Kick the Habit: A Dirty Dozen of Common Gardening Bad Habits You Need to Kick

From the EGT’s Sustainable Landscaping Series, “The Ecological Benefits of the Not So Perfect Yard”

Bad Habit #6 Not Gardening for Wildlife

The bad habits described in this series have all contributed to an unimaginable loss of wildlife on a global scale.  It has been reported that more than half the world’s wildlife has vanished since 1970, and this is taking place on a catastrophically short timescale.  Our vast stretches of manicured lawns and plantings of alien plants in the landscape have deprived us of healthy native habitats and the wildlife on which we depend for necessary ecosystem services.

Kick the Habit Changes in your landscape management practices are needed to enable you to contribute in the much-needed efforts to support wildlife.  Gardening for Wildlife specifics as posed by the National Wildlife Federation include: (1) plant native plants (particularly keystone species identified by Dr. Doug Tallamy), (2) food (seeds, berries, nectar), (2) water (some kind of reliable water source), (3) cover (shelter from weather and predators), (4) a place to raise their young, and (5) sustainable gardening practices. 

What is meant by native exactly?

Plants are considered to be native to an area where they occurred naturally over time and developed symbiotic relationships with insects and other wildlife that have evolved with them.  This means over hundreds, or even thousands, of years in a particular area or region.  Only plants found in this country before European settlement are considered to be native to the United States.  And plants that are native to other areas of the country such as the west or northwest, California,… may be native to the United States, but are not considered to native to our area in New Jersey.  Some plants may have a very wide native geographic range and others may be much more limited.  When selecting plants for your garden, it is important to pay attention to their native range and to choose plants that are native to our Central Jersey area.

Photo by Mary Corrigan

Since New Jersey’s animals, insects, and microorganisms have evolved in conjunction with our regional gasses, ferns, wildflowers, shrubs, and trees and developed symbiotic relationships, they depend upon each other for their survival.  From the work of Professor Doug Tallamy  (author of Bringing Nature Home and others), we have learned that an overwhelming percentage of insects are specialists, not generalists.  This means that like the monarch butterfly, they are dependent on one particular plant species for sustenance during their larval stage and will not survive without it (for monarchs it is milkweed).  Native plants will attract and feed birds, bees, butterflies, small mammals in your yard and you can feel good about sustaining the food web in the habitat they need to survive.

What are Keystone Species? 

Some native plants support a more limited number of wildlife, while others are essential supporters of the life cycles of many species. These are known as keystone species. They work to hold an ecosystem together. The loss of a keystone organism can result in the dramatic change or destruction of the ecosystem, while a focus on planting of keystone species will support a greater number of wildlife species.

Dr. Doug Tallamy’s research has shown that 14% of native plants (the keystones) support 90% of butterfly and moth lepidoptera species. This suggests that we will reap greater ecosystem benefits if we make sure to always include keystone species in our landscapes.

Keystone Tree species of the Eastern Temperate Forests: oaks (premier species), American plum, maple, birch, pine…

Keystone Shrubs: Blueberries and willows

Keystone Herbaceous perennials: goldenrod, asters, sunflower, black-eyed susans…

Keystone animals: beavers, apex predators such as wolves, mountain lions, and bears,

Listing of Keystone Plants by Ecoregion.

In summary, gardening for wildlife requires planting a variety of native plants (particularly keystone species) that will help you to provide the food (seeds, berries, nectar), cover (shelter from weather and predators), and a place for wildlife to raise their young. Supplement that with some kind of reliable water source and incorporate sustainable gardening practices and you will have contributed in the much-needed efforts to support wildlife. That this will also add beauty and value to your home and neighborhoods is a bonus that will allow you to spend your time enjoying nature in your own backyard.

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