and seasoned conservationists in Santa Fe, we also shared our thorough factsheets on pollinator-friendly home pest management and nesting and overwintering habitat guidance, plus a species-specific and locally tailored planting and maintenance guide for the kit species with watering recommendations.

Plant with Water Conservation in Mind

I have at times felt conflicted when turning on my watering hose in my desert garden. How is using water supposed to combat climate change? As it turns out, water conservation and pollinator conservation are not at odds! On the contrary, they align perfectly in several ways. 

First, pollinator habitat beats the alternative. Deserts are defined by their limited sources of water and the native plants of these regions are built to withstand meager precipitation and frequent droughts, whereas many nonnative ornamental plants require intensive watering throughout the summer to survive. Rock mulch, bare ground, and impervious surfaces absorb and emit heat creating a warmer environment, prevent water infiltration into the soil, and increase evaporation and runoff of rainwater. Native plant cover not only serves as pollinator habitat, it often sustains itself on natural precipitation alone, increases water infiltration in the soil, and reflects more solar energy. 

Native plants of the desert are tough! This volunteer chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata) thrives in this hot location between rocks and a hard place, demonstrating the climate extremes this native species can tolerate. (Photo: Kaitlin Haase / Xerces Society)

Second, in the right location, native plants can survive on little to no additional water. While small native plants do require frequent watering to become established after planting, many do not need irrigation after a few years if planted in the appropriate location. If carefully planned and water storage or irrigation infrastructure is attainable, a low water pollinator garden is within reach. Understanding the individual species' water needs and matching those needs to areas of your planting area, such as planting heat and drought tolerant species near pavement that receives full afternoon sun or planting thirsty species in an area that collects rainwater runoff, will also reduce water needed to maintain plants. 

Finally, it’s easier to practice smart irrigation when you don’t need much. Harvesting rainwater with rain barrels and cisterns can reduce or even eliminate the use of municipal or well water for your garden. How and when watering takes place also determines the amount of water used. Choose in-ground drip irrigation over sprinklers and avoid watering in the heat of the day during summer to reduce water loss to evaporation. Sustainable water use is essential to combating climate change and can be applied directly to pollinator conservation.

Golden current (Ribes aureum) blooms in a Santa Fe rain garden. Rainwater runoff from the surrounding parking lot drains into this garden, increasing water infiltration and sustaining pollinator plants. (Photo: Kaitlin Haase / Xerces Society)

The resilience and dependability of native plants from your local ecosystem works to your advantage when gardening or landscaping for climate change. Instead of working against natural processes in our built environments, let’s utilize our knowledge, resources, and technologies to work with nature. Sometimes, the path of least resistance is the best way to resist the status quo. 


Further Reading:

Find resources to conserve Southwest pollinators

Consider harvesting rainwater and the rules in your community (restricted in Colorado)

Learn more about xeriscaping in New Mexico

Read about natural design and native plants in Southwest gardens

Learn more about participating in the Santa Fe Pollinator Habitat Kit Program in 2022



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