Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Monday, November 26, 2012

Gardening with a Purpose

"For the first time in history, gardening has taken on a role that transcends the needs of the gardener. Gardeners have become important players in the management of our nation's wildlife."
 ~ Doug Tallamy

This is a very powerful statement and really makes one stop and think...why do I garden? Most gardeners like to create a beautiful palate of color in their gardens, collect a favorite species, grow their own food or enjoy being outside and part of nature. But the role of gardeners has changed over the generations and today, gardeners are a vital part of the ecosystem because “there simply are not enough native plants left in the wild to support the diversity of wildlife most of us would like to see survive” (Doug Tallamy).

Two fiery skippers on Downy Aster

Sometime back a friend said “if there is only one book that someone should read about gardening “Bringing Nature Home; How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens” is it.  Of course I had to purchase the book immediately and have since read it cover to cover several times. It reinforced everything I am trying to do in our garden and more. 

Then earlier this month the author, Doug Tallamy came to my local nature center (Elachee). Meeting Mr. Tallamy and hearing him speak was such a privelege and so inspiring. As my friend Penny says “he is the rock star of the native plant world” and it was like meeting a celebrity. I even got my book signed (Whoohoo!) His message is simple…the choices we make as gardeners can profoundly impact the diversity of life on our planet.

It certainly makes one think twice about buying that gorgeous ornamental that you see at the nursery. Now, I always ask myself "what purpose will this plant serve in my garden?" Now, that isn't to say that I don't have any ornamental/alien plants in my garden but we are certainly working toward minimizing them to make room for plants that serve a "purpose". 

When I started studying native plants I quickly learned that not all plants are created equally. Native plants and native wildlife have evolved together and hold the ecosystem together. Native insects cannot or will not eat alien plants so when native plants disappear the insects will disappear.


Astonishingly, 90% of insects are specialists. The monarch butterfly is an excellent example. It is a specialist on milkweed. Of course, the upside of being a specialists is there is little competition from other insects but the downside is that if that plant is gone the insect disappears too. 

 
The ornamental plants that people like to put in their gardens because they are “pest” free do very little if anything to support wildlife. Tallamy says to “think of them as statues in your garden”.  Of course many of the ornamental plants have put us in this peril. Eighty-five percent of the invasive plants that are replacing natives in natural areas have escaped from our gardens. Some of the worst offenders are several honeysuckle species, autumn olive, privet, muliflora rose, kudzu, lantana, oriental bittersweet, purple loosestrife, burning bush, English ivy, Bradford pear, empress tree, wisteria, Japanese barberry and Japanese knotweed.

Native insects take long evolutionary time spans rather than short ecological periods to adapt to the specific chemical mix of plants” (Tallamy). There are a few anomalies. For example the black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) has developed a taste for dill and parsley which are not native plants; however, they are members of the carrot family (Apiaceae) and contain the mix of chemicals in their leaves that allow the black swallowtail to smell, eat and digest them. Lucky for the black swallowtails for they have been able to adapt!

 
All animals get their energy directly from plants, or by eating something that has already eaten a plant. The group of animals most responsible for passing energy from plants to the animals that can’t eat plants is insects. This is what makes insects such vital components of healthy ecosystems. So many animals depend on insects for food (e.g., spiders, reptiles and amphibians, rodents, 96% of all terrestrial birds) that removing insects from an ecosystem spells its doom. 


One of the most powerful examples Tallamy gave was that 96% of birds feed their babies insects (not seeds). For example a chickadee clutch will eat 4,800 caterpillars over the 16 day period before they fledge.  This is an astonishing number of caterpillars that your garden needs to sustain 1 clutch and is only possible if there are plants in your garden to support this level of insect population. So, if I want more birds nesting in my garden I must think twice about removing those "pest" caterpillars (potential food) from my plants.

tomato horn worm

Studies have shown that even modest increases in the native plant cover on suburban properties significantly increases the number and species of breeding birds, including birds of conservation concern. As gardeners and stewards of our land, we have never been so empowered to help save biodiversity from extinction, and the need to do so has never been so great. All we need to do is plant native plants! (Tallamy)

During the garden planning time this winter I will be making my list of native plants to expand the diversity in my garden. How about you?

Resources:
Here is a list of the best herbaceous plants to support Mid-Atlantic butterfly and moths
Here is a list of the favorite woody plants for Mid-Atlantic butterfly and moths

31 comments:

  1. Here! Here! Plant selection should always have more depth to it than aesthetics.

    I am encouraged to read that black swallowtails have been able to extend their food sources.

    This is a most interesting post - thank you.

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    1. So glad you stopped by and enjoyed the post. Thank you for leaving a comment! It is fascinating how some animals are capable of adapting faster than others. Unfortunately, I think humans are slowest to change our ways.

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  2. Wonderful post, Karin. His book is a great reference and one every gardener/naturalist should own. I like his statement on the ornamental being a garden statue. So true, they serve no other purpose than for our aesthetic enjoyment. My garden does have ornamental plants, but at least I still see insects on them, both good and bad. Funny thing though, there are no 'bad' insects in reality. They all have their purpose and serve as dinner to others. We are the ones designating them as pests. Also, I left you a tip in my post!

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    1. So true Donna! Over the years I have developed an appreciation for those insects that are considered pests. As you pointed out there is no such thing as a "bad" insect...they all serve a purpose (well maybe not those that are introduced and don't have predators such as the kudzu bug). Thanks for the photography tip!

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  3. That really gives me an entirely different perspective. I've always welcomed insects into my garden, but I haven't necessarily planted specifically for attracting them. I hadn't thought much about the bigger influence on nature we have, and I appreciate you bringing this to my attention. What a great purpose this would be!

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    1. I am so glad you enjoyed the post and found it informative. I started planting specifically for butterflies a few years ago and have expanded from there. The insect world is so incredibly fascinating and it is so nice to be able to just walk in my backyard and observe them close up!

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  4. Very well written and a lot to think about! I am trying to increase native plants in my own garden. They are much better adapted to my climate and grow better than many non-natives. And it makes me happy to see all the wildlife that are part of the ecosystem of my garden.

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    1. Thank you Deb! Natives are not always as showy as ornamentals but they sure are much more interesting with all the insect life they attract!

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  5. I've been trying to continue adding natives. My garden definitely has three distinct zones--close to the house are native and some non-native ornamentals and vegetables, the next section is native and a few non-native perennials, and the section in the woods is totally native plants. I didn't plant the Barberry and the Burning Bush. I know that doesn't relieve me of the responsibility, but I find it incredibly difficult to remove plants that are thriving. They will be the first to go if they struggle. Great post, and the book is now on my wish list. Thanks! (I thought Lantana was native to the Americas--darn!)

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    1. I understand how you feel about pulling out plants that thrive. We have numerous builder installed shrubs that serve no purpose and frankly need lots of pruning (which I hate doing) so we are replacing them. It takes time but our vision is to replace them all with plants that serve a better purpose.

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  6. I was also very impressed by this book. I've been irritated that a lot of people who deprecate the use of native plants just ignore the argument about the impact on insect populations and other creatures up the food chain. I think this is so because it's the hardest argument to answer. Having said that, I don't think I could limit my garden to natives only, but I will always put a high priority on having lots of native plants.

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    1. Many people garden for ascetics so they don't like insects in their garden and yet often they want birds. They don't understand the connection. I have had a hard time convincing people to pull their butterfly bushes out because they are invasive. If they don't see it happening in their garden they are not believers.

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  7. I share your same feelings on how my concept of gardening (why I garden) has evolved over the years! Great post and photos :)

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  8. Such an inspiring post Karin. The wildlife is suffering enough with climate change so the least we can do is support them as far as possible. I like being a protector of biodiversity!

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    1. It is amazing how just planting a few native trees or shrubs can make a difference.

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    2. My province had a huge problem with purple loosestrife a few years back. I found your post very informative and will have to consider more carefully what I add in the future. I know the butterflies love my coneflowers, as do the bees, which also seem keen on the hollyhocks. That's a start, I guess.

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  9. How wonderful that you got a chance to hear him speak!! I saw a recommendation of this book a year or two ago and I bought it then. Like you I was so impressed with this book and it really reinforced some of my native plant choices.

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    1. It is always a treat to meet an expert who is passionate and so knowledgeable! The nature center even hosted a pot luck dinner for us making giving us additional time to meet with him. It was awesome!

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  10. Your photos are crazy good! I just read an article that the Royal Horticultural Society is trying to grow blooming yards. They are playing with mixes of clover, broadleaves, and something with a fleabane-looking bloom. Wouldn't it be amazing if everyone's grass was in bloom all summer?!

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    1. How interesting! I love seeing flowers blooming in lawn. It really does help the pollinators!

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  11. Excellent post, Karin. Thank you ... great info (lovely images)!

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  12. An excellent treatise on the inherent value of most plants and a road map for making the transition to natives. Sounds like a road map for making the transition. Could change the focus of your gardening efforts.

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  13. Hi Karin,

    Wow your photos are simply amazing,
    they are really beautiful and the colours.....

    I am follower 100 (has a nice ring to it I think)!!!!

    Have a lovely weekend

    Fiona

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    1. Thank you Fiona! I think this calls for a toast! Cheers!

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  14. Go girl! That's passion for natives.

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  15. Here Here Karin...you know how I feel...once I read Doug's book I was a convert and have removed so many invasives and ornamentals continue to do so...I also don't add plants unless they are native and have a purpose in the wildlife garden. I would love to hear Doug speak...like meeting Elvis :)

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  16. Great post!
    Love the photos :)
    I call one of my presentations, "Butterflies...Gardening with a Purpose".

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  17. Very interesting post Karin. One to refer to as a native plant guide. Wow, the number of caterpillars that a Chickadee feeds its young is incredible.

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  18. I would love it if you would join me in linking up at my weekly Clever Chicks Blog Hop: http://www.the-chicken-chick.com/2012/12/clever-chicks-blog-hop-10-rural.html

    I hope you can make it!
    Cheers,
    Kathy Shea Mormino
    The Chicken Chick

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  19. Karin, your post is perfect for the times, it is never too much insisting in what is important about wildlife and gardening and in the end help sustainability.

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"Don't wait for someone to bring you flowers. Plant your own garden and decorate your soul"

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