Big Bend Conservation Alliance digs back into garden project at BJ Bishop Wetlands

Volunteers marked the one-year anniversary of the pollinator garden at the BJ Bishop Wetlands by tending to native plants. Photo courtesy of Big Bend Conservation Alliance.

PRESIDIO — Last week, the pollinator garden at the BJ Bishop Wetlands rang in its first birthday. To celebrate, the Big Bend Conservation Alliance (BBCA) — with help from the Texas Master Naturalists program and bird advocates at the Rio Grande Joint Venture — worked hard to set up the garden for springtime success. 

The pollinator garden project is an experiment within an experiment. The BJ Bishop Wetlands, owned by Presidio farmer Terry Bishop, were once a golf course. The greens were ravaged by the massive Rio Grande flood of 2008, so Bishop decided to try something new: reusing clean, treated wastewater from the city to create a desert oasis. 

Today, the wetlands are a haven for birders and Presidians in need of a little fresh air. An enclosed marshy area fed by city water is home to native bird and insect species, as well as visitors in need of a lush rest stop on their migratory commutes. 

Last year, a group of students with local eco-activism organization Project Homeleaf worked with local plant expert Patty Manning, American Bird Conservancy representative Karen Chapman and a crew of knowledgeable adult volunteers to carve out a small part of the wetlands specifically catering to insects, hummingbirds and other small creatures who depend on flowering plants to survive. 

Over the experimental first year, not all of the plants lived to celebrate the anniversary. Despite volunteers’ tender loving care, invasive buffalo and bermuda grasses showed up as unwelcome guests. The crew decided to intervene by planting large shrubs to provide more shade and strategized about how best to minimize future grass incursions. 

Jeff Bennett of the Rio Grande Joint Venture — a public-private collaboration aimed at advocating for birds — offered a summary of what he hoped the project would accomplish. “By planting [a] pollinator garden we’re [going to] bring in insects — which the birds will follow — and will add to the biodiversity and aesthetic value of the place,” he said. “This is an exercise not just to make the place desirable for insects and birds, but also for people.”

Patty Manning of Twin Sisters Natives provided many of the new plants alongside donations from Marfa’s Cactus Liquors. Manning and her partner Cyndi Wimberly specialize in plants of the Trans-Pecos cultivated from seed and cuttings. 

Manning explained that the term “pollinator” encapsulated a wide variety of plants. “Most plants attract pollinators, because most flowering — not all, but most — flowering plants are pollinated by insects,” she said. “It’s a very, very broad descriptor.”

In a world where pollinator species like bumblebees are on the decline, creating special habitats for these creatures to flock is an important goal. “When the term ‘pollinator garden’ really started being used big time, it was primarily geared towards planting things that attract butterflies,” Manning explained. “But you can really broaden that and plant plants that are pollinated to attract many, many different kinds of insects.” 

In addition to garden maintenance, the crew also tended to a newly-constructed bird blind and a small tree nursery designed for the river corridor. 

For some of the volunteers, the day of service was not just about getting their hands dirty. Sherry Cardino — outreach coordinator for the Tierra Grande Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists ––is a new transplant to the Big Bend. 

Master Naturalist participants must complete volunteer hours to earn their title, and maintain their status in the program by continuing to serve the local natural world. “Education has been the most enjoyable part,” she said. “Plus, I love hard work.” 

Cardino had never visited Presidio before the volunteer event. “I’ve never been to a border town before,” she said. “Everything is new to me, but I’m very enthusiastic about it.”