Gardening at Home: The Importance of Native Plants
Many of us visit Great Parks with the hope of viewing wildlife because we know the parks have the habitats that animals need in order to thrive. But have you ever considered the habitat right in your backyard? We may not be accustomed to thinking of our yards as important habitats, but wildlife will make use of any space that meets their needs. Plus, our backyard habitats can provide important connections between larger habitat areas like our parks. So, if you love watching wildlife consider making a few changes to your outdoor spaces. It’s simple! Just provide food, cover, and water, and use wildlife-friendly practices. Read on for a few tips on how to get this done!
Feed Them With Native Plants!
First, consider planting native plant species (plants that have a natural range in your local area) as a source of food. The plants we grow have the potential to feed countless invertebrates, like insects. These invertebrates will in turn feed some of our favorite animals, especially birds! One chickadee brood will need about 6,000 caterpillars before they leave the nest!
Native plants provide the strongest foundation for your local food web because many creatures such as butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and more have evolved alongside native plants. They have evolved the ability to recognize and find the plants and to work around the plants’ defenses. However, more than 40 million acres of land in the United States are planted as lawn, which provides little to no wildlife benefit. Many of our landscape plants are nonnative or are bred for ornamental beauty. These unfamiliar species and varieties may be inedible or unrecognizable to our native wildlife. So, if we grow native plants that the bugs need, we are putting out a great welcome mat for all the other wildlife that depend on them.
When you plant your natives, think in layers! If we want to support diverse wildlife we’ll need to have diverse food sources. First, think about providing food across forest layers such as ground cover, understory, shrub, vine and overstory plants. Next, consider what each plant offers, like nectar, nuts, seeds, berries, etc. While we know native plants provide food in the form of invertebrates, these other types of food are important!
Then, consider layering your plants’ bloom/fruiting seasons so you have year-round offerings. Early blooming flowers feed newly-emerged bees, and late-season blooms help give monarch butterflies the energy they need to make it to Mexico! Different berries and fruits may ripen throughout the growing season, but you may want to have fall or winter berries to keep wildlife coming to your yard in the cold months, too.
Wildlife need cover for themselves and their offspring. This can include places to hide from predators, wait out storms, shield themselves from winter winds or build nests. The layers mentioned above will not only provide diverse food sources, but will also provide cover for a number of creatures year-round. Animals will be found in every forest layer, finding cover in the ground, underbrush, within shrub or tree branches, or up in the canopy. Evergreens, trees and shrubs are obvious sources of cover, but you may also try perennial plants, a wood pile or brush pile! The most overlooked source of cover for wildlife is right at ground level. Toads, salamanders, small mammals and countless invertebrates like fireflies and bumblebees take shelter on or under the ground, especially in winter.
Helping wildlife make it through the cold will make sure we have a healthy food web come spring. And the best part is, we can do a lot for them by doing less in the fall! Just live by the motto, “Leave the leaves.” This means we should leave the leaves where they fall to provide cover. The leaves provide insulation and protection for our small animal friends. Then, they break down and nourish the soil later on. If you don’t want to leave the leaves on your lawn, you could rake the leaves into a pile or spread them over a flower bed for a natural compost and mulch. “Leave the leaves” also includes leaving flower stems standing – at least until early spring. Many native bees and other insects will take shelter or leave their young in hollow stems, so we can help them a lot by putting off the chore of cleaning up!
All living things need water, so it’s important to consider what water sources you have in your yard that may benefit wildlife. If you already live next to a pond, lake or stream, you probably don’t need to worry about adding a water source. However, if you’re adding a water feature, there are a few to choose from.
First is the classic bird bath. Most come as a bowl on a stand or pedestal, and can be an attractive garden feature. However, birds in the wild are used to drinking from puddles and streams, so a shallow water tray at ground level will work just fine. Many birds are especially attracted to the sound of running water, which can be achieved with an inexpensive solar-powered bubbler added to the bird bath. Butterflies appreciate a shallow muddy water source, as they get important minerals from the mud! Bees and other insects also need water, but you will need to make sure that their water is very shallow so they don’t fall in – try adding stones that they can land on and hold on to.
While you’re planning how to provide water for your backyard animals, don’t forget the plants! If you will be planting any natives, make sure to check their ideal moisture conditions. While most of our natives can tolerate our spring rains and summer drought, there are some species that may not be well-suited to the conditions in your yard. When we choose plants wisely, we can make sure we are conserving water.
Wildlife Friendly Practices
While we’re working on providing food, cover and water for wildlife, we need to make sure we are caring for our outdoor spaces in ways that won’t harm the local ecosystem. In the best case scenario, we’ll be able to use practices that add to the health and stability of the ecosystem. Planting native plants is a major part of this. Native plants are adapted to our soils and climate, so once they’re established they won’t need to be watered, and they’re happy to grow in our heavy clay soil! In fact, many native plants will do poorly in very rich, fertilized soils! In addition, because they evolved alongside native animals, there is generally a balance between “pests” and beneficial insects on the plants. All this means that we can conserve water and completely eliminate the need for pesticides and fertilizers. When we stop using pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, we are preventing these chemicals from running off and polluting local waterways. Additionally, if we plant water-loving plants in low-lying areas that collect water and stay wet longer (also known as a “rain garden”) we will reduce runoff while the plants filter and clean the water at the same time.
Another way to use wildlife friendly practices is to compost our yard waste and kitchen waste. This helps keep waste out of landfills and returns nutrients to our ecosystem. Your compost can then be used in place of mulch or as a rich soil that you can add to your garden or give to friends! If you’re not experienced with compost you could start with a small easy-to-use compost bin, but if you have to know-how and the space you could go all-out with a large composting system!
Whatever you decide to do to attract wildlife to your outdoor space, remember to take it step-by-step. Rome wasn’t built in a day and your backyard wildlife oasis probably won’t be either! The National Wildlife Federation has wonderful resources for those interested in gardening for wildlife, including tip sheets, guides and videos to help you learn more. Of course, whether you’re making big changes or just small adjustments, remember to enjoy the feeling of doing something good for our wildlife, and have fun with the learning process!
Nature Interpreter, Sharon Woods