I’m trying very hard to pretend that winter is over, and I’m eager to get outside with the kids and dig into the earth. I’m poring over the plant and seed catalogs that I’ve discovered in my mailbox these past few weeks. But things are a little different for me this year; while in years past I’ve opted for plants both showy and exotic, this year I’m going native.
Landscaping with native plants, according to Doug Tallamy in his book Bringing Nature Home, is crucial to the diversity and survival of the wildlife within our ecosystem:
“Unless we modify the places we live, work and play to meet not only our own needs but the needs of other species as well, nearly all species of wildlife native to the United States will disappear forever. This is not speculation…. It is playing out across the country and the planet as I write.”
Doug Tallamy points out that to support our ecosystems and our wildlife, it is important to be mindful of what we choose to plant in our backyards and neighborhoods. Simply put, some plants are more ecologically responsible than others.
Native plants are preferred over alien plants, because our insects have evolved over long periods of time to be able to process the chemical makeups specific to those plants. In fact, many ornamental exotics are marketed as “pest-free” for that reason: they are not palatable to our native insects.
However, as biologist E.O. Wilson said, insects are the “little things that run the world.” We should aim to support as many native insects as we can when we plan our gardens. Yes, that’s right; we want more bugs in our garden. Since so many animals rely on insects as their diet (some directly, like birds and their young; some indirectly, like foxes that consume small insect-eating mammals), the health and breadth of native insect populations are closely linked to the health and diversity of our surrounding wildlife.
In addition, we should take care to support different stages of insect development. The popular butterfly bush, for example, provides nectar for adult butterflies, but not a single North American butterfly species can use this invasive plant as a larval host. Better choices for butterfly gardens include milkweeds, coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, buttonbush, Joe-Pye weed, violets, Virginia creeper, and spicebush.
Recent studies confirm that native landscapes attract more birds, and more bird species, than traditional landscaping. Last year I saw my first bluebirds, hummingbirds, and scarlet tanagers; I can’t wait to see what new species this year will bring!
Another important incentive to native plantings, in my mind, is that they are adapted to my area, and should require less attention and care.
Other ways to encourage insect populations (and therefore all aspects of your backyard habitat):
- Remove invasive plants, which crowd out desirable native plants
- Reduce lawn areas, and plant more trees
- Plant densely to provide cover
- Do not remove leaf litter; it provides habitat, acts as mulch and weed suppressor, and soaks up water
- Plant with complexity and diversity as your goal. The more complex and diverse your plantings, the more complex and diverse an ecosystem you are able to support.
Be sure to take this time gardening with your kids to teach them about the interconnectedness of all things, and how small actions can have a large impact!