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ATC aims to create pollinator habitat in power line right-of-way at Mequon Nature Preserve

A late September day in Wisconsin seems reminiscent all things fall: changing leaves, cooler temperatures and the awareness of evolving seasons. For those who consider themselves “green thumbs,” it is also an ideal time of year to plant for the following spring. Unfortunately, the thermometer on Sept. 21, 2017 read a stifling 84 degrees. And on that day, a team of ATC employee volunteers had planned to put 3,300 native plants in a half-acre section of our transmission line right-of-way near the entrance of Mequon Nature Preserve.

Months earlier, our environmental contractor, Cardno, designed a site layout, that included a walking path throughout the vast garden, featuring selections from our Grow Smart® pollinator planting guide to demonstrate how the plants would eventually look. Cardno transported the 3,300 plants in small plug form to the preserve. Once there, they reassured ATC volunteers in the early morning of the sweltering heat that our efforts would eventually produce rotating blooms of vegetation throughout the seasons  – attracting pollinators when they needed the habitat – and creating visual interest for the time in between. Our goal was to establish a habitat that would provide a contiguous flight path for these pollinators within our transmission line rights-of-way that runs through the length of the preserve. We also wanted to showcase the garden at the upcoming Mequon Nature Preserve donor event. Since the donor event was scheduled months in advance – heat or not, we had to get the plants in the ground.

Planting in the hot sun wasn’t the only challenge. Much of the soil in the Mequon, Wis. area is so hard that locals dub it clay. Fortunately, Cardno had the brilliant insight to pack two pieces of unusual but essential machinery: AUGERS. Yes, the gas-powered tool most people associate with ice fishing turned out to be a welcome piece of planting equipment for these conditions.

As the day wore on and volunteers followed the augers’ holes that zigzagged through the parameters of the orange flags, we scratched our heads. How could these delicate little plants ever thrive in such conditions? Once the auger spun out the rock-hard cylinder of dirt and we got the plants in the ground, would their roots feel comfortable in such hardened conditions? Was the preserve’s sprinkler rotation really going to be enough to keep them alive? All of these little plants are meant to help pollinators, but how were they really going to thrive, much less survive?

The Mequon Nature Preserve reassured us that their constant watering would aid the plugs through the unusual heat spell. “Before you know it, they’ll be covered in snow and go dormant,” said the director of education and research, Jason Nickels. “When they wake up in spring, then they’ll grow feet–or, more accurately, start to root.”

Melinda Myers, nationally renowned gardening expert and horticulturist who speaks on behalf of ATC’s Grow Smart® program, echoed that reassurance to a curious group of Mequon Nature Preserve donors two weeks later on Oct. 5. “They’re clay-busters,” said Myers of the thousands of little plants now living under a transmission line. “Part of the reason these plants were selected for this location is because of their ability to root in this dense soil and thrive in it, even if it feels like rock to us.”

Myers led event attendees along a new walking path of fresh wood chips, pointing out the barely visible species in a sea of orange flags, then transitioning to her presentation indoors. There, hundreds of attendees heard from Myers about ATC’s Grow Smart® program and our new initiatives statewide to help pollinators.

Since that time, temperatures have become more reasonable and seasonal. Leaves have finally taken notice of the shift and lost their chlorophyll, casting a fiery hue across the tops of the preserve. And below the transmission line, thousands of plugs sit and wait – ready to go dormant, ready to settle into their new surroundings, and we hope – ready in the seasons to come to help out those pollinators.

Will it work? Stay tuned.

The Grow Smart® pollinator garden at the Mequon Nature Preserve is the first landscaped garden of its kind in ATC’s service area. The purpose for establishing the half-acre garden is to provide a contiguous flight path for monarch butterflies and other pollinators within ATC rights-of-way. Using a custom layer for GIS mapping called the POWR model (Pollinator Opportunities Within Rights-of-Way), we analyze monarch migration paths in areas where our rights-of-way exist and determine locations to improve the pollinator habitat within that region. Other ATC partners for similar pollinator-attracting projects include rights-of-way at the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary in Green Bay, Wis. and the Woodland Dunes Nature Preserve in Two Rivers. Additional pollinator-attracting habitat is located within various rights-of-way where we have recently completed construction or have rebuilt transmission lines and then spread a custom seed mix. Watch Melinda Myers on TMJ4’s The Morning Blend talk about the Grow Smart garden at the Mequon Nature Preserve. For more information, visit www.atc-GrowSmart.com.