Attracting Wildlife to Your Backyard (Skyhorse Publishing, 2018) by Josh VanBrakle presents 101 projects to help make your backyard more attractive to wildlife. Whether it be in the age of your plants and trees, or in the structure of your gardens, VanBrakle can help you design a yard to attract any of your favorite wild creatures. In the following excerpt, he explains why replacing non-native plants with native plants can help bring more wildlife to your yard.
If you want to attract more wildlife to your backyard, one of your primary tasks should be to replace the non-native plants growing there with native varieties. Why? It all comes down to the first wildlife needs: food.
In the modern backyard, food is the life need that’s usually in shortest supply. Most animals, particularly insects, can’t eat the non-native ornamental plants many of us grow. Each type of plant has developed its own chemical mix to discourage plant-eaters from chewing on it. Native plant-eaters have adapted to certain chemicals from certain plants, and as a result they can only eat those plants. Put something that originated in Europe or Asia in front of them, and they can’t eat it, even if they’re starving. In turn, the animals that eat those plant-eaters, like songbirds, won’t stick around your property.
Native plants also matter for another crucial and disappearing wildlife category: pollinators. These are creatures like butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds that eat nectar from flowers. When they feed on nectar, pollinators transfer pollen from flower to flower, allowing plants to reproduce.
We depend on pollinators for more than the mere enjoyment of seeing wildlife. An astonishing 87 percent of flowering plant species rely on pollinators to help them reproduce. Lose the pollinators, and you lose those plants.
And pollinators are in trouble. There’s a real danger that in the not too distant future, we could lose many of these amazing creatures. The population of our most important pollinators, bees, have declined sharply in recent decades. They’ve been the victims of habitat loss, overuse of pesticides, and Colony Collapse Disorder, a still poorly understood situation in which entire colonies of bees die.
Bees aren’t the only pollinators at risk. Butterfly numbers have also dropped. The monarch butterfly, for instance, has lost 90 percent of its population in just the last twenty years.
But even though planting native plants can help pollinators, getting started can be intimidating. The US has thousands of native plant species, and many more non-native ornamentals on top of that. It can be hard to know what’s native, and sometimes even experts disagree.
The most common question folks ask when starting out with native plants is, “What should I plant?” Unfortunately, I can’t give you a specific answer in a general book like this one. The native plants that are right for you will vary based on where you live, the kinds of soils you have, and how much light your yard gets.
What I can give you, though, are some resources to get you started. In Beyond the Book, I’ve included a link to a searchable native plant database from the Audubon Society. Enter your zip code, and it recommends native plants. You can narrow your selection by the kind of plant you want (like a tree, shrub, or annual) and even by the types of wildlife you hope to attract.
Once you know your planting options, your next step is to visit a local native plant nursery to narrow your choice further and eventually purchase the plants you want. Beyond the Book has a national database of these nurseries courtesy of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
All that said, my experience has been that what matters more than the species you choose is how you structure them. Don’t panic too much over whether to plant native A or native B. Yes, different animals will use different natives, but by using a native, you’ll ensure that some wildlife will make use of whatever you plant.
We’ll talk more about structure your native plants later in this chapter, so I won’t dive into that here. One tip I do have for now, though, is that whatever you plant, plant it in clumps rather than in single plants. Larger clumps will be more likely to attract the wildlife that depend on that plant. Even if it means having fewer kinds of plants in your garden, go ahead and group your plantings.
Of course, there’s more to backyard gardening than what’s good for wildlife. This is your yard after all, so it’s okay to think about aesthetic. One reason some gardeners don’t use native plants is the belief that natives aren’t as showy as non-native ornamentals.
Fortunately, that belief isn’t true. Native plants can be just as beautiful as introduced ones, and more and more nurseries are developing shower native cultivars.
You also don’t have to rip up and replace all your ornamentals at once to benefit wildlife. One strategy for transitioning your garden to natives is to wait until a non-native plant dies and then plant a native one in its spot. That way you’re only changing one or a few plants at a time, so your garden appearance remains close to what it was before.
You can go further with this strategy by seeking out native plants that have similar flower colors and growth forms to the non-native ornamentals you’re replacing. For pretty much any non-native in your garden, there’s a native option that will come close to matching its appearance.
Finding native plants has also become a lot easier in recent years. As the popularity of native gardening has risen, so too have the number of native plant nurseries. Wherever you live, odds are there’s a native plant nursery near you that can help you find the right plants for your yard.
One note of caution on native plant nurseries. When buying plants from any nursery, confirm that the plants are in fact native species and that they were cultivated at the nursery, not collected from the wild. There have been instances of nurseries harvesting wild plants and raising them for sale. These plants are often marketed as “nursery grown,” which is technically true, but can harm natural areas.
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