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Be a habitat helper

As I wrote in this column last week, natural habitat is almost gone, replaced or degraded by human development and by invasive species. One direct result is an unprecedented rate of species extinction (up to 1,000 times normal rate) with implications we can barely grasp. Native insect plant-eaters are central to a complex food web (supporting birds, fish, amphibians and more), and they rely on native plants.

I believe last week’s column was the most important piece I have offered. Since we humans control almost all the land, what we do in cities and suburbs is everything. We are the problem or we are the solution.

This week I will focus on plant choices and steps to take in our own yards.

Be the habitat

Rather than hang our heads in despair it should be heartening to know that we each have significant power to influence the ecological greater good ‑ even if we are city dwellers with small yards or suburbanites with large green lawns side-by-side. We will help first by planting native plants, second by favoring specific plants with large carrying capacity, and third by the way we put it all together. And it will be beautiful and socially acceptable. Let’s do it.

A new landscape paradigm

In his talks and books, University of Delaware professor Douglas Tallamy, who spoke in WNY earlier this month, expresses the goal to “re-landscape America” no less. Bold goal. But this need not be daunting for our industry or for homeowners who want an attractive and dignified front yard or a backyard for enjoyment. All these wishes can be satisfied if we choose and group the right plants intelligently.

Here’s how:
1. Evaluate where you have lawn: Look at your little piece of the world from an aerial view. From the cloud you’re sitting on, how much of the lawn do you really use? Do keep that for sports, games, parties, walking paths, enjoying views, or framing your garden beds – and care for it in a healthy way.

But where do you have grass by default? I’m betting most people never even walk on three-fourths of the lawn they mow all season. Lawns provide almost no ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration, safety and food for birds and others, building soil, preventing water run-off, blocking wind or cooling the environment.

2. Re-imagine the landscape: Knowing where you want lawn, sketch out (mentally or literally) where you could have attractive planted islands, wide hedgerows, fruit trees and berries, or bird and pollinator gardens. Remember that we are replacing needed habitat – and it will be pretty. If you are outside, take ropes and hoses and mark off the new spaces.

3. Remove the turfgrass: Do this by hand, with a sod cutter, or hire help. (For a wonderful compost heap, pile sliced-off turfgrass upside down in a 5-by-5 pile and cover it for a few months for amazing results.) In most cases I suggest amending the soil with compost.

4. Shop for and choose certain native plants: Analyze your site first (drainage, soil texture and pH, wind, light, obstacles). Then seek trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses and groundcovers that go well together and suit your conditions. Plant lists and information sources follow, but they’re only as good as your ability to find the plants.

Work with CNLPs (Certified Nursery & Landscape Professionals) and local garden centers. They want to serve the public demand (and even they cannot always access all species; change takes time.)

In early spring, bare-root planting is affordable and effective. To save money and increase success, young plants in containers will let you plant a large area (spacing them according to mature sizes) so that in time their roots will intertwine.

5. Plant in layers: Whether you’re planting a small sunny island or a 30-foot hedgerow, design it with layers or tiers, like the edge of a forest, to best serve the plants as well as the birds and the bees. A tree stuck alone in a lawn is not happy; a tree surrounded by compatible shrubs and groundcovers does much better.

Clethra alnifolia (Summersweet) (Photo courtesy Proven Winners)

Best plant choices

Some plants do more good than others. As I wrote in last week’s column, chickadees – like 96 percent of terrestrial birds – rear their young on insects. The insects that baby birds can eat are caterpillars – soft and digestible. In one example, an oak tree provided 510 caterpillars to feed baby chickadees (while a nearby ginkgo tree had two) – and the oak tree did not look damaged. The other songbirds need caterpillars to feed babies too, so choose trees with high carrying capacity.

Native bees – also critically needed – are specialists, so we need to provide some specific plants for them too, such as goldenrod, asters, willows, sunflowers. Remember too that to have butterflies we need caterpillars – and they must have very specific host plants to eat. Monarchs require Asclepias. Fritillaries need violets. Spicebush swallowtails need Sassafras or spicebush (Lindera benzoin and a Tiger swallowtail needs basswood, birches, black cherries or willows.

These plant lists are a small start:
Native woody plants for butterfly/moth support (and therefore birds): oaks, willows, Prunus spp. (cherries, plums), birches, poplars, cottonwoods, crabapples, blueberries, native maples, elms, pines, hickory, hawthorn, alder, spruce, ash, basswood.

Perennials for butterfly/moth support: goldenrods, asters, sunflowers, Eupatorium (Joe Pye), sedges. (Many plants we call weeds also serve ‑ but choose carefully for the immediate landscape: wild strawberries, plantain, horse nettle, wild lettuce, ragweed, dock, goosefoot.)

Here is an example of a clustered layer for hedgerow or island:

Tallest trees: Red oak, Sweetgum, White spruce, Eastern white pine.

Smaller trees: Washington hawthorn, Chionanthus virginicus (White fringetree), native juniper.

• Shrubs: Sambucus spp. (Elderberry), native viburnums, Calycanthus floridus (Sweetshrub), Clethra alnifolia (Summersweet), blueberry, Aronia (Chokeberry).

• Perennials: Butterfly weed, asters, Veronicastrum virginicum (Culver’s root), Vernonia (New York ironweed), goldenrod, native bee-balm.

• Groundcovers: Wild ginger, native sedges, Gaultheria procumbens (winterberry), Phlox divaricate, P. stolonifera, Tiarella cordifolia (foamflower).

We have a big job, collectively and individually. Pursue the science. Use Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper’s “Western New York Guide Guide to Native Plants for Your Garden”  and read “Bringing Nature Home” by award-winning author Douglas W. Tallamy (Timber Press).

Work with CNLPs. We have great citizen gardeners already. We can provide sustainable habitats with native plants and we can re-landscape our cities and suburbs, starting in our own personal yards.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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