Calgary pilot project aims to save money while boosting biodiversity

The City of Calgary is trying a pilot project that it hopes will not only cut down on mowing costs but also boost native species of plants and pollinators.

Wildflowers, native grasses planted and bee boxes installed along 16th Avenue N.E.

These bee boxes have been installed along 16th Avenue N.E. as part of a pilot project to boost biodiversity. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

The City of Calgary is testing a pilot project it hopes will not only cut down on mowing costs but also boost native species of plants and pollinators.

Drivers zipping along 16th Avenue N.E. at 90 km/h might be forgiven if they wonder what has happened to the usual stretch of grass beside the busy roadway between 52nd and 68th Street N.E.

The grass, which used to be mowed up to four times a year, has been removed. The ground was reseeded with wildflowers and native grasses.

Several dozen bee boxes were recently attached to the chainlink fence which separates the road from nearby houses.

Elizabeth Murray, a senior scientist with Earthmaster Environmental Strategies Inc., is involved with the project. The firm was hired by the city to oversee planting.

Right now, she said drivers might think there's something wrong as it looks like there are just flecks of green scattered amidst the dirt. 

"When we're first establishing these sites, you really need to get on your hands and knees and have a good look. Look into the little nooks and crannies, look underneath the big plants that have broken through some of the control measures and really have a look and see what's down there," she said.

Plants starting to show

She pointed out several tiny shoots of sunflower, gaillardia and coreopsis which have popped up.

For those hoping to see a lush meadow, Murray said patience is required.

"When you're working with native species, they're slow. They take time, they're not as big. They're often not as showy," said Murray. 

"We're expecting to see some of the flowers come up this year and certainly some of the grasses get established."

Some plants have started to grow, but it will likely be a couple years before the native species are established in the area, said Elizabeth Murray. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

Over the coming months, Murray said they'll take note of which species thrive in this location and then plant even more seeds.

She said it may take two or three years for these species to establish themselves here.

Ideal place for pilot

Murray called the stretch of grass a good test site. There isn't much pedestrian traffic, so the delicate flowers and grasses shouldn't be trampled as they start out.

But it's also an intense environment. 

She said the sunlight can be unrelenting as there's little shade. Strong winds often blow along 16th Avenue from the west.

Traffic kicks up dust and mud onto the sloped roadsides in the summer, and salt and gravel in the winter.

The goal is to have wildflowers blooming here from spring to late fall.

Those flowers, in turn, will attract pollinators like bees. 

Bee boxes added

To assist with that effort, Ben Poltorak with Earthmaster recently spent some time installing small bee boxes.

Ben Poltorak has installed small bee boxes along the fence that separates the road from nearby houses. He cautions people not to tap on the boxes or look inside, so that the bees won't be disturbed. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

He said they've already seen several species of bees from surrounding neighbourhoods who have zeroed in on some of the plants that have been seeded.

The boxes give them a safe place that's close by.

"We want to encourage the pollination of the plants that we're seeding. By encouraging that pollination, we're of course helping them to thrive," said Poltorak.

"We want to be ready for these bees when they're checking the place out."

He said they've posted some information about the bee boxes along the fence line so people know what they're about.  

But he's asking that residents who are out for a jog or walking their dogs nearby to not disturb the bees by tapping on the boxes or looking inside.

Council will get a report

City council has funded this pilot project for three years.

The manager of environmental programs with the city's transportation department, Ethan Askey, said their goal for these five hectares of land is to boost biodiversity while hopefully saving money through reduced mowing.

Instead of four mows a year, he said maybe only one cut will be necessary.

The stretch of grass along 16th Avenue N.E. has been removed and the ground reseeded with wildflowers and native grasses. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

"Bees and other pollinators need habitat throughout their season, so if we can delay mowing until late in the season, do one cut in the fall as some agencies are doing, that's what we're looking at," said Askey.

City council has asked for a report in 2023 on the results from the pilot project.

If there are financial and other benefits to the project, Askey said it may be extended to other areas of the city.


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