Jim Culbert: Help protect our wildlife with a native home garden

Submitted photo##The native plant garden at the McMinnville Public Library is a project of the local Cheahmill Chapter of the Native Plant Society.
Submitted photo##The native plant garden at the McMinnville Public Library is a project of the local Cheahmill Chapter of the Native Plant Society.
##Jim Culbert
##Jim Culbert

Protecting wildlife in these areas is sometimes of limited success simply because they are not connected. Many animals cannot travel from one area to another because of our human development in between.

Wildlife populations are cyclic, depending upon food availability, weather and so forth. When their populations are low and their preferred habitat isolated in remote patches, they become vulnerable to local extinction.

Americans have converted about 95% of the land from natural landscape to urban or farm and forestry uses. As a result, good wildlife habitat is now so fragmented and isolated that species are becoming extinct at local levels at an increasing rate.

In order to save our biodiversity, author and science professor Doug Tallamy is promoting a new way to help animals avoid local extinction — creation of natural home gardens on the approximately 83 percent of our country that doesn’t currently receive much protection.

These gardens would create, sustain or increase desirable habitat outside of larger conservation areas through biological corridors, allowing wildlife to successfully pass from one area to another.

The number and types of plants in an area have a significant influence on the abundance and diversity of wildlife there. And choosing native plants for particular ecological roles, such as food for pollinators, almost always works better for supporting wildlife than introducing plants from somewhere else.

Insects pollinate at least 85% of all plants, and plants turn energy from the sun into food that a diversity of wildlife depends upon. Focusing on specific groups of insects, such as caterpillars and sawflies, contributes the most energy to local food webs.

Only a few plant groups are sustaining the butterflies and moths critical to such food webs. Caterpillars have been identified as the primary food source for birds.

Oaks are ranked either one or two, supporting food webs in about 84% of all U.S. counties in which they occur. Along with cherry trees, they rank very high for supporting wildlife around the country. And we have Garry oak here as one of our natives in this area.

If we want a yard that will support more caterpillars, we also need to feature specific plants to host pollinators, notably native bees.

However, be aware that any area experiencing two to three weeks without any blooms can prove deadly.

Among fall-blooming native plants, asters are a good bet. They support bees and late-season butterflies after most other plants begin to die back toward the end of the summer.

Goldenrods are also key supporters of native bees, as many bees have developed specialized approaches for utilization of goldenrod pollen. In addition, they are among the most valuable in supporting caterpillars, serving to feed both local and migratory birds.

Goldenrods are excellent in withstanding drought. And they produce seed on which winter migratory birds and numerous mammals depend.

Yards devoted to commercial lawn grasses and exotic plant species are not useful to wildlife. If a substantial portion of the approximately 40 million acres devoted to lawn were converted to natural landscapes, wildlife conservation would be enhanced beyond public lands into our own backyards.

Lawns and other planted areas can be quickly converted to viable habitat at minimum expense.

If this is something that interests you, take it one small step at a time. Pick a small area to start. Once natives are established there, they hardly need any watering.

To identify keystone species supporting the most wildlife, consult the “Homegrown National Park” side on the web. It lists suitable plants by region.

The National Wildlife Federation has developed a Native Plant Finder database at www.nwf.org/NativePlantFinder that ranks plant groups in every U.S. county as to their ability to host caterpillars. Audubon has developed a similar website, Plants for Birds, at www.audubon.org/native-plants.

You should leave bare areas under trees and bushes, and allow fall leaves to collect there, as more than 90% of caterpillars drop off their host plants and burrow into the soil in order to complete their life cycles.

You might consider spreading seeds for an instant native garden instead of relying on container plants. If you do go with containerized, buy the smallest plants available, as they are more likely to thrive.

You don’t have to go fully native to have an impact. You can add some non-native ornamentals as well, with well-defined borders between lawn and the natural area featuring plants from your region. Ornamentals will add visual appeal without detracting from the value of native plantings.


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