Wildflowers turn a ranch into a pollinator sanctuary.
A Montana rancher’s garden helps the birds and bees.
Growing up in a saddle and herding cattle across his family’s ranch in Ekalaka, Montana, instilled in Doug Bonsell a deep appreciation for nature.
“It was just drummed into me early on,” Doug says. “You learn to love the land and the animals that live on it.”
When Doug and his wife, Ronda, bought the family ranch, they showed that love for all creatures by creating a habitat for birds.
Over many years, the Bonsells planted more than 17,000 trees and shrubs, including buffaloberry, chokecherry, sumac, cotoneaster, juneberry, currant, honeysuckle, Russian almond, silverberry and apricot. They left standing grain and planted cover crops. The birds simply flourished.
Then around 2012, Doug, who was an avid reader of The Conservationist as a kid, turned his attention to other pollinators, such as bees, moths, butterflies, wasps, flies, hummingbirds, and even some ant and beetle species. He and Ronda wanted to do something to help. They envisioned planting acres of native wildflowers along their driveway.
“I’m a very caring and loving husband because I planted my wife a 3½-acre flower garden,” Doug says with a laugh.
To get started on the massive project, Doug and Ronda visited their local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office in 2013. There they learned that they were eligible for a program to cover a portion of the costs of planting a variety of wildflowers and other plants attractive to both wild pollinators and the small colony of honeybees they kept on the ranch.
Doug’s daughters helped NRCS design a site plan, which called for a series of plots laid out along the entrance road to the ranch. The Bridger Plant Materials Center, a division of the NRCS, furnished the seed stock while the Bonsells prepared the ground, which took three years.
“We plowed it up and worked the soil for a year,” Doug says. “Then we planted alfalfa in it and then disked it again so we could control the weeds, and then kept it fallow for another year.”
In the fall of 2017, the folks at NRCS brought in a seeder for the planting. They planned to plant a single variety of flower in most plots; others got a mix of several species. As the plants established themselves and pollinators began to appear, NRCS and the Bonsells monitored and documented the species that visited and the types of flowers they sought out. It was a win-win for everyone.
The wildflower garden, Doug says, “draws in a lot of native creatures that we like to look at. It’s fair to say that the wildflowers have brought us closer to nature.”
Ronda cautions that the process takes time, realistic expectations, and patience (which is indeed a virtue). “Not all of this comes out looking like the photos in a garden catalog,” she says, noting that the couple had to work hard to control weeds and grasses in the first few years after planting.
For Doug, an innovator and steward, the project is another effort to benefit the natural world that has sustained his life as a rancher. “If you keep taking from the land, you’re going to have nothing left. You’ve got to give back,” he says. “I always say that I’m going to leave it better than I found it. Maybe I can leave that in somebody else’s heart. If everybody does a little, that’s a lot.”
KNOW A GOOD NEIGHBOR?
“If everybody does a little, that’s a lot.”
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