Our neatly manicured lawns are a source of pride, but offer little sanctuary for wildlife. Jamie Johannsen explains why it’s time for a new mindset in backyard landscaping.
Is your yard a green desert?
Sure you water, fertilize and weed, but if the land you cultivate is planted with ornamental, non-native species, it may lack a diversity of living organisms. While we tend to plant for aesthetics, we rarely consider how our chemically treated turf grass and carefully tended flower beds impact the natural wildlife around us, and their life support systems.
Doug Tallamy, author and entomologist with the University of Delaware, is a firm believer in the power of native landscaping – that is, planting species that are indigenous to one’s region. He teaches people around the country how these landscapes can have a far-reaching impact on insects and other wildlife.
Tallamy has visited our region several times, meeting with local chapters of Wild Ones, a national nonprofit that is similarly dedicated to propagating and preserving our native plants. Following his directive to “plant natives to support life,” the group provides inspiration, information and assistance to help homeowners and businesses to “go native.”
The trees, shrubs and perennials indigenous to our landscape have an impact far greater than most of us realize. Not only can they help us to reduce the use of chemicals and other resources, but they’re also essential to supporting butterflies, birds and bees – essential components to sustaining our planet.
“Our yards are just small pieces in a very large puzzle,” says Tim Lewis of Rockford, the national president of Wild Ones.
A growing number of homeowners in our region are becoming part of the solution to these green deserts. By tending beautiful yards that support and sustain our native species, they’re helping to support a diversity of wildlife. And, they’re reaping the benefits.
According to Wild Ones, a native plant species is one that “occurs naturally in a particular region, ecosystem and/or habitat and was present prior to European settlement.” That’s an important distinction, because while some plants sold at gardening stores may resemble native plants, they’re actually genetically modified varieties. Called cultivars, these plants are selected and grown for certain desirable traits, such as height, bloom color or size.
“Cultivars do not support genetic diversity and are not representative of the wild-plant population, even if they began as wild native plants – and most cultivars didn’t,” says Corrine Daniels, director of Restoration Nurseries at Applied Ecological Services in Brodhead, Wis. “Many cultivars lack ample nectar or pollen for butterflies and bees to feed on, or they may be nutritionally sterile.”
Because cultivars can’t sustain the needs of pollinators as effectively as native species, Wild Ones and Applied Ecological Services discourage their use. Daniels recommends planting seeds and plants of the local genotype – the population within a species that has a specific genetic makeup naturally adapted to a specific region.
“It means the genotype is indigenous to the area,” Daniels explains. “While a plant from the Texas Panhandle and another from northeastern Minnesota may be the exact same species, each genotype is drastically different in terms of acclimatization – rainfall, temperature range, atmosphere/altitude, diseases, pests, predation.”
Thus, gardeners are likely to have greater success with local genotypes, because they’re already adapted to the local climate and wildlife.
Garden For Wildlife
Why is it so important to cultivate our native plants and support pollinators? Because they benefit nature and the local ecosystem.
Bobbie Lambiotte has converted her entire small yard in southeast Rockford to a mosaic of native plant gardens. Her motivation to go native wasn’t rooted in aesthetic concerns; rather, she wanted to use the yard of her 1920s-era home to support local wildlife. “I noticed things were declining,” she says. “I didn’t see the birds and butterflies like I did when I was a kid.”
She figured planting wildflowers might help, so she went to a meeting of Wild Ones, where she learned about the intricate connection among native plants, insects, birds and other species. She began to learn why and how to plant wildflowers that would support the natural environment, rather than compete with it.
“When I first planted wildflowers 18 years ago, I saw my first hummingbird,” she says. “That was kind of magical.”
What Lambiotte observed in her own yard 20 years ago, scientists have been observing around the country. As many as 33,000 species are imperiled today in the U.S. Our songbirds have been in decline since the 1960s, having lost 40 percent of their population in the past 50 years. Ecologists attribute wildlife declines, in part, to loss of habitat, as Americans have converted natural areas to suburban landscapes of bluegrass turf and alien plants.
“The typical plants we choose for our yards, such as grass, hostas, daylilies, boxwoods, roses, vinca and most of the traditional favorites, are foreign plants to our wildlife,” says Jim Kleinwachter, director of Conservation @ Home, a program of the Conservation Foundation.
These non-native species can’t sustain the food needs of our native birds and butterflies, which have adapted to our native berries and bugs. “What does bird food look like?” Kleinwachter asks. “It looks like our native insects.”
What do our native insects eat? Our native plants. “If you don’t have caterpillars, you won’t have baby birds, because baby birds eat caterpillars and insects,” says Lambiotte.
In her quest to support insect habitat, Lambiotte has learned to choose a diversity of plants. Some of these native plants are attractive to particular critters, especially when certain insects feed on only one species or family of plants. For example, Lambiotte added a wafer ash tree because its leaves are one of the few food sources for the increasingly rare luna moth.
Like Lambiotte, Kim Lowman Vollmer of South Beloit was interested in supporting insects and birds when she began planting a native landscape. Now, these native planting areas have become a living classroom for her family of three.
“We have voles, moles, rabbits, opossums, turkeys, squirrels and deer,” she says. “The birds seem to increase each year and we have even had a young Cooper’s hawk hunt and eat right outside our window.”
And, her yard has a wealth of other birds, including the tufted titmouse, cardinal, chickadee, junco, downy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, hummingbird, goldfinch, rose-breasted grosbeak, Baltimore orioles and indigo buntings.
In one corner of the yard, a colorful sign designates a large butterfly garden, where native species play a crucial role. Here, it’s important to plant both the flowers on which butterflies feed, and the plants on which they lay their eggs.
While butterflies may gather nectar from all kinds of plants, many species will only lay their eggs on a few specific species; some are dedicated to only one species. For example, the Zebra Swallowtail lays its eggs only on pawpaw trees, and the American Painted Lady has eyes only for pussytoes. Adult monarchs will drink nectar from a variety of flowers, but will only lay their eggs on milkweed, as it’s the only food the caterpillar eats.
Lambiotte plants a variety of species that bloom over the entire growing season, from early spring to early fall. Further, she avoids cutting back plants in the fall. Lambiotte discovered that some of the butterflies she attracted to her yard in the summer had formed chrysalises in the dead plant stalks and would remain there all winter, until their emergence in spring. Lambiotte now leaves everything standing during the winter, to provide refuge for wildlife and seeds for birds. She’s found that hackberry, coralberries and highbush cranberries will hold their fruit all season. This winter, as robins returned to our region, Lambiotte’s hackberry trees were covered with birds eating the seeds.
In Pat Sullivan-Schroyer’s McHenry yard, seeds, berries and nuts from more than 200 native species provide food for wild visitors year-round. From her window, she can see a variety of wildlife.
“Goldfinches eating coneflower seeds; hummingbirds sucking nectar from royal catchfly and obedient plants; blue jays collecting and cracking open hazelnuts; jenny wrens hunting caterpillars in witch hazel; cardinals, robins and cedar waxwings eating arrowwood viburnum berries; a mink hunting chipmunks and voles; hairy and other woodpeckers working the dead branches hunting insects while creating homes for other birds,” she says.
Lambiotte believes it’s essential to share our planet with wildlife, beginning with a small portion of your yard dedicated to native species.
“Simply planting a native tree can be a start,” she says. For example, the native flowering dogwood supports 117 species of moths and butterflies alone. Oaks host more than 500 species of caterpillars, which provide food for native birds. By contrast, an alien ornamental tree may support only four to six insect species.
Garden for Beauty
Whether your landscape is small and suburban or sprawling and rural, native landscape design holds very few set rules. One garden could be structured and formal, while another could be a hodge-podge of native plants – the so-called “prairie garden.”
Nancy and Marlow Holstrum created a combination of cultivated gardens and naturalized prairie and woodland areas at their Belvidere home. When building their home in 1994, the couple’s landscaping decisions were motivated by Nancy’s desire for a profusion of wildflowers and minimal time spent mowing.
In the front yard is a long sweep of tall prairie. Closer to the home are small areas of turf grass, mixed with undulating mulched beds of native grasses, flowers and shrubs. Beds closest to the home show off pretty forbs – smaller flowering plants that have difficulty surviving and being seen amidst the prairie.
A garden on the south side is designated for the non-native plants that Nancy likes: vegetables including asparagus, rhubarb, tomatoes; and flowers such as roses, her father’s daylilies, perennials and cutting flowers.
In Roscoe, Bruce and Paula Olson have combined traditional gardens with areas of prairie flowers and grasses. Their sprawling property is mostly covered in native plants, except for a 40-foot buffer around the house, where manicured beds include both native and non-native species. Along the driveway, large swaths of bee balm provide bright purple-pink color during the summer and attract dozens of species of butterflies and insects.
By late summer and fall, six species of prairie grasses add rich textures and golden-amber hues mixed with a rainbow of prairie flowers. “The result,” Bruce says, “is that we are living in a native setting and enjoying every minute of it, every season of the year.”
The couple’s interest in native species began more than 20 years ago, with a visit to a forest preserve. During their tour, a discussion arose about native grasses and how important they are to wildlife and biodiversity.
“We didn’t understand what made the native grasses so different,” Bruce says. One of the naturalists took Bruce and Paula on a walk around the preserve, and educated them on native grasses. “This was a life-changing morning,” Bruce adds.
Kris Hall of Island Lake has found that native grasses add an aesthetic appeal to her landscape that’s not found in conventional yards. Hall’s prairie grasses provide a vertical element. They have unique color and movement. By fall, little bluestem grasses display a rusty hue.
“Winter snow sits delicately on the remnants of the grass seed heads,” she says. “Shade-loving bottlebrush grass glows when it holds the golden light of sunset on its brush-like seed heads. The wind blowing the grasses gives gardens a unique rhythm.”
Garden for the Earth
Dennis Dreher dedicated his Bull Valley landscape to native species for reasons beyond wildlife. An environmental engineer and conservation design consultant, Dreher believes that native landscaping provides important environmental benefits.
“When I built my home in 2006, I wanted to make a statement that landscaping in a conventional suburban setting could be done almost entirely with native plants, because I believe strongly that this type of yard provides many solutions to environmental problems in urban and suburban areas,” he says.
While residential development frequently results in increased stormwater runoff, erosion, siltation and pollution of creeks and rivers, Dreher believes that yards planted with native species can actually help to absorb rainfall, filter and recharge underground aquifers, and anchor soil. In his yard’s low-lying areas, Dreher created rain gardens by installing native plants that thrive in wet soil and soak up excess water.
Native grasses, flowers and trees have deep root systems that allow water to infiltrate, rather than run off, and they keep the soil rich, says Carol Rice, a member of The Wildflower Preservation & Propagation Committee (WPPC), a Woodstock-based organization that educates homeowners. The complex root system of our native prairie species is also better at trapping carbon dioxide than a typical lawn, she says.
Because native plants have adapted to our climate, they’re typically hardy to our weather extremes and need fewer resources for survival. Almost all are perennials, meaning they don’t have to be replanted each year. They require less watering and less fertilizer – fertilizer stimulates the growth of weeds. In fact, says Lewis, who is the national president of Wild Ones, pesticides aren’t at all necessary in a native landscape, because the species that eat the pests are also present. Having predacious, good insects creates a balance within the ecosystem.
“Once established, native plants don’t require further intervention from us,” says Lewis.
Our modern landscapes are highly fragmented by roads, lawns and concrete. While our forest preserves are saving large tracts of natural area, Sullivan-Schroyer, a member of WPPC, says it’s not enough. “They’re islands in the middle of an ocean,” she says. “They’re points on a map that provide for the few that can live within the boundaries of those islands of natural habitats.”
However, she adds, wildlife can’t read maps. Animals move across boundaries and fragments to find food or to find a mate.
“Lawns that are treated with chemical fertilizers, weed killers and insect killers are to wildlife what walking into a house filled with natural gas would be for humans,” she says.
That’s why Sullivan-Schroyer has converted her own yard. “We homeowners and landowners can add to the success of the forest preserves by providing valuable connections and corridors to these larger preserved islands,” she says.
Daniels, of Applied Ecological Services, has seen a steadily increasing interest in native landscaping, and she’s convinced it’s not a fad. “We believe a big push is coming from health and awareness,” she says. “People have started to understand that environmental health has a huge, direct and immediate effect on their health and the health of their loved ones.”
More of today’s homeowners are less interested in a perfectly clipped, controlled yard, especially when it means sending their children and pets out to play on a fertilizer- and pesticide-coated landscape. Daniels believes native gardeners are setting a new standard in neighborhoods, one that has an immediate and visible benefit for our communities and our native wildlife.
Getting Your Garden Started
No yard is too big or too small for native gardening.
When Bobbie Lambiotte started planting in her small yard, there was nothing there but walnut and hackberry trees. Working around these natives, she planted one small area of the yard each year. Soil type is fairly uniform there, so she used sun and shade conditions to guide her creation.
To achieve a planned garden look, try drawing sketches and plans before digging. Plant wildflowers, grasses and sedges along the borders of your yard. Put species in large clumps – clusters of three to five together – to increase visual impact.
Gardeners who are concerned about reactions from the neighbors can plant structured gardens in the front yard, while creating more naturalized areas in the backyard. Yard art, stone edging or fencing can help.
Many traditional cultivars actually can be replaced with native-species equivalents. Here are a few appealing native alternatives:
Substitute hostas with alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii) or False Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum)
Substitute salvia with wild blue lupine (Lupinus perennis) or Ohio horse mint (Monarda punctata)
Substitute ornamental onion with nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum) or prairie onion (Allium stellatum)
Substitute non-native ornamental (and often invasive) grasses with prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) or little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)