Master Gardener: Landscaping with nature in mind | Lifestyles
Landscaping with nature in mind
The garden has been put to bed and is ready for a blanket of snow. The last of the garden ornaments are in storage, containers have been emptied, fall bulbs are planted and trees that didn’t find a home are healed in. Fences to keep hungry critters from nibbling on new trees have been erected. The gardener and garden are ready for a rest. The ladybugs, bumble bees, fireflies and butterflies are also at rest, finding shelter in leaves, old stems, rock piles, rotting logs and underground spaces. The birds that are spending the winter have been busy in the garden eating seeds left standing for them, checking out tree bark nooks and crannies for tasty insects and occasionally visiting the filled feeders and a heated water source.
I love my garden and I love it even more when it’s busy with singing birds, buzzing bees, blinking fireflies and butterflies gliding from flower to flower. This has been a work in progress for over 25 years. I started years ago trying to make my yard more appealing to birds as bird watching is another interest of mine. That got me interested in adding native flowering plants, grasses, and trees to help attract birds to the yard. I told visitors that the back of the yard was habitat, not garden, because people expected your garden to be weed free, no sign of insects and mulched. Wildflowers might not have been what they were looking for. Everyone wanted to ooh and ahh your hostas, daylilies, and plants whose origins were from far away.
And what about your lawn? You let your dandelions bloom? You don’t wipe out every weed that dares to grow? How come it’s not perfectly shorn and short? I call that the lawn syndrome. Americans have a love affair with the perfectly groomed lawn. No room for birds or bees there. Considering that residential yards account for 25 to 60% of the total green space in US cities, maybe we need to change our tune 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 those small “weeds” to bloom. Some of those flowers are especially helpful to bees that come out in early spring when nectar and pollen sources are limited.
The state of Minnesota has started a “Lawns to Legumes” program. They are encouraging the installation of pollinator-friendly native plantings in residential lawns. They are even willing to pay homeowners to help share the cost of establishing pollinator habitat in their yards. Why? Maybe it is because Minnesota’s state bee, the Rusty Patched Bumblebee, has been listed as endangered. In the last 20 years its population has declined by 87% and it is probably only still found in 0.1% of its historical range (which includes New York).
Why should you care that one bumblebee is in decline? Unfortunately, it’s not just one. Many insect populations, including bees, butterflies, fireflies and other beneficial insects have been in decline worldwide. Two common reasons are habitat loss and pesticide usage. Since most people think that all insects are pests or a nuisance this doesn’t sound like any reason to be alarmed, but insects play a greater role in ecosystems. They pollinate plants, not just our food plants, but 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 insect pests. We need insects.
Fortunately, most insects don’t need acres upon acres to thrive. Many native bees never travel more than a couple hundred feet from their home nest. Making changes to an area the size of your yard, or a portion of your yard, can have a huge impact on local insect populations. One place to start is to include native plants in your garden. Native plants support native insects as they evolved together. Many of the ornamental plants that have become standards in landscape plantings don’t support our native insects as there is no history between them. Some of these ornamental plants have also become invasive and have invaded what is left of our “wild” areas.
Just like our garden plants, not all native plants will grow just anywhere. It still comes down to the “right plant in the right place.” There are native plants for dry, sandy, sunny conditions just as there are native plants for shade or wet, soggy spots. Spend the winter doing some research on what native plants would be at home in your yard. If you have room, add a native tree to your yard. Trees give you a lot of bang for your buck. They can support a lot of caterpillars (baby bird food) and you’ll hardly notice if leaves are chewed on. If space is limited, concentrate on native plants that bloom in the fall. This is an important time of year, especially for bumblebee queens as they get ready to hibernate and it is an important time of year for migrating Monarch butterflies. Both need plentiful flowers to provide much needed nectar supplies.
Unfortunately, many will see your new habit as “messy” because it doesn’t conform with their vision of what a garden or lawn should be. You’ll probably have to educate your friends, family and neighbors. Try hanging a pollinator habitat sign in your front yard to announce to all that your garden is a haven for bees, butterflies and beneficial insects to forage, nest and spend the winter. Before you do a large conversion, check your local ordinances. In some areas there are height restrictions to observe and even restrictions against what you can plant in your front yard. Hopefully past aesthetic tastes will catch up with the fact that we need pollinators and other insects. Make 2022 the year you started to share 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).
Orleans County CCE will be offering Master Gardener training in 2022 for anyone interested in becoming an MG volunteer. This will be a new hybrid training, a combination of online and in-person classes. Training will start Jan. 13 and end April 7. Registration deadline is Dec. 22. Cost for 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 utilize office hours at the Orleans County CCE Education Center. For more information or to register, contact Katie Oakes at (585) 798-4265 ext 125 or email [email protected]