Landscaping with nature in mind
The garden has been put to bed and is ready for a blanket of snow. The last garden ornaments are in storage, the containers have been emptied, the fall bulbs are planted, and the trees that have not found a home are healed. Fences to prevent hungry creatures from munching on new trees have been erected. The gardener and the garden are ready for a rest. Ladybugs, bumblebees, fireflies and butterflies are also at rest, finding refuge in leaves, old stems, stone piles, rotten logs and underground spaces. Wintering birds have been busy in the garden eating seeds left standing for them, looking for tasty insects in the nooks and crannies of tree bark, and occasionally visiting filled feeders and a source of heated water.
I love my garden and love it even more when it is occupied by the chirping of birds, the buzzing of bees, flashing fireflies and butterflies gliding from flower to flower. It has been a work in progress for over 25 years. I started years ago trying to make my garden more attractive to birds because bird watching is another of my interests. This prompted me to add flowering plants, herbs, and native trees to help attract birds to the yard. I told visitors that the backyard is habitat, not garden, because people expect your yard to be free of weeds, no signs of bugs and mulch. Wildflowers may not have been what they were looking for. Everyone wanted ooh and ahh your hostas, daylilies, and plants with distant origins.
And what about your lawn? Do you let your dandelions bloom? You do not eliminate all the weeds that dare to grow? How is it that it is not perfectly mowed and short? I call it lawn syndrome. Americans have a love affair with the perfectly manicured lawn. No room for birds or bees there. Considering that residential construction sites make up 25-60% of total green space in American cities, maybe we need to change our tone a bit. A 2014 study showed that homeowners who mowed their lawns once every 2 weeks (vs. once a week) had a 60% increase in bee species. Those who mowed once every 3 weeks had a 300% increase in bee species. Not mowing allows these little “weeds” to flower. Some of these flowers are particularly useful to bees that emerge in early spring when sources of nectar and pollen are limited.
The State of Minnesota has launched a Lawns to Legumes program. They encourage the establishment of native pollinator-friendly plantings in residential lawns. They are even willing to pay homeowners to help share the cost of establishing pollinator habitat in their gardens. Why? Perhaps this is because the state bee of Minnesota, the Rusty Patched Bumblebee, has been listed as an endangered species. Over the past 20 years, its population has declined by 87%, and it is still probably only found in 0.1% of its historic range (which includes New York).
Why should you care that a bumblebee is in decline? Unfortunately, there is not just one. Many insect populations, including bees, butterflies, fireflies, and other beneficial insects, are in decline around the world. Two common reasons are habitat loss and the use of pesticides. Since most people think that all insects are pests or a nuisance, this doesn’t seem like a reason to be alarmed, but insects play a bigger role in ecosystems. They pollinate plants, not just our food plants, but the native plants that provide food for many wild animals and birds. They are also food for many birds, reptiles, bats and other animals. Many insects are decomposers or even predators of actual pest insects. We need bugs.
Fortunately, most insects don’t need acres upon acres to thrive. Many native bees never travel more than a few hundred feet from their nests. Making changes to an area the size of your yard, or part of your garden, can have a huge impact on local insect populations. A place to start is to include native plants in your garden. Native plants support native insects as they evolve together. Many of the ornamental plants that have become standard in landscape plantings do not support our native insects as there is no history between them. Some of these ornamental plants have also become invasive and have invaded what remains of our “wild” areas.
Just like our garden plants, not all native plants grow just anywhere. It always comes down to ‘the right plant in the right place’. There are native plants for dry, sandy, and sunny conditions, just as there are native plants for shade or wet, soggy places. Spend the winter researching the native plants that would be at home in your backyard. If you have room, add a native tree to your garden. Trees give you a lot of bang for your buck. They can put up with a lot of caterpillars (baby bird food) and you will hardly notice if the leaves are chewed. If space is at a premium, focus on native plants that bloom in the fall. This is an important time of year, especially for queens of bumblebees as they prepare to hibernate, and it is an important time of year for migrating monarch butterflies. Both need abundant flowers to provide much-needed nectar reserves.
Unfortunately, many will see your new habit as “messy” because it doesn’t match their view of what a garden or lawn should be like. You will likely need to educate your friends, family, and neighbors. Try hanging a pollinator habitat sign in your front yard to let everyone know that your garden is a haven for bees, butterflies, and beneficial insects to feed, nest, and overwinter. Before making a big conversion, check your local ordinances. In some areas there are height restrictions to be observed and even restrictions against what you can plant in your front yard. Hopefully the aesthetic tastes of the past will catch up with the fact that we need pollinators and other insects. Make 2022 the year you started sharing your landscape with the little things that make the world go round.
Resources for this article include: Lawns to Legumes, Homegrown National Park, and OSU Pollinators in the City series (Policy Dimensions of Insect Pollinator Conservation).
The Orléans County CCE will be offering Master Gardener training in 2022 to anyone interested in becoming a MG volunteer. It will be a new hybrid training, a combination of online and in-person courses. The training will start on January 13 and end on April 7. The registration deadline is December 22. The cost of the training is $ 200, but there is a 50% discount for the first 10 people to register. If Internet accessibility is an issue, participants can use the office hours of the Orléans County CCE Education Center. For more information or to register, contact Katie Oakes at (585) 798-4265 ext. 125 or email [email protected]