When Soledad Robledo moved to the countryside, she faced new challenges she hoped The Humane Gardener book would help answer: “How can I coexist with nature?” she wrote in an email from Chile last summer. “How can I remove uninvited guests? How can I convey this learning to my community?” A few months later, she followed up with this thoughtful submission to our ongoing feature, “Where in the World Is The Humane Gardener?“
Where in the world is The Humane Gardener?Rinconada de Los Andes, Chile
Who’s reading: Soledad Robledo
How The Humane Gardener has inspired me: First, home gardens supposedly had to follow certain aesthetics, with exotic flowers and neatly kept spaces. My idea of what a “beautiful” backyard is has changed. Now I’m aware that nature has various designs, shades and textures. And most importantly, it’s full of life.
Education is key. I had no idea that lawns didn’t welcome the natural cycles. But then again, my childhood house’s grass was nice, but not many insects were around. Besides, lots of water had to be used to keep it green throughout the year. Let’s not even mention the chemicals that advertising persuaded us to buy!
I thought nature only existed in mountains and natural parks. But animals and vegetation do exist, on a smaller but equally important scale, in the neighborhood park or on an apartment’s balcony. People like you and me have the power to heal the planet by the actions and lifestyles they choose to live by. And that starts at home.
How do I help nature?
My family and I saved as many native plants as we could the minute our house began to be built. There are several Acacia caven trees, which get water through their long roots. Springtime sprouts the delicate purple Conanthera campanulata flowers by the dozens. Also, my husband and sister saved a tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca) that was about to be cut down and transplanted it at our house. A giant hummingbird visits it every day!
We didn’t cut down any dead trees. Then we planted some ivy by one of them. It looks poetic. I’ve even seen birds resting on them. All trees equal life.
Last but not least, if an uninvited guest such as a cricket or beetle came in, I’d politely take it outdoors where it’d meet up with the rest of its buddies again. But this wouldn’t be the case for mice. We eliminated one last fall. That made me feel so guilty that I made up my mind to find a humane solution next time. So about a month ago when a little mouse visited the kitchen, my dear husband helped me get it into a box, releasing it in a nearby ravine immediately. Today, I truly understand that all creatures have to be respected.
As a human in the modern world, I’m experiencing a bit of habitat envy. I crave more chances to sleep longer, pick my own fruit, and curl up with loved ones under a tree. If the universe determined our fates based on personalities and preferences, I’d likely be assigned to sloth-hood: slow-moving, plant-eating, tree-dwelling. The bumblebee lifestyle would be a good fit, too, allowing me to visit flowers all day and cozy up with family at night.
But I’m not complaining. This year has yielded extraordinary opportunities to spread the word about the importance of caring for wild plants and animals in our backyards. If it’s meant less time in my own garden, I don’t regret it. And I’ve learned to live vicariously through the creatures taking shelter there. Even brief strolls through our little oasis have brought countless insights into their often hidden world. Follow along as I recap 11 unforgettable moments in our 2017 humane garden.
1. The Eclipse Wasp
When her iridescent blue wings close, she is twilight. When they open, she’s as brilliant as the sun. How fitting, then, that I first discovered this otherworldly wasp in my garden just as the solar eclipse was starting on the afternoon of August 21. The sight of such a brilliant animal just feet from the ground was even more spectacular than anything I could have spied in the sky. Known scientifically as Trogus pennator, she appeared to have no common name, so I dubbed her the eclipse wasp. Harmless to us, she has an unusual nesting site: the caterpillars of swallowtail butterflies. She injects a single egg into each caterpillar she finds; when the egg hatches, the wasp larva feeds on and eventually kills her host. To those who find this gutting of butterfly babies distasteful, I suggest remembering that birds devour caterpillars, too, and we don’t hold their predatory ways against them.
2. The Devoted and Drenched Dad
A summer downpour didn’t stop this papa cardinal, spotted one day through a screen door to our deck, from feeding his hungry family. Wondering about the identity of the unlucky soul about to end up in a baby bird’s belly, I checked my copy of Caterpillars of Eastern North Americaand discovered his name: Abbott’s sphinx moth caterpillar. Though I’d never seen one before, I guessed that we had plenty, as this species’ host plants—grape and Virginia creeper—proliferate in our gardens. Most chicks need an abundance of caterpillars in their diets, so these volunteer vines provide a plethora of baby food to young bird families.
3. The Superman Ant on a Mission
Taking a quick break from writing to refresh the birdbaths one day, I happened upon a familiar-looking butterfly skating oddly across our patio. Closer inspection revealed an ant carrying the wing of a silver-spotted skipper. How that butterfly met her demise, I’m not sure, but the scavenging ants made sure she did not die in vain.
4. The Hitchhikers
At first glance, this might look like the opossum of the insect world, a devoted mama carrying young ones on her back. That’s what my husband, Will, and I assumed when we came upon this scene under our ash tree last spring. But the diminutive hitchhikers are no mini-mes. They’re a completely different species. Called fire-colored beetles, they are attracted to cantharidin, a caustic chemical exuded by the larger blister beetle to deter predators. The tiny passengers may lick, chew or nip to extract the coveted potion, which some beetle species pass along to females while mating to confer protection to their offspring, according to the book Beetles of Eastern North America.
5. The Special Delivery
Whenever Will says, “Nancy, come here and look at something, and come quietly,” I know I’m in for a treat. This time it was a special delivery in the patio garden right outside our basement door. All our outdoor plans ceased that late spring week; we barely set foot into the backyard for fear of disturbing this newborn fawn. Except to stand, stretch and turn around, she didn’t move much either. We knew her mother must be close by, calling her baby to nurse but otherwise keeping her distance to avoid attracting predators. We saw no signs of distress—no crying, no flies, no indication of discomfort or confusion. Still, I couldn’t help but worry. Just as I started to wonder aloud if we should be concerned about her well-being, we woke up one morning to find our baby had left as quietly as she’d arrived. She was strong enough now to join her mother, who would find new spots to hide her precious cargo each day and plenty of food for her family in our deer-friendly garden.
6. The Buzz That Fell on Half-Deaf Ears
Being half-deaf all my life, I’ve missed a lot. Punchlines elude me amid roaring laughter, and having them repeated to me is of no use when I’ve already missed half the joke. But maybe this forced tuning-out of human noise has given me more sensitivity to nature’s music, including the dramatic soundtrack of bumblebee buzz pollination. Turn up the volume on the video, and between the lower drone of wing flapping, you’ll hear it, too: the distinctive high pitch of the bee’s flight muscles vibrating at a rapid clip to shake the pollen out of the anthers of this wild senna. It’s an amazing trick that some flowers—including those of tomatoes, blueberries and other human food crops—require for pollination. Only some bees can perform it, though, and the honeybee, a domesticated animal originally introduced from Europe, isn’t among them. We’d be awfully hungry without our buzz-pollinating wild friends—yet another reason to skip the hives in favor of nurturing habitat for the native bees already in our midst.
7. The Bird Who Thought Our Yard Was a Forest
When this scarlet tanager joined our happy hour one evening in the height of summer, I knew it was a rare event. Little did I know how rare until I posted the photo and received responses from avid birders saying they had yet to spot one on their treks through the woods. Described by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as “frustratingly hard to find” because of their preference for high canopies of “large, undisturbed tracts of forest,” scarlet tanagers seem unlikely candidates for suburban backyard stopovers. This one kept us company for at least 20 minutes while feasting on the ripening fruit of staghorn sumac trees.
8. The Ant Hill That Wasn’t an Ant Hill
I’d read about it, written about it, and seen it from a distance in the past. But until this summer, I’d never actually gotten close enough to photograph a ground-nesting bee emerging from her hole, gathering pollen, and returning to her nest repeatedly. That seems strange in retrospect, since these soil dwellers are everywhere, comprising about 70 percent of our 4,000 or so native bee species in North America. They’re generally small and solitary, so it takes patience and a zoom lens to stake out such minifauna. One helpful clue to their whereabouts is the presence of mounds that look like anthills. Though they work alone, many bees create these nests near each other; I found mine along the edge of a mowed path that runs through our meadow down to the compost pile.
9. The Frog Who Thought He Was in a Jungle
As their name implies, tree frogs like to hang out high in the canopy. And sure enough, their vocalizations led my binocular-aided eyes to one atop a sassafras tree this summer. But sometimes the diminutive frogs descend to much lower altitudes during breeding season, seeming to take a particular liking to our potted rubber trees. In mid-May, just hours after I’d moved a few from their winter home in the basement to their summer spot on the patio, this little guy made himself right at home atop one of the sturdy leaves. Thin-skinned amphibians are especially vulnerable to the onslaught of chemicals and power equipment in a typical home landscape, so I feel especially protective of each one I find.
10. The Hamburglar Bun Gourmand
Our birdbaths serve many purposes: quenching animals’ thirst, helping birds clean their feathers, and—apparently—giving crow connoisseurs a place to prepare their meals. This hamburger bun of unknown origins got a thorough soaking last March before the bird took off with the dripping mass gripped firmly in his beak. Was he cleaning off the human refuse before deigning to eat it himself? Was he softening it up to make it more palatable? Theories abound, but this is a common behavior among our highly intelligent feathered friends. I’m just happy I got to see it, even if through a fuzzy window screen.
11. The Plant That Inspired Our Neighbor to Go Wild
How many species can one plant support? At some point we stopped counting, but our neighbor walked by when we were still trying. “What is this plant called?” she asked. “Can you give me some seeds?” I was surprised by the sudden interest. She’d never wanted tall plants but didn’t seem to care that this boneset towered above her. She’d never wanted prolific spreaders but could clearly see this self-starter had sprouted from a crack in our driveway. What sold my friend on Eupatorium serotinum? It certainly wasn’t me. Nothing I can say comes close to the sales pitch made by the bees, butterflies, mating wasps, bee flies, and moths crowding every bloom each summer. The moment confirmed my belief that wildlife of all kinds are the best ambassadors for the native plants that sustain them. We just need to have the courage to let them shine in our gardens for all the world to see.
Featured images, top: Tachinid flies also use caterpillars as a nesting site; when eggs hatch, the fly larvae feed on the caterpillars. Despite all this predation on baby butterflies and moths, we have dozens of winged beauties making it to adulthood in our garden, including the mourning cloak who emerged from winter dormancy in early March. (All photos by Nancy Lawson and Will Heinz)
Is a flower by any other name still the same? Not necessarily. Research has found that some native cultivars grown for aesthetic traits have less wildlife value. Here’s what you should know.
When my favorite diminutive summer vacationers start arriving early in the season, I like to ensure they have a five-star experience. The hummingbird menu starts with an array of tasty tubular flowers: bright red bee balm, lavender wild bergamot, columbine, red buckeye, coral honeysuckle, trumpet creeper, cardinal flower, phlox, penstemon, and blazing star. My garden B&B also includes native plants that attract insects the birds need to round out their sugary diet.
Watching these tiny migrants enjoy the diverse buffet is a source of hope for me. It’s inspiring to know that the simple act of planting flowers can ensure the birds won’t go hungry.
Not all supposedly native plants are created equal; some grown to satisfy human-desired characteristics appear to have lost traits helpful to birds, bees, caterpillars and other animals.
But though the offerings seem as popular as a picnic on the beach, recent research shows that some of the ingredients may be about as nutritious as cotton candy. In spite of appearances, an animal’s repeated return to a plant doesn’t necessarily mean he’s getting the nourishment he needs. Not all supposedly native plants are created equal; some grown to satisfy human-desired characteristics appear to have lost traits helpful to birds, bees, caterpillars, and other animals. Called “cultivars,” these manipulated plants are bred or selected for delayed bloom times, larger flowers, varying colors, dwarf stature, and other qualities considered useful or interesting in the garden setting. Some are variants originally found in the wild, while others are bred repeatedly—or, in the case of hybrids, crossed with related species—until the desired effect is achieved. In the process, they may have lost both inherent value to wildlife and sensory cues that attract animals to the plants in the first place.
As a gardener for the past two decades, I don’t always know or remember the exact provenance of plants added years ago. Though I’ve grown some from seed, many came from nurseries and friends. When the hummingbirds visit a cardinal flower, I’m not sure anymore whether it was the cardinal flower my mother-in-law gave me, the cardinal flower I bought at a native nursery, or the cardinal flower a friend divided and shared from her garden—let alone whether they are cultivars or strictly native species that evolved with the animals who depend on them.
Why does this matter? For more answers, I talked with Annie White, a Vermont ecological landscape designer who devoted her doctoral research, published online last week, to comparing how frequently pollinators visit native species versus their cultivars. She is also preparing a paper that quantifies nectar production in cardinal flower species and cultivars. Two primary questions underlie these efforts: Do changes in shape, color, growth habit, or bloom time reduce attractiveness to bees, butterflies, and other pollinators? Do such changes also affect the ability of the flower to deliver the floral resources offered by unmanipulated plants? Though results are mixed and no single answer has emerged, her work provides a better picture of how human aesthetic preferences may spell trouble for our wild friends.
Q: A lot of times people see pollinators visiting a plant en masse and assume that the flowers are great for those animals. But from what I gathered from your research on cardinal flower hybrids, a bloom may be very attractive to an animal but not necessarily provide the needed nutrition.
What’s really fascinating is that Lobelia cardinalis is hummingbird-pollinated and Lobelia siphilitica is bumblebee-pollinated. The morphology of the flowers has evolved specific to their pollinators, with the cardinalis having a really long and narrow corolla tube which a bumblebee can’t get inside. Also, the red color of the flowers is more attractive to hummingbirds and not so attractive to bees.
I was looking at the quantity and the quality of nectar production within these species and these hybrids. So I found that the native species Lobelia cardinalis has really high nectar production, which makes sense because it needs to be providing energy for hummingbirds, and hummingbirds require more energy than a bumblebee would. Whereas Lobelia siphilitica, being bumblebee-pollinated, has a much lower quantity of nectar in the flowers—which is much more in line with what a bumblebee would be needing per visit.
But now there are these hybrids that are really popular in the garden industry—usually Lobelia x speciosa. So that just made me really curious: Well, what about these hybrids? Who’s pollinating those? And both of the hybrids I looked at had highly diminished nectar quantity, even a little bit less than Lobelia silphitica. It’s really concerning with the Lobelia x speciosa cultivar ‘Fan Scarlet’ because the color is red, and it has a more similar morphology to Lobelia cardinalis. And so it attracts hummingbirds, but then the hummingbird is only getting about 20 percent of the energy from that flower that it would get from the native species itself. It’s luring the hummingbird in but not giving it the reward that it’s expecting to find.
Q: If the flowers aren’t providing what hummingbirds would normally get, that means that they keep coming back but are expending too much energy?
Yes, I think that would be the hypothesis—that they’re expending a lot more energy to find these flowers. And also if you have a small garden space and you’re trying to fill it with flowers that are going to be the most beneficial, you’re going to be able to pack a lot more benefits for the hummingbirds and other pollinators by using the plant that has the optimal nectar production and not just something that’s taking up your garden space but isn’t providing the same benefit.
Q: Your other research focused on comparing the frequency of pollinator visits on native species versus their cultivars. Have you had any reaction yet from others in the nursery industry in terms of helping people make educated choices? Many people aren’t going to know about this because even at native plant sales there are still lots of cultivars.
It’s really tough because what I’ve found is that about half of the cultivars that I looked at were comparable to the native species, and about half were inferior. I did find one that was actually better. That was a Culver’s root, Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Lavender Towers.’ So it does seem like there’s a lot of variation—that not all cultivars are going to be the same or less beneficial. We just need so much more research. That’s a real weakness right now, and I think what I’ve shown is—particularly as we’re putting more and more cultivars out on the market—we need to really make plant breeders aware that they are sometimes putting out these cultivars that are inferior in terms of their benefits to pollinators. I’ve had a tremendous amount of interest from growers and even from some breeders and certainly from gardeners who want to know more about this. And it’s something that they’re just learning about for the first time.
The New England asters that I studied showed one of the largest differences that I saw between the native and the cultivar ‘Alma Potschke’—like 20 times more pollinators on the natives than on the cultivars. That was one that really surprised me because the flowers are very similar morphology, the same size, and they were blooming at exactly the same time. They just had a color difference.
Q: What do you tell gardeners who ask for recommendations?
In general my suggestion to people is to use the native species as much as possible. If you are considering using cultivars for whatever reason, whether it’s disease resistance or shorter stature, choosing a cultivar that’s as close to the native species as possible—in its morphology and in its bloom time and in its color—is going to increase the likelihood that it’s a comparable substitution. And try to certainly avoid things like double flowers—it’s been well-documented that double flowers have decreased nectar and pollen availability and accessibility. Be really leery of hybrids.
Q: Have you seen problems in hybrids beyond the lobelias?
I’ve seen that in the echinaceas for sure. I’ve observed several echinacea hybrids, and all of them have been inferior. I did have one in my study that’s well-documented.
Q: When you first started thinking about this, was there already talk about it, or was it something that you anecdotally observed in the field?
It was something that I had just observed. At the time I was an ecological landscape designer. I was in the Midwest in Indiana working for a company, and we had a native plant nursery and also we had large seed production beds. So one of my favorite things was just to go out at lunchtime and
wander through these seedbeds of various flowering native plants. And that’s how I got interested in pollinators. And the spiderwort
[Tradescantia spp.] amazed me the most when it came into bloom in early summer; it would just be just buzzing with pollinators. And I had seen on smaller sites some of these garden varieties of the tradescantia being planted, and I noticed there were very, very few pollinators if any on them. And another person even mentioned the same thing—that they felt like some of these cultivars, these garden varieties, didn’t seem like they were as attractive to the pollinators. That was kind of one example that really got me thinking about it.
And I had a lot of cases where I was designing native plant gardens—I would then turn that list over to a contractor to have them actually install the project and would go back to check the site to see that they had put in all cultivars or had substituted a number of plants with cultivars. And they felt like that was justifiable because it’s the same genus and species. A lot of times the contractors don’t even know—they assume that a genus and species is as specific as you can get.
Q: When you verified in your studies that the native spiderwort was visited a lot more by the pollinators than the cultivar, you concluded that the discrepancy may have been a result of the differing bloom times—that perhaps bees emerging just in time for the straight species’ blooms are out of sync with later-blooming cultivars. Were there other cultivars that seemed out of sync with seasonal needs of pollinators?
Well, there was one—sneezeweed, or Helenium autumnale. I looked at a cultivar called ‘Moerheim Beauty.’ They had completely different bloom periods. With a lot of the cultivars, it was oftentimes a week or maybe a two-week difference, and the bloom period would typically overlap. But with those two it was a stark difference. The cultivar bloomed in midsummer, and the native blooms really late, in September and even into October. So there was no overlap whatsoever, and there was a huge, very dramatic difference in terms of pollinator attractiveness. But because the native blooms so late, it’s a really important plant because there’s so few other floral resources available during that time.
I had so many confounding variables because there also was a color change, It was a red cultivar versus the native being yellow; it also was just a plant that didn’t perform as well. So it’s hard sometimes to tease out exactly why these things are happening. I know for sure I have documentation that the pollinators were visiting the natives significantly more, but I can only hypothesize still as to why that’s happening.
Q: I talked to an entomologist last year who was aware of the research but complained that straight-species asters fall over and said she doesn’t want that in her garden. Is it possible to design around some of these attributes to get people more interested in these plants?
Truthfully, I do a lot of gardening myself, and I still use some cultivars—and even cultivars that I know are a little bit less beneficial to pollinators, just because in some circumstances, you know you need an aster for a border that’s not going to be 4 feet tall and flopping over. Or you need a joe-pye weed that’s not 8 feet tall; you want something that’s more like 4 feet tall. You know something won’t work in this specific scenario that you need it to work in unless you do choose a cultivar.
So I’m not completely against cultivars. I think there are still certain settings where they make sense. There’s also been some benefits in terms of disease resistance, where they’re trying to find monardas that are more mildew-resistant. So there can be some benefits there, but I think the risk is that you’re also creating these plants that may not be as beneficial.
Almost across the board, I found that all of these cultivars that are selected for shorter stature or more compactness just don’t have as many flowers, so they’re not producing as much nectar and pollen.
Almost across the board, I found that all of these cultivars that are selected for shorter stature or more compactness just don’t have as many flowers, so they’re not producing as much nectar and pollen. Also for me being up in Vermont—I’m in zone 4a and 4b—a lot of these cultivars had real problems with hardiness compared to the natives. So where you are in Maryland, that may not be as big of an issue. But I had a Monarda fistulosa ‘Claire Grace’ and learned as I researched how these plants were developed that it was actually a selection from down in Mississippi, I believe. So it makes sense that that selection, that species coming from far down south is not going be hardy in northern Vermont. But they sell it in the garden centers; I see it all the time. That’s not really information that ends up getting passed on to the garden centers or certainly to the consumer.
Q: You did a lot of bee watching during your research. Did you learn other things that weren’t part of this study?
Yes, I think one of the really remarkable things that I noticed—and that I do have a lot of data on, even though it’s not really the focus of the paper—was just how different pollinators have very different floral preferences. And I think that’s really a weakness of all of these pollinator planting lists that are out there in circulation; they’re really not specific for their pollinator types. And there are really big differences between what butterflies are foraging on versus what bees are, and really big differences between honeybees and bumblebees. So when doing a pollinator garden, you almost have to decide, well, what pollinator species am I trying to help the most? If you’re a honeybee keeper and you’re looking for a forage garden for your honeybees, there are a number of things that you could plant that are really common on pollinator planting lists but that actually have no benefits for your honeybees. Baptisias are only really pollinated by bumblebees because they’re the only pollinator that’s strong enough to get inside the flower. Or rudbeckias—I almost only saw a lot of the really small native bees on there.
I think there’s been quite a bit of research on the phlox cultivars. At the Mt. Cuba Center, they had a cultivar that did really well, and I keep seeing people promoting that one cultivar as this amazing pollinator plant. But phlox is a butterfly-pollinated plant for the most part. It’s really difficult for bees to access the nectar and pollen, so it’s very specific to butterflies.
Q: So if you’re trying to help bees, that plant won’t do it. What else can gardeners do to become more aware and select more wildlife-friendly plants?
For people who do have strictly native plant nurseries in their regions, one easy thing is to try to shop there first because you’re going to know that a well-respected native plant nursery is going to be growing native species, that they’re going be trying to maintain genetic diversity within that population. That’s a whole other aspect of cultivars that’s a little bit troubling—the loss of genetic diversity.
Q: Because if they’re reproduced for sale clonally—which most of them are—they’re all essentially the same plant, right? And then the plant populations can lose resiliency.
Right, exactly. I like to use the cardinal flower as an example again: If I live adjacent to a natural area that’s full of native cardinal flower and I put a cultivar in my garden, or if, let’s say, I want a garden full of red and I put a hundred of those in my garden, those are going to cross-pollinate with the natives.
Are we going to end up genetically polluting our natural areas with the genetics of these cultivars that aren’t as strong, that don’t have natural resiliency built into them?
And if all of these cultivars are just clones of each other and maybe they’re from a genetic stock from down south, and maybe that selection just happens to be less disease-resistant, are we going to end up genetically polluting our natural areas with the genetics of these cultivars that aren’t as strong, that don’t have natural resiliency built into them?
I’m not aware of anyone doing research on that, but I think it’s really, really important.
Other cultivar research: The Mt. Cuba Center has been conducting extensive research on the value of cultivars; though much of this is focused on growth habit and performance in the garden, a citizen science project quantified pollinator visitation to monarda cultivars, and a collaboration with University of Delaware scientists catalogued bee preferences for coreopsis species and their cultivars. UD and Mt. Cuba have also partnered to examine the value of cultivars of woody plants for caterpillars. While some have shown equal benefits, others are poor substitutes; cultivars bred to have red leaves, for example, are loaded with anthocyanins (pigments that deter feeding) and don’t attract as many caterpillars as the greener straight species.
Definition of terms: Cultivar? Variety? Hybrid? What does it all mean? Among the many good explanations are these from Virginia Cooperative Extension and Nebraska Cooperative Extension. An important note to remember while shopping: When looking at a label, single quotes around wording that follows the species name indicates the plant is a cultivar; e.g., Lobelia cardinalis ‘Fan Scarlet’ or Monarda fistulosa ‘Claire Grace.’
Why weed when there are spiders to be rescued and beetles to be photographed? Gardening chores take a back seat to the joys of discovery in this Washington naturalist’s city lot. But the distractions haven’t slowed the conversion of her once empty yard into a magical space for wildlife, featured in our fourth dispatch of the Humane Gardening Heroes series.
There aren’t any rare birds singing from jungle canopies or lions lollygagging on savannahs in Kelly Brenner’s garden. But in her view, she’s found something even more wild: “moss piglets” living on her Seattle driveway.
Known more scientifically as tardigrades, these tiny invertebrates are thought to be some of the toughest creatures on the planet, withstanding extreme cold and excessive heat. Needing moisture to stay active, they can nonetheless enter a desiccated state for decades and come back to life once rehydrated. Not quite insects, they’re round like bears (which earned them their other common name, “water bears”) and slow-moving like turtles. They’re so unique they inhabit their own phylum in the animal kingdom.
And Brenner found them simply by trading her binoculars for a microscope one day, curious as ever to meet as many species as she could on her 6,000-square-foot city lot. Though small, her property brims with life, from the solitary mother bee laying an egg in a fencepost hole to the Bewick’s wrens lining their nest with fluffy seeds of native fireweed. But it was the discovery of microfauna not visible to the naked eye that gave Brenner, a naturalist and photographer, the greatest thrill in her own backyard.
“We’re not a wilderness—we’re not going to have cougars and all the exotic things, so studying some of the things that we do have is enlightening,” she says. “We can learn from watching the humble backyard bugs and creatures.”
Whether those creatures are snails mating in the “wetland in a bottle” she keeps inside her house, crows picking at moss in the trees of the local arboretum, or slugs making their way from one dandelion leaf to another in her lawn, Brenner continuously documents the fascinating life of other species crossing her path. As the creator of the website Metropolitan Field Guide, her goal is to help people appreciate nature wherever they are (even on an apartment balcony, like the one she filled with plants before moving her garden to more solid ground). “We lose that sense of wonder after we’re children; we don’t have a sense of awe,” she says. “And if we don’t care about what lives in our yards, why are we going to care about the tigers or snow leopards or elephants?”
For Brenner, caring about those unassuming creatures also means caring for them. After moving to her house five years ago with her husband and daughter, she laid out the welcome mat for other species’ families too—in the form of broken-down moving boxes that made way for a wildlife garden. By topping the cardboard with leaves and letting it sit, Brenner killed the grass without the use of chemicals. She put down new roots, adding a Douglas fir, a vine maple, a mock orange, and other native species that provide food and shelter for wild visitors. Many other plantings followed, including twinberry for hummingbirds, Pacific ninebark for bees, gooseberry, beargrass, inside-out flower, wood sorrel, red columbine, coastal strawberry, Smith’s fairy bells, tiger lilies, evergreen huckleberry, goat’s beard, paintbrush, and fringecup.
Where once there was only lawn, a forsythia bush, and a maple tree on the property, a succession of flowers provides sustenance for animals throughout the season. Early bloomers like Indian plum are among Brenner’s favorites, as are late-season standouts like goldenrods and asters, which add to the buffet long after other plants have stopped flowering. In the front yard a mini-meadow feeds pollinators on one side of the driveway, and a vegetable garden, also started from cardboard and leaves, provides a bounty of lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, radishes, snap peas, spinach, kale, and other produce for Brenner’s own family.
Aside from the stinkbugs she occasionally picks off the tomatoes and the neighbor’s digging chickens she gently shoos away from the vegetable patch, everyone is welcome to feast to their heart’s content in this urban oasis where slug-and-bug watching is as much a priority as bird watching. “If your plants are being nibbled on, it’s a sign that you’re doing something right—that you have animals there,” she says. “I would be upset if I had a pristine yard that looked unlived in, that didn’t look like anybody was visiting.”
So would the spring azure butterfly Brenner spotted landing on a leaf, where she was likely laying her eggs, and the sparrows pecking the ground for morsels shed by seedheads left up for the winter. Nothing goes to waste in the yard, where Brenner has created an insect hotel from an old tree branch lined with recycled food cans. Inside the cans, decaying goldenrod stems invite native bees to nest; parasitic wasps, who show great interest in the abode, are also welcome. “They’re beautiful—they’re shiny and iridescent,” Brenner says. “They were patrolling that up and down this past summer.”
Brenner’s desire to connect with her fellow species tends to slow her down in the garden, where every chore is a chance to explore. “It’s fun to dig in the dirt,” she says. “The problem is I’m always like, ‘Ooh, I’ve got to stop and take a picture!’ And it takes me twice as long to do any sort of weeding.” Sometimes gardening chores are interrupted by an animal in need of rescue, as when Brenner accidentally disturbed a giant house spider nestled in some burlap sacks while cleaning up the yard one spring. Though some people kill or trap and relocate wildlife they don’t understand, Brenner brings many animals even closer to her own domain. Knowing that giant house spiders prefer the indoors, she transported the startled creature to her garage.
To harmlessly view such animals in close-up with her young daughter, whose child’s hands could inadvertently crush them, Brenner fashioned a DIY aspirator from a jar, a rubber tube, and some fabric; by sucking in air from one end of the tube, they can gently pull a spider, ant or earwig into the jar for temporary viewing. Created last year during Brenner’s “365 Nature Project”—a daily online journal of interesting observations—the tool was one of many that helped her meet the project’s goal of getting to know Earth’s fellow travelers more intimately.
“There’s always something to find—always,” Brenner says, noting the profound experience of observing a beetle go about his routine. “There’s a difference between looking and really seeing what’s going on. Watch how it walks, watch how its antennae move, watch how it acts when it encounters something like a rock. Does it go around it, does it go over it, does it investigate? Is it going to eating something? What’s going on?”
Flatworms with cartoonish eyespots reside there too.
Her lifelong curiosity, nurtured at a young age when she searched for beetles and snakes while camping with her family on the Columbia River Gorge, is infectious. To introduce more people to such marvels, Brenner is now working on a book that will relay the fascinating stories of slime molds, moss, and other wonders of nature in urban environments. In the meantime, she’s also continuing to add more habitat to her own backyard, one project at a time. A large deck built by previous owners for human recreation is long gone, soon to be replaced by something that many more creatures will enjoy: a wildlife pond, one that Brenner hopes will draw more dragonflies and nightly concerts from her favorite musicians, Pacific chorus frogs who’ve been known to lull her to sleep from a nearby wetland.
Tips Inspired by Kelly Brenner’s Garden
Keep a nature journal. Already experienced
in drawing from the days when she was earning her landscape architecture degree, Brenner started keeping a nature journal after taking a watercolor sketching class and looking for ideas on Pinterest. Though her camera helps her relay the stories of her observations, creating her own visual details brings new understanding. “By sketching it, you see more,” she says, describing the process of drawing a bird. “You can see how the feathers go together and how they’re overlapping each other and how the beak goes with the feathers. It makes you look closer.”
Seek expert help to learn about fellow inhabitants. In a world where a square meter of soil can contain millions of insects and other invertebrates, it’s impossible to get to know even a fraction of the living beings among us. But a few sources can provide insights about those we do find. Brenner receives identification help after posting her photos to Twitter, and she frequently uses BugGuide (bugguide.net), where experts review uploaded images.
Appreciate all the animals in your midst. Brenner resists the urge to engage in selective compassion, appreciating the much-maligned starling as much as she does the rarer species. “They’re pretty, they’re iridescent, they have neat colors, they can mimic and sing,” she says. And in Europe, where she’s traveled several times, they’re in decline and considered a precious bird. “It’s just species bias,” says Brenner. “I think it’s natural, but where do we draw the line?”
Extend existing natural areas. Many plants now in Brenner’s yard also grow at Pritchard Beach, a nearby park and wetland along Lake Washington where she volunteers to remove invasives and plant natives. Cooper’s hawks who nest at the park also frequent her property, where they perch on the fenceposts. Frogs and dragonflies stop by, and Brenner plans to make her yard even more hospitable to them by adding a rain garden that will divert water from the basement of the house and into the planned pond.
Put down spreading roots. Adding spreading species to the ground layer makes filling an empty space a lot more manageable—and provides a bounty of extra plants. In one of the first beds she made, Brenner planted strawberry, false lily of the valley, and star Solomon seal—all low growers that made many more of themselves and have now been transplanted around the yard. Brenner often buys small starts at native plant sales, and this year she’ll add local seeds to her front-yard pollinator garden.
Work on one area at a time. When creating a wildlife garden, “don’t worry about being perfect,” Brenner advises. “Just start with one plant, and then go on to the next.” Even with a landscape architecture degree and a design in mind, she hasn’t been able to implement all of her plans yet—and that’s OK, she says. The ever-increasing number of species moving into her peaceable kingdom seem to agree.
Planting and Wildlife Resources
Seattle nature guide: Brenner frequently updates her website, The Metropolitan Field Guide, with regular observations from her backyard and beyond. Last year, her 365 Nature project resulted in daily posts about interesting finds throughout the city and beyond. The site also offers book reviews and helpful links to citizen science projects, recommended plant lists, and other topics of interest to nature lovers and wildlife gardeners.
Local seeds of change: After attending a Xerces Society workshop, Brenner ordered native seeds for her front-yard pollinator garden from Northwest Meadowscapes. The company focuses on locally adapted species from western Washington and Oregon.
Wildlife protection, conflict resolution, and rehabilitation:Living with Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest by Russell Link is a comprehensive guide to common backyard species, providing advice for protecting wildlife and preventing conflicts with the animals in our midst. PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood cares for sick, injured, and orphaned animals, including marine mammals, with the goal of releasing them back into the wild; the PAWS website provides information about wildlife rescue, conflict resolution, and coexistence with our fellow species.
Container gardening for animals: Do you yearn to put down the roots of a wildlife garden but have only a patio or balcony? No problem! Read these inspirational tips from Brenner and others about how to garden for animals in small spaces.
Whenever my father returned home from abroad, I couldn’t wait to see his pictures. A plant scientist for the USDA, he visited Australia and New Zealand, Israel and Palestine, South Africa, Costa Rica, Taiwan, and dozens of other countries. In my eyes, he was a modern-day Marco Polo, laden with treats and tales from distant lands.
But in 1980, his journeys took him to a less colorful place: the shadowy landscape east of the Berlin Wall. After driving straight to Dresden to avoid police interrogation, he met his host, the former owner of one of Germany’s largest horticultural enterprises, at the Central Museum. “He told me that I could come to his home for dinner, but we couldn’t talk politics,” my dad, Roger, recalls now. “He was sure there were listening devices planted in the house.”
Later, they retreated to a garden house across the street to drink wine and speak openly. Longtime employees stood on the lookout for trouble as my dad’s colleague described the oppression of the regime, which had taken over his hundred-year-old business and kept him on as manager. A radio under the floorboards provided the only external communication. Everyone lived in fear of the secret police. “It was always this issue of neighbor telling on neighbor; it was very difficult to know who to trust.”
But what made the greatest impression was the patched-together garden at the home of another scientist—a collection of plants my dad’s host deemed his “cultivated wild,” gathered from whatever popped up in the landscape. “Of course, these workers didn’t have much money,” my dad explains. Even nice clothing wasn’t readily available or affordable, much less garden plants. “People in the streets were kind of walking around hanging their heads. It was terrible.”
It was into this world that Claudia West would soon be born. A young girl when the wall fell, West remembers the devastating effects of uranium and soft coal industries in her East German homeland. Entire villages had been dug up for mining to keep the economy afloat, leaving giant craters and air so ashen and chemical-laden that West and her family couldn’t even hang their laundry outside.
Those early impressions of an abused earth devoid of vegetation and a sky thick with pollution made witnessing the subsequent transformation of the land even more awe-inspiring. After less than three decades of restoration efforts, clear lakes now fill the craters, whole forests have sprung from tree plantings, and even European wolves have staged a comeback. “In such a short lifetime,” West says, “I’ve seen nature return with a powerful force to landscapes where we thought all hope was lost.”
In such a short lifetime, I’ve seen nature return with a powerful force to landscapes where we thought all hope was lost.
As the earth around her recovered, West became enamored with American plants she saw in European parks and couldn’t wait to study them here in their native environments. But instead of the vast prairies of wildflowers she’d envisioned, she arrived to find acre upon acre of land mowed down and mulched over. “It was really a huge disappointment coming here, expecting all these great plants and actually seeing so few of them being used in the landscape. And that’s not only an aesthetic disaster and a disaster for quality of life, but it’s also a disaster for ecological reasons. All these animals have developed intricate relationships with these plants for thousands of years, and we took the foundation right out from under their feet.”
West’s desire to heal that scarred landscape inspires her work as the ecological sales manager at North Creek Nurseries in Pennsylvania. It was also the impetus behind her involvement with the book Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing plant communities for resilient landscapes, which she coauthored with landscape architect Thomas Rainer in 2015. In this interview, she articulates the urgent need for ecological design—and provides take-home tips for every gardener interested in restoring habitat to damaged earth.
Q: You must have been six or seven when the wall fell?
That’s exactly right. I was a child, but as a child you see things sometimes even more clearly than adults, who get so used to the environment that after a while you stop questioning it. But I do remember very clearly the heavy industries, to the point where air pollution was really crazy—really thick and unhealthy for people. And the immense scars this industry left on the landscape.
It took a really long time to clean up these landscapes, but not as long as anybody ever suspected. Going back now is like going back into a different world. It took us all by surprise that a landscape that had been so abused can now be the home of such incredible biodiversity and be used by a whole new tourism industry as really the gem of Central Europe.
Q: That’s amazing. So it was a combination of human intervention and nature coming back on its own?
Exactly, yes. So there was a lot of funds coming in—I think from the European Union—to clean these areas up, and a lot of people coming together. It was all planned restoration efforts, with millions of trees being planted and meadows being seeded and fish being released back into the waters. So certainly it was a man-guided restoration, and the results are just incredible. I had no idea that nature can come back with such a vengeance. Now a generation that saw that pollution goes for a walk around the lakes that used to be craters in the landscapes. It’s so powerful how these people can now all the sudden enjoy their home. It was not possible for them for so many decades.
Q: Your parents were in the landscaping industry?
My family—since it was eastern Germany—was not allowed to have a business because of the Communist structure, the regime. After the wall came down, the world opened up for us, and we started a nursery. We really started very small with a few tables at the local market and buying plants from the Netherlands and reselling them. And then they quickly grew into several … stores that my mother was managing. The landscape design build was something my father spearheaded. Many of the plant species that we wanted to use weren’t available yet in the local nursery trade. We started to grow a lot of the things we needed in our designs in the nursery, and that’s how the nursery business started … and with the understanding that plants can make life better, that they are very powerful and necessary for life quality. Not just for ecology but for us, for people.
We are so jealous of the vegetation that the United States has, the incredible diversity and just the beauty of these plants.
Q: Did you see American natives while growing up in Europe? Is that where you first got interested?
We did—that’s the fascinating thing, where I was just completely confused when I first came here that so few of these plants are here in cultivation. Because we adore them. We are so jealous of the vegetation that the United States has, the incredible diversity and just the beauty of these plants. Thanks to folks like Karl Foerster or some of the early nursery visionaries, these plants became available for the European market.
Many of the European plants have a cool season, simply based on our climate, and they heavily flower between spring and midsummer. Our gardens look more or less green, and there’s not as much of a second flowering highlight as there is here in the United States. So American native plants really fill an aesthetic need in Europe, basically create a second show before winter comes. That’s exactly how they’re being used. And that’s why they’re so incredibly popular, because they bloom until frost, and they’re just spectacular in color and structure and in attracting European insects as well—generalist insects.
Q: You’ve described feeling shocked when you arrived here and found a “chronically undervegetated” and overmulched landscape. When did you first realize that? When you stepped off the plane? Or was it a gradual process?
I think I felt it the second I stepped off the plane, and it just took a while to communicate that better and really understand the extent of the problem and what that means for the ecology. It’s just really a tragedy on such a large scale—the loss of life quality—and what opened my eyes was seeing these opportunities not being taken. And now these opportunities, they have to be taken if we want our landscapes to be continuously the foundation of a healthy ecosystem. Future nature doesn’t live out there anymore, because out there is gone. Future nature lives here in our backyards, in our developments and parking lots or rooftop gardens—or it doesn’t live. That’s the reality.
Future nature doesn’t live out there anymore, because out there is gone. Future nature lives here in our backyards, in our developments and parking lots or rooftop gardens—or it doesn’t live. That’s the reality.
I know that gardens do not replace restoration and conservation of wild lands, and a designed system will probably never have the same quality that a wild or somewhat semi-pristine landscape has in some of the few nature reserves we will still have left that function. But at least a designed garden or landscape can balance some of it. And it may never be as good, but it still can add up and make a difference.
Q: Is there a native plant movement in Germany like there is here?
It’s not really the same, and I think a lot of it has to do with our history. Hitler was very much focused on only allowing European native plants. And there was a very strong push to beautifying the European or German landscape with real German plants. … I don’t think we’re quite ready for a mainstream native plant movement yet because we’re still digesting that past. A lot of very cautious voices come up as soon as anybody goes in that direction. (See “Depoliticizing the Wildlife Garden” for varying interpretations of this history and their effects on native plant advocacy.)
Q: I saw a talk by a scientist who was a little bit defensive about native plants and said the movement is “borderline xenophobic.” I think it’s the opposite because our ancestors came here and killed so many of the indigenous people and their plants. But I can see why there’s a hesitation in Germany.
Well, of course, there’s an understanding that the European native plants are the foundation of our ecology, but it’s not communicated in the same way as it is here. It’s something that lives more in the world of ecology. There’s a very strong push there to collect seeds off European native plants and protect them because many of them are endangered because it’s such a highly dense, highly populated, cultivated landscape over there. So there’s definitely a push to restoration, conservation, and bringing native plants back. But it’s a very different context, I should say—a cautious context.
There are garden designers who base their work on working with native plants from Europe, but the aesthetics often limit how far they can go with these plantings. That kind of focus on native plants and ecology often brings with it a very naturalistic planting and style, and that’s just something that here in the United States and in Europe, not everybody feels comfortable with. I think we’re struggling with the same problems, and that’s one of the reasons why Thomas and I wrote the book—to help folks who want to create more ecological plantings and make that more mainstream and acceptable—and to help them make better design decisions so that we can meet in the middle. We kind of wanted to deflate that “native” debate just a little bit.
Q: I thought you handled it really subtly.
We wanted to show a message that yes, a native plant palette [can be applied] as appropriate for a site. We wanted people to be more aware of that and how plants fit together—and take away from “native” as just solely being based on location, where really “native” is defined by a plant’s interaction with insects and ecology.
Q: The alternative language used most often now is that plants should “serve an ecological function.” But when it comes down to it, most of those native plants are the ones that meet that need, right?
Yeah, that’s exactly right.
Q: So it’s just a matter of trying to defuse the labels. I’ve been interspersing “native” with “wildlife-friendly plants” for that reason.
Yeah! I love that. That’s exactly what it means. Because the concept of “native” means very little to the general public. It’s not powerful. But if you can sell the quality—that these plants will bring all these beautiful creatures into your garden and you’ll be able to enjoy them—who doesn’t want that? That’s the purpose of gardening. This is where the hobby and the passion lives. That’s powerful and that’s what we wanted to focus on and not location, location, location. I think that is really an exhaustive debate. And what we need are solutions. We need better native planting design to sell this quality.
Tips: Trusting Nature’s Time-Tested Recipes
Traditional landscaping is replete with formulaic advice based on appearances and shallow vital stats: Put tall plants in the back, short ones in front. Buy three to five of each kind and place them 12 inches apart. Mulch the remaining earth, add fertilizer and water, and repeat.
But nature is much more imaginative. In Planting in a Post-Wild World, authors Claudia West and Thomas Rainer explain what plants really want—and don’t want—to survive and thrive among us. Here are three top takeaways that can be applied in the home garden.
Plants have social needs.
If you’ve ever watched the proliferation of blue mistflower added to a sunny spot or a Virginia bluebell planted under a tree, you won’t be surprised to learn these species rank high on a “levels of sociability” scale created by German plant researchers, including one of West’s teachers, Hermann Müssel. But while some species are gregarious and don’t mind taking up the whole garden, others are wallflowers, preferring to stand alone or with just a few friends.
Mimicking these natural tendencies can encourage long-term sustainability of planned landscapes, especially on sites under high pressure from invasive species. European designers interested in grouping species based on spreading tendencies can turn to Friedrich Stahl and Richard Hansen’s groundbreaking book Perennials and their Garden Habitats, published in 1993. West has been hoping to develop similar guidelines for American native plants. In the meantime, I’ve found it instructive to read the online plant profiles provided by a variety of sites, including North Creek Nurseries as well as these favorites: Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Native Plant Database, Missouri Botanical Garden’s Plant Finder, and the USDA’s Fire Effects Information System. (The latter offers information on wildlife habitat and plant communities associated with a number of native and nonnative species.) Regional or state-based databases, such as the California Native Plant Society’s Calscape, are also helpful resources for learning more about plant growth habits.
Plants live in a space-time continuum.
Plants’ personalities aren’t solely defined by the number of friends they keep around. Though often thought of as static green backdrops, plants are constantly interacting with the world around them and occupying space in different ways. Some spread laterally by shallow roots, while others anchor themselves deep in the ground. “There are very few plants—things like cattails or phragmites—that grow in monocultures,” says West. “Most other species in the wild are naturally layered. Their entire morphologies are based on that.”
The resulting intermingling of complex root systems below ground can improve storm water filtration, while aboveground layers of vegetative growth provide abundant food and shelter opportunities for insects, amphibians, and small mammals. Blanketing the earth with mulch stymies these natural benefits to the environment, so West and Rainer recommend instead mixing low spreaders among taller perennials to create a continuous matrix. “They are not always the most floriferous plants,” they write of these groundcovers, “but they are the workhorses of designed plant communities. Density is created not by cramming plants together, but by layering a composition vertically with plants inhabiting different spaces based on their forms.”
The way a species changes through time—and especially through one season—also affects the surrounding plant community. Some may roam through the garden in spring but stop spreading in early summer, when taller species begin to shoot up or leaf out and cast shade over the ground below.
Plants adapt to “stressful” conditions.
What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and the same is often true of plants. Plants in drier climates have evolved creative ways to withstand drought, including by storing more moisture in their waxy leaves or going dormant during the warmest weather. Many woodland species derive more consistent moisture and nutrients from rich soil and fallen leaves. Plants in both environments form intricate relationships with microorganisms in the soil, sharing nutrients and water through underground fungal networks.
The typical recommendations for starting a garden ignore these community-based strategies and weather-specific adaptations. Quick-growth recipes of compost, fertilizers, and irrigation are best left to the vegetable garden, designed for one-season harvest. In other contexts, too much pampering from the gardener can kill plants outright by overwhelming them with inputs they don’t need.
Rather than altering the texture, chemistry, and moisture levels, gardeners will have better luck using plants already adapted to the topography and terrain—supporting the vigorous responses of individual plants to their environment, the long-term sustainability of broader plant communities, and, ultimately, the wild animals who depend on these landscapes for their very survival.
*Featured image: A black-throated sparrow surveys his domain from a cholla cactus in a suburban Scottsdale, Arizona, development. Though the species is said to be less adaptive to suburbs than other desert birds, this individual may be faring well alongside humans because the community is brimming with natural areas and native plants. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)
What’s to love about native plants that spread like crazy? Everything! Enlist these hardy troopers to help reclaim habitat from invasive species.
They were the last lonely leftovers: seven pint-size transplants I couldn’t even give away. Other beauties—boneset, coneflowers, bee balms, asters—had flown off the shelves of my cubicle wall, where a “Free to Good Home” sign invited friends and colleagues to give them a new spot in their own gardens.
But the golden ragworts, still small and fairly nondescript, had a harder time selling themselves. It didn’t help that their name sounded like “ragweed,” the plant everyone loves to hate, or that I repeatedly responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” when asked: “Does it spread?” My fellow gardeners, trained to panic in the face of plants that refuse to be kept down, backed away in terror, eyeing the pots as they would a petri dish of ebola virus.
So it was that the remaining stash of this underappreciated groundcover—which feeds bees and shelters many other creatures—ended up back in my yard, though not in its rightful place in the ground. Putting the plants aside under some sassafras trees by our driveway, I intended to give them a better home, but life got in the way. As the leaves dropped and the snow fell and one season passed into another, there they sat, neglected and trapped in their plastic pots.
That spring, though, the plants gave me an unexpected gift in spite of my poor stewardship. As I headed past the driveway to tackle the onerous spring ritual of removing garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), a persistent invasive species, I discovered the little ragworts had gotten a head start on the task. Refusing to be held captive, their roots had burst forth from the holes in the bottom of the pot and rambled fearlessly into the garlic mustard patch.
To understand what a revelation this was, it helps to know a little about garlic mustard. Originally from Europe and Asia, it’s allelopathic, releasing chemicals that inhibit the growth of other species. It’s a threat to forest understories in the U.S. and Canada and also to the West Virginia white butterfly, which seems to mistake garlic mustard for its host plant, laying eggs of caterpillars doomed to die on leaves they can’t eat.
But in my yard, garlic mustard has finally met a worthy contender. Watching a habitat-harming plant succumb to an equally hardy native has opened my eyes to a more creative, life-affirming method of curtailing invasives on my property. Since it’s not in my nature to want to fight nature, I find the process of cutting, digging and pulling plants—no matter their provenance—a little heart-wrenching. And because I don’t want to support products that harm the land and the creatures who survive off it, I avoid herbicides. Besides, I’d rather not remove any vegetation that’s providing even minimal habitat if there are few other alternatives for nesting and food. Even my preferred, seemingly harmless method of laying down cardboard to kill grass has its consequences, potentially smothering the homes of native bees and other creatures nesting in the ground.
The idea of adding more wildlife-friendly plants while gradually removing less helpful ones, then, appeals to my sensibilities much more than declaring chemical and mechanical warfare to clear the land—and, in at least some cases, it can be more effective in the long term. Here are a few experimental methods that have proven successful on different types of sites, including my own.
1. Guerilla garden: Insert natives into patches of invasives.
Following the ragwort’s unexpected coup, I added more to the 12-by-12-foot garlic mustard patch and watched delightedly as it claimed the whole territory. And it took only three years—about the same length of time a similar experiment played out in the yard of Sue Barton, a University of Delaware associate professor and extension specialist. In her original attempts to eliminate Japanese stilt grass (Microstegium vimineum), an invasive species that crowds out other plants, she’d tried all the standard approaches—mowing, herbicides, replanting with low fescue, and pulling the remaining scattered interlopers that sprouted. Ultimately, the effort had failed. “It’s now just solid stilt grass,” she says.
When she later confronted a second patch of stiltgrass in the backyard, Barton changed her approach, manually weeding out the space before planting a combination of native woodferns (in the Dryopteris genus) and Japanese painted ferns (Athyrium x ‘Branford Rambler’). By spring, the fall project had taken hold and the plugs were thriving. “But the stiltgrass started to grow, and so that summer, it was like a treasure hunt, looking for the little fern plugs in amongst the two-feet-tall stilt grass,” Barton says. She again weeded the stiltgrass out by hand, and in the third year, the 1,000-square-foot space had filled in entirely with ferns. Disliked by deer, the plants were also large enough to shade the ground and prevent further germination of stiltgrass.
“I don’t necessarily know that ferns would work in every situation—what works in one instance is not guaranteed to work another,” says Barton. “It’s just our best guess.”
2. Employ Defensive Linebackers: Practice preventive planting.
Some native plants can hold their ground even against the most impressive offensive lineup. At one Maryland site, Southeastern wild rye (Elymus glabriflorus) has been observed staking its claim in a garden otherwise overtaken by invasive Canada thistle. Proactively planning for this type of “competitive exclusion”—a term for describing species duking it out for the same resources—is the best way to ensure long-term sustainability in landscapes expected to thrive on their own, says Claudia West, coauthor of Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes.
“I’m on a consistent mission right now to find highly aggressive and thuggish native plants,” she says. “I am looking for native species that have all the ecological value, that can outcompete some of the invasive stuff we’re dealing with.”
I’d rather have a very thuggish, vigorous native plant take over an area than have it covered in honeysuckle or autumn olive. … We’re looking for plants that can stand their ground. —Claudia West
In planting projects she undertakes as the ecological sales manager for North Creek Nurseries, West sometimes sneaks in tough native spreaders like wild petunia (Ruellia humilis) and native sedges—species that provide food and cover for wildlife who’ve evolved to depend on them. Though some of the plants won’t leave room for much else, the tradeoff is worth it. “I’d rather have a very thuggish, vigorous native plant take over an area than have it covered in honeysuckle or autumn olive, especially for landscapes that we know from the beginning will not receive a lot of care,” says West. “Think about all the storm water maintenance along highways. Think about parking lots. We’re looking for plants that can stand their ground.”
It’s a useful strategy in many home landscapes as well, especially for gardeners with a heart and mind for helping wildlife but a property covered in turfgrass edged by invasive vines and shrubs. Preventing further encroachment of these plants in my own yard are mountain mint, blue mistflower, bee balm, elderberry, gray dogwood, Pennsylvania sedge and other stalwart defenders. Planted little by little over many seasons in areas where they can freely spread their wings—and roots and seeds—they’ve started to fill in previously barren or invasive-prone spots in our two acres.
3. Recruit Volunteers: Encourage self-starters.
“If I do nothing, what will happen?” asks pioneering landscape designer Larry Weaner in his 2016 book, Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change. While not advocating for a cessation of gardening, Weaner encourages readers to use the question as a guiding principle for creating an ecological landscape or restoring a degraded site. In other words, what native plants are already lying dormant in the land, waiting for us to stop mowing them down? What valuable seeds might migrate into the garden on the breeze or in the bellies of birds? Weaner has seen this strategy come to fruition in his planting projects, as when he added Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) to a client’s meadow and later saw it thriving in an adjacent lawn that a neighbor had let go—and grow.
Refusing to be held back, such unexpected visitors are an increasingly common occurrence on my property as well. Learning who they are and how they grow has been one of the great joys of gardening (or what I’m starting to think of as “un-gardening.”) Some are diminutive, like the blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) that came up singly in a patch of old turfgrass by our back deck. Others make themselves known with wild abandon, like the hyssop-leaved thoroughwort (Eupatorium hyssopifolium) that shot up high above an old bulb garden we inherited from previous homeowners, beckoning fall-migrating monarchs. An entire field of broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus) and purpletop grass (Tridens flavus) graces our backyard where there used to be only mowed lawn, making way for more wildflowers—and eventually trees—with each passing year.
Two summers ago, as I pondered how to address invasive ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) in the front yard, my husband stopped mowing there so the bees could feed on the plant’s early flowers and nest in the bare patches of soil between. By fall, when the ground ivy had continued to spread and I was still plagued with indecision, we discovered that nature had been thinking much more creatively. An inspection of the area revealed nine baby Eastern red cedars peeking up through the leaves, humbling me once again: The previous spring, I’d spent $30 on three diminutive plugs of the same species, and here were three times as many coming up for free. They were healthy and strong and ready to provide nesting, cover and fruit for many bird species, as well as food for foxes, rabbits, raccoons, and butterfly caterpillars who call that tree species home.
Ground ivy, the plant I didn’t want, was serving as a kind of nurse plant for the one I did—something that could only have happened when we’d stopped cutting everything off at the knees.
A fox family under the deck, snakes slithering in the stone wall: This Austin landscape architect welcomes them all, even the rock squirrels who root around his vegetable planters. Learn why in this third dispatch of the Humane Gardening Heroes series.
As thousands of people come and go each day on the busy Texas highway near Tait Moring’s home, many other species navigate a slower-paced thoroughfare just outside his back door.
Among those making the daily rounds is a roadrunner who likes to visit the yard’s most popular watering hole—a fountain Moring built from stone—and snack on some lizards while enjoying his libations. Great horned owls stop in for a chat, and a bobcat’s been known to show up on the back deck to check out the scene.
“And for the first time ever, I saw a woodcock!” Moring recently marveled while tallying the list of his favorite visitors. Ground-dwelling birds, woodcocks feed on an abundance of earthworms, often in forested areas with edge habitat. “I had no idea they were even here.”
But given the way he cares for his land, it’s perhaps no surprise that so many creatures want to stop by. Some, like the fox mother who raised her kits in his yard, even make a life here. “She had them under my deck,” Moring says. “It was a lot of fun. They played just like puppies.”
Birds, frogs, and many other animals come for the abundant insects, berries and other food provided by the native plants on the 22-acre property just minutes from downtown Austin. They also find other forms of habitat: Bull snakes slither into gaps in the walls made from stones found on site and gathered from Moring’s childhood rock collection. Little brown salamanders proliferate in the zoysia grass lawn that’s occasionally fertilized with compost but is free of the chemicals that can harm such thin-skinned amphibians. Every year or two a tarantula wanders by.
“Years ago, I really didn’t believe the people that said, ‘Oh, if you just go organic, everything is easier,’ ” says Moring. “I always thought, well, that sounds good, but I don’t believe it. But it really turned out to be true.” Once he began replacing roses, azaleas and other exotics with natives, he noticed less disease and more resilience. “With native plants, if you do have a few aphids or something, well, it doesn’t decimate the plant. A lot of people panic if they see an insect or a disease or something, but usually it kind of takes care of itself.”
A landscape architect with a love of nature, Moring is something of a rare native species himself: an Austin resident who’s actually from Austin. “In fact, I was at a party, and when someone found out I was born here, they’re like, ‘I have never met one of you before.’ ” Raised by parents who appreciated plants, animals, and seasons (his mother grew up on a ranch, his dad on a farm), Moring frequently went hiking and camping with them and gained a head start on his knowledge of wild species.
“When I first started my practice 30 years ago, I was very gung-ho about using natives,” he says. “My parents were big environmentalists and taught me a lot about native plants. Well, you couldn’t find them except for a few things. But it’s much easier now.”
Moring’s own home includes many naturally occurring natives like ashe juniper, red oaks, and live oaks. His innate respect for the interdependencies of plants and animals is apparent when he describes the value of these species to wildlife. Ashe juniper, often thought of as a weed, is critical to the survival of the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, he explains, as the birds use the shedding bark to make their nests. Though Moring hasn’t spotted the species, he hopes to one day; the oak-juniper forests of Central Texas are the only place in the world where they breed.
Texas natives on the property also include prickly pear cacti, red yuccas, native sedges, bigtooth maples, big Muhly grass, and mountain laurels—a bush with beautiful purple blooms and a fragrance Moring likens to that of grape Kool-Aid. (It’s not the mountain laurel in the Kalmia genus that East Coasters would be used to, he notes; the scientific name is Sophora secundiflora.) To help butterflies and other pollinators, he seeds Texas wildflowers and vines, including bluebonnets, gaillardias, wine cups, salvias, blackfoot daisy, primrose, coreopsis, and passionflower. He has an affection for Virginia creeper vine, another species often thought of as a weed despite its gorgeous fall color and abundant berries for birds.
“I like survivors,” he says. “I just like things that are natives because they’re much less likely to have problems.”
Though many Tait Moring & Associates clients embrace natives, Moring has to use his powers of persuasion with others. “I always know if I’m going to put a mesquite tree in somebody’s landscape that I’m going to probably get cussed at,” he says. “I have to talk them into it and try to convince them. It doesn’t always work. I think the last guy said, ‘Over my dead body.’ They’re a beautiful tree, and it’s just that because ranchers have had to fight them for their rangeland, they think they’re an awful tree.”
The turkeys, quail, javelina, and small mammals who take cover in mesquites would agree with Moring, as would the rabbits and coyotes who consume the pods and the bees who pollinate the flowers. And though the species stands accused of interfering with livestock production, it actually provides shade for cows and can enhance soil fertility.
Moring’s defense of mesquites recently persuaded a satisfied customer to add them to a courtyard. “But we still get people that move here from other areas, and it doesn’t matter where they come from; they often want what they had back home,” he says. “I try to gently educate and change minds.”
Moring knows that while humans can easily relocate across the continent, many other species have evolved to make a life only in certain ecological niches. Even those with broader ranges can’t just hop on a plane and relocate when their homes are razed. That knowledge informs his attitude toward all the creatures in his yard, including those others might fear or dismiss. When he finds poisonous coral snakes, he ignores the common advice to kill them and simply moves them deeper into the canyon. When yellow jackets take up residence, he lets them be, remembering the helpful role they play in preying on plant-eating insects.
In nature, there’s a pretty masterful design … Once you get a balance going, everything sort of seems to take care of itself.
Rabbits often graze, sampling the buffet but never decimating anything. Occasionally when Moring has left the gate open to the cultivated area of his property, deer stop by, and recently a coyote came through. His own cats enjoy the great outdoors from a caged-in area. “They think they’re in the wild,” he says. “It protects them from the coyotes and it protects the birds from them.”
Rock squirrels have presented a bit more of a challenge for Moring, whose vegetable planters built from rock just happen to be their preferred habitat. “They’re really cool to watch,” he says. “They can wreak havoc on the vegetable garden, and so the only way that I’ve figured out to deal with that is just to cover everything with chicken wire and little fencing stuff.”
“The squirrels have driven me a little bit crazy,” he says, “but everything seems to have a place. In nature, there’s a pretty masterful design … Once you get a balance going, everything sort of seems to take care of itself.”
Tips Inspired by Tait Moring’s Garden
Recycle on-site materials into functional art.
Moring works not just with the plants indigenous to his property but also with the stone and wood he’s collected there over the years. Rocks left over from client projects have supplemented those found on site to create stone walls and planters. Carved stone found at an abandoned quarry have become columns for holding plant containers and supporting climbing vines. A stock tank made of recycled hardware provides water for wildlife.
Texas gardeners and naturalists—especially those in the Austin area—are lucky to be so close to one of the nation’s best resources for wildlife gardening, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. But most places have botanical gardens and arboretums where you can observe the growth habits of different species. Garden clubs and birding experts can also be wonderful resources, Moring notes, providing information about plants that attract birds and other wildlife.
Celebrate local flora and fauna.
The limestone, granite and thin soils of Texas hill country make for a rugged but lush landscape across 25 counties in the central part of the state. Plants there are uniquely adapted to survive periods of hot, dry weather. Wherever you live, local flora and fauna have evolved for millennia to adapt to soil, moisture and temperature conditions. “To me, every region has its own beauty, and that’s the fun of going somewhere different,” says Moring. “It’s great if Texas looks like Texas and Maryland looks like Maryland, instead of having this homogeneous [landscape] where everything looks the same everywhere.”
Rather than trying to create a dream home for yourself from species originating in distant lands, encourage the ones who’ve already been making a life in your region long before you arrived. “Don’t try to force something that wasn’t meant to be in your region. Embrace your local region as much as you can,” says Moring. “That doesn’t mean you can’t have a favorite plant or something that your grandmother had, but don’t try to recreate the whole environment.”
Native plant resources: Showcasing native plants of Texas, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin is also a national treasure, operating the Native Plants Database of species native to the United States and Canada. Searching by scientific or common name, gardeners can access detailed fact sheets about a plant’s natural habitat, distribution, soil and light needs, and benefits to wildlife.
Wildlife gardening: A helpful guide produced by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas Wildscapes: Gardening for Wildlife, provides a basic primer on creating wildlife habitat as well as more specific information on Texas native plants and animals. Though a section on conflict resolution occasionally mentions less humane methods such as trapping and relocating certain species, the book generally encourages conflict prevention and compassion for wildlife living among us.
Pollinator advocacy: The Texas Pollinator PowWow helps communities and individuals protect pollinators and their habitats. Serving as a hub for education, resources, networking opportunities, and information about the latest research in pollinator conservation, the Texas Pollinator PowWow also organizes yearly conferences. Speakers and steering committee members include scientists, horticulturists, natural resource professionals and advocates from universities, government agencies, private institutions and local communities.
Though Austin is famous for its mass gatherings of bats under the Congress Avenue Bridge, the animals still face a host of challenges, from disease and development to human fear and misunderstanding. Information and resources are available from Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation and Austin Bat Refuge, which also cares for bats who are orphaned, injured or otherwise in need.
I welcome human immigrants to my community, but my botanical preferences are for natives. Some people think the two concepts are mutually exclusive. Here’s where they’re wrong.
Two years ago while attending an entomology lecture, I was surprised to hear the professor describe native plant advocates as “borderline xenophobic.” The comment seemed to appear out of nowhere, a defensive-sounding remark delivered amid a heated discussion about pesticides.
Since then I’ve learned that this type of characterization is nothing new. In a 1994 New York Times essay titled “Against Nativism,” Michael Pollan called for a kind of “multihorticulturalism,” portraying native plant advocates as goofy and misguided at best and racist at worst. Sociologists, ecologists, and historians have since written extensively about the politicization of native species, echoing Pollan’s reflections on what he described as a dangerous cultural obsession with European plants in Nazi Germany.
Whether or not Hitler really had an opinion on the provenance of plants is subject to debate; at least one researcher offers compelling evidence that cynical landscape professionals jumped on a political opportunity, attempting to garner attention by cloaking their agendas in the sentiments of German superiority. Nazi authorities, he writes, appeared somewhat indifferent to the whole matter.
Whatever the case, a fear of repeating history (or even interpretations of that history) is often invoked as a way to discredit the ecological case for native plants. Especially in this age of sweeping anti-immigrant sentiment fueled by the new U.S. administration, some wildlife-friendly gardeners and horticulturists are struggling to find new ways to describe native plants in an attempt to distance themselves from the semantics of hateful ideologies.
Aside from the obvious point that our country’s agricultural and horticultural history has brutal roots in the colonization and extirpation of indigenous people, plants, and animals, there’s a more fundamental flaw at the core of all these discussions: By projecting our own politics onto the millions of other creatures with whom we share the planet, we are comparing not just apples to oranges but one apple to all the other fruits across the globe.
Here’s what I mean: We humans are all of the same species. We are all mobile, and we can all technically survive in a variety of habitats around the planet. We are generalists on a global scale. But we are only one among nearly 1.5 million known animal species, many of whom have evolved to be specialists, surviving on or in certain flowers, leaves, rocks, and waters. These animals and countless other organisms (up to an estimated 1 trillion when accounting for microbial life) often need certain plants that in turn have evolved to grow on certain topographies, in certain climates, with certain rainfalls or dry spells or soil profiles. From bees to butterflies to birds, many creatures can live only in regions or even narrow niches in which they evolved.
We are generalists on a global scale. But we are only one among nearly 1.5 million known animal species, many of whom have evolved to be specialists, surviving only on or in certain flowers, leaves, rocks, and waters.
That’s why I plant Maryland species in Maryland for the animals who depend on them, and it’s why I hope gardeners in Oregon will plant species that have coevolved with animals in the Pacific Northwest, and those in Japan will plant species native to their regions, and so on. Conversely, it’s also why I can and do welcome all humans to my community: My habitat is their habitat, my home their home. Unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, we all need the same things to survive. And we can’t meet those needs without protecting and restoring the healthy ecosystems we, too, depend on for clean air, water, and soil.
When Pollan wrote his article, we didn’t have as much data on the value of native plants to wildlife and the harm caused by some nonnatives, which can displace habitat and even poison animals unfamiliar with vegetation from outside their historic ranges. But now an ever-increasing body of research supports the case for planting as many natives as we can, not for selfish human reasons but on behalf of all the other life forms now dependent on us to nurture their last remaining habitats.
Does that mean those advocating for wildlife-friendly landscaping want a return to the exact plantings that grew in some nebulous, pre-human era, as detractors so often claim? No. Such claims feel like cheap shots from tired playbooks that attempt to discredit compassionate, progressive, science-based causes by portraying them as extreme. Even if such a state were desirable, we all know it’s outlandishly unrealistic. You don’t have to be a gardener for long to understand that. My yard still has turf grass that was here when my husband and I bought the house 16 years ago, and it still has plants that threaten wildlife habitat. But it also has hundreds more native species than it did back then. I look at it as a lifetime project—and a lifeline project for the many more creatures who have now made a home here, simply because they can find what they need.
Far from being mutually exclusive, environmental justice and social justice are inextricably linked. Unfortunately, the new administration appears to care little about either, implementing policies detrimental to both humans and animals. Wildlife don’t recognize geopolitical borders, let alone those demarcated by impenetrable barriers that restrict their movement and may destroy their last remaining habitats. They’re already deeply affected by climate change, the science behind which our president chooses to ignore. Some of their last refuges, our public lands, are under siege by silencing orders, corporate pressure for oil and gas drilling, and threats to further defund their operations.
It’s more important than ever that we do what we can in our own communities for both animals and people—and that we ourselves pay attention to the science, not political rhetoric, behind native plants and other critical habitat needs. We can’t take care of the planet in the long term unless we take care of each other now. And we can’t take care of each other in the long term unless we take care of the planet now. I believe in human rights, and I welcome the other citizens of this earth with open arms. I believe in the rights of our fellow species to make a home here, too, and I welcome them with the plants they need to survive. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.
For Further Pondering …
Many journal articles, essays, books, interviews, and discussions with friends and colleagues have informed my thoughts on these issues over the years. Countless words have been written and spoken on the subject. Here are just a few of those writings that may be of interest to you.
Books: Understanding the Science Behind Native Plantings
Bringing Nature Home by entomologist Doug Tallamy provides well-researched proof of the value of native landscaping to wildlife, particularly birds who rely primarily on insect specialists to feed their young. His second book, The Living Landscape, written with Rick Darke, adds helpful ideas for applying this knowledge. In Planting in a Post-Wild World, Claudia West and Thomas Rainier explain why ecological plantings have long been unfairly cast as difficult to establish and maintain, outlining a roadmap for more successful cultivation through greater understanding of plants’ natural growth habits. Carefully explaining their view that natives are an important but not exclusive part of sustainable landscaping, they attempt to defuse what they view as loaded terminology by emphasizing the need to evaluate a plant’s ecological function just as much as its origins.
For every documented butterfly species in North America, about 15 times more moth species inhabit our gardens and natural areas. Yet they’re far less known to us than their charismatic day-flying counterparts, perhaps because most moths are active long after we’ve hit the sack.
Though they often escape the notice of humans, moths are essential to many other species, including plants that depend on them for pollination and animals who eat them for nourishment. As caterpillars, they’re a mainstay of the diets of baby birds. As adults, they feed everyone from bats to bears; in fact, researchers have found that grizzly bears at Yellowstone National Park eat up to 40,000 miller moths (adults of the army cutworm caterpillar) each day.
Our judgment of an animal’s worth should not be measured only by their potential to be prey for other species, though. Like all our wild neighbors, moths have intrinsic value of their own and deserve just as much respect, appreciation, and freedom from harm as butterflies do. Here are a few ways you can help these unassuming creatures in your garden and neighborhood.
1. Put down the spray bottle
Much of the easily accessible information about moth caterpillars is confined to academic and agricultural sites that refer to these animals as “pests” because they dare to chew holes in leaves. All sorts of chemical potions are recommended for destroying the supposed enemy. But everyone has to eat, and I rather appreciate nature’s vegetarians. The grape leaf folder moth pictured above has likely taken up residence in our yard because this year we have an abundance of wild grapevines, their larvae’s favorite food.
Tiger milkweed moths also set up shop at this time of year, though the caterpillars are more gregarious than the adults. Sometimes gardeners are upset by the voracious appetites of these fuzzy creatures, worried there’ll be no food left for the monarch butterfly larvae, who also depend on milkweed. But these two winged species tend to have different palates. Tiger milkweed caterpillars join the buffet when plants have aged a bit, while monarch caterpillars prefer young, fresh milkweed leaves.
2. Plant native species they recognize
Plant names are sometimes embedded in the common names of some moth species or their caterpillars. There’s a good reason for that; like butterfly larvae, moths in the teenage phase often nibble only on vegetation they coevolved with. Common oak moth larvae eat oaks, locust underwing moth larvae munch on locust trees, and caterpillars of the hickory horned devil—whose more appealing adult name is “royal walnut moth”—dine on hickories and walnuts.
But many moth names seem to bear no relationship to the plants the animals depend on: Brown-hooded owlet moths eat asters and goldenrod, and Pandora sphinx moths eats Virginia creeper and grapes. The larval host plants of some species aren’t even yet known; after moth expert Dr. David Adamski helped me tentatively identify a small orange moth in my garden as a bicolored pylautus, I searched references for her preferred foods only to learn that scientists haven’t yet figured it out. The lesson for me? Plant even more native plant species! You never know who might need them.
Yuccas and yucca moths provide an exquisite example of the fascinating mutualistic relationship between animals and plants. The yuccas receive the benefit of pollination from the moths, and the moths lay their eggs in the flowers, where larvae hatch and eat the abundant seeds. Wondering why I’d never witnessed moths among the many yuccas scattered around our gardens, I finally ventured outside around 10 p.m. earlier this summer and found more action than I’d ever imagined. It really gets going at the 27-second mark in this video taken by my husband:
3. Let there be dark
Recently while researching a magazine column about gardening for bats, I was alarmed to find that some experts support leaving lights on to unnaturally attract moths for an easy food supply. Light pollution negatively affects giant silk moths and has led to the decline of other large species, including the royal walnut moth. “The preponderance of lights where there used to be forest is taking a heavy toll on these wonderful animals throughout their range,” writes entomologist Doug Tallamy in Bringing Nature Home. “Royal walnut moths have already disappeared entirely from New England.”
As adults, these moths live for only a few days and don’t eat; lacking mouth parts, they survive only on the energy they stored up as caterpillars. Their primary function is to breed, but if they spend their nights circling the security lights in someone’s front yard, they run out of energy to mate and lay eggs.
Though bats are declining in number and face many threats themselves, it doesn’t make sense to harm one type of animal to help another–not to mention the fact that hurting species that serve as bats’ main food supply will only exacerbate the plights of bats, too. To save these moths from further decline, turn off outdoor lights at dusk, or install motion-detecting lights that don’t burn throughout the night.
4. Don’t equate tidiness with godliness.
We’re used to seeing hummingbird moths enjoying the wildflowers in our gardens, but they’d never reach this beautiful adult phase if we raked out too many leaves from the understory. These creatures overwinter as pupae in the natural ground layers, emerging in spring and summer as adults.
In fact, many species of butterflies and moths take shelter there, along with toads, queen bees, and countless other creatures who need to wait out the winter storms in decaying plant material we too often blow and rake away. This fall, leave the leaves and other natural material in place, and watch how many more species begin to take up permanent residence in your humane garden.
Photos by Nancy Lawson. Video by Will Heinz. Featured image: A Datana moth rests on a spicebush leaf.
Last year, a friend emailed to say she thought my proposed title for an upcoming presentation—”Creating a Wildlife Garden”—was a little silly. “If a vegetable garden grows vegetables, then a wildlife garden grows wildlife,” she wrote. “It sounds like you’re planting the seeds of baby rabbits!”
She was a marketing director with expertise in areas I hadn’t even thought about, so I certainly wasn’t going to question her. Besides, she had an interesting point.
In some sense, though, we do “grow” animals when we garden for wildlife. By adding plants and other habitat elements where they can eat, take shelter and raise their young, we are nurturing entire life cycles of species who may otherwise have nowhere else to go in the surrounding grass-dominated landscapes of suburbia. It’s just sometimes hard to see them. More often than not, my camera picks up on treasures I’ve failed to notice with my own eyes, serving up wonderful surprises in magnified images on my computer screen.
Often it feels like a game of hide-and-seek, adding to the joy of discovery in my own backyard. “Peekaboo!” I like to whisper when I do catch them diving into the flowers and taking cover under the brush. “I see you!” But mostly I keep my distance, grateful for a camera that allows me to watch them without disturbance. As these photos show, simply observing native plants provides a wonderful glimpse into the quiet worlds of animals who make their homes among the leaves and flowers.
The sweat bee circled the perimeter, casing the rosey joint before nose-diving into the outer layer. Finding nothing, he tried a different tack, going around the bend into adjacent petals. Coming up short again, he reappeared head first and ascended the protective border of the inner circle.
Just a few steps from the anthers, he was on the verge of finally reaching his destination. But the flower remained stubbornly closed to visitors, and my friend flew off on an empty stomach.
The scene was akin to watching a child trying to open a child-proof container, but it wasn’t entirely a surprise. The bee’s chosen restaurant was a Knockout rose, bred for its hardiness, disease resistance, long bloom times, and just about everything else that humans desire but bees don’t give a damn about.
If there’d been a Yelp category for bee-friendly establishments, the dejected rose visitor would have found reviews from other pollinators with similar experiences. And he would have steered clear of this unwelcoming hedge and instead joined the hoverfly dining on my new patch of pollinator-friendly native Virginia roses in our backyard.
A rose by any other name, it turns out, is sometimes not so sweet at all when gardening for wildlife. Many modern and highly cultivated types provide little for our animal friends, their shapes and colors and structures so altered as to make finding food an exercise in frustration. In short, these manicured flowers may be a convenient and over-the-top feast for our human eyes, but they often fail to nourish our fellow species.
Introduced with much fanfare in 2000, the same year my husband and I moved to our 2-acre property, the Knockout line once seemed like the perfect plant for a flower lover who’d been raised with a healthy fear of unhealthy roses. My pragmatic mom had occasionally expressed a quiet longing for the voluptuous blooms, but always with a note of regret about how difficult they were to grow. My plant scientist dad acknowledged the otherworldly aspect of roses but preferred species that required far less coddling.
My parents are from Portland, Oregon, where seemingly anything grows and entire festivals are devoted to celebrating the ancient floral symbol of love and death and regret. But they settled near Washington, D.C., a region with its own kind of lushness that hasn’t forgotten its muggy wetland roots and powdery mildew-filled, black-spot-tainted atmosphere. It’s great for some plants—like those that evolved here and thrive on the humidity—but not so accommodating of flowery fussbudgetry meant for cooler-headed climates.
Which is why much of America—its median strips, its parking lots, its storefronts and libraries and post offices and parks—ended up with ubiquitous hedges of the flamboyant and seemingly carefree Knockouts. In our own space, they quickly became a centerpiece of our front yard, needing nothing from me but a little water in the beginning and a lot of admiration in successive years. Even a vole who cut them off at the knees with his teeth didn’t manage to do any permanent damage.
They were roses that could stand on their own, without support from toxic chemicals, and that was why I’d bought them. What was not to love?
Over the years, though, I realized that the only other creatures who shared these affections were my one-time vole visitors. As I watched sparrows eat the seeds of the switchgrasses I’d planted nearby and bees collect pollen from the wild senna that volunteered between the bushes, I was dismayed to realize that, in spite of their gregarious-looking ways, these roses were at heart a very lonely species.
This year, as the Knockouts nearly succumbed to either extreme cold or the rose rosette disease virus that’s now known to attack them—possibly a combination of both—we cut the dead branches back to the ground and made way for more senna and switchgrasses to take over. And I went on a mission to find roses that were meant to be here. Planted two weeks ago on a gentle dry slope in our backyard, the five Rosa virginianas are already thriving. Native to much of the eastern United States, they aren’tjust disease-resistant and beautiful throughout the year; they also provide nectar and pollen for native bees and other pollinators, nutrient-rich hips and cover for birds and mammals, and foliage for caterpillars and leaf-cutter bees.
Though we’ve been trained to think of the fluffy-bloomed peacocks of the rose world as the most exquisite, to my eyes there’s something much bolder about our single-petaled native roses. Unapologetically baring all their reproductive parts, the flowers’ contrasts of pink and yellow beckon animals to come feed. And when the animals respond, it’s clear that flora and fauna are old friends who know precisely what to do when they meet again. Like any good host, the flower offers its tasty treats in just the right-sized cup for the tongues of its visitors, who return the favor with the gift of pollination.
The next time I visit my new Virginia rose patch, I hope to find Mr. Sweat Bee and his friends there, enjoying themselves at the open bar instead of wasting their time on roses that refuse to serve their kind. Those plants are manmade constructs that have little to do with the needs of the natural world. I don’t blame people for not knowing this; it took me years to figure it out. But once you know, you can’t un-know, nor should you try. The plants and animals have taught us that lesson over and over again. It’s our job now, as fellow citizens of this beautiful but degraded planet, to stop ignoring them, start turning down the volume on all the marketing ploys that encourage us to carry on ignorantly in our human-centric ways, and act in the best interests of all species. It’s not hard. We just have to restore our humility enough to follow their lead—to whichever flowers they take us to.
Yes, this is shameless eye candy. But it is eye candy with a purpose, supporting a bounty of life in the landscape.
1. Swamp milkweed
Why I love it: Aslcepias incarnata is one of four milkweeds in my garden. Each comes into its own at slightly different times of the season, providing a continuous supply of foliage for the monarch butterfly caterpillars who depend on milkweed leaves for survival. The blooms host a pollinator party every day.
Who else loves it: Swamp milkweed also feeds queen butterfly caterpillars, hummingbirds, and bees. (For more on milkweeds native to your region, see this helpful list from the National Wildlife Federation.)
Why I love it: I often lament the undeserved names native plants were saddled with centuries ago. But beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is one bush with a label worthy of its radiance. Purchased on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, my beautyberries are at the edge of my front garden. They’re also at the edge of their native range, a broad swath of the southeastern U.S. that reaches the coastal plain of Maryland but not the Piedmont. This might explain why they stay rather small here, since native plants grow best in the local soils to which they’re adapted. (I’m OK with that; it likes it here well enough, and I like it here, too!)
Who else loves it: High in moisture content, the berries are food for more than 40 bird species, including the northern bobwhite, American robin, brown thrasher, purple finch, and eastern towhee. Foxes, opossums, raccoons, squirrels, deer, and armadillos also eat the drupes.
3. Coral honeysuckle
Why I love it: Why doesn’t everyone love it? That seems a more appropriate question. Lonicera sempervirens, native from Maine to Florida to Illinois to Texas, is a hometown hero with exotic flair, adding color all summer long to my garden. In warm years, it starts as early as April and flowers until November. (By the time this photo was taken on May 3, 2012, in Howard County, Maryland, the vine was in full regalia.) Unlike the invasive Asian honeysuckles, trumpet honeysuckle blooms prolifically where planted but does not take over habitat. Instead, it creates it!
Who else loves it: Also called coral honeysuckle, its flowers feed hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. Its fruits attract quail, purple finches, goldfinches, hermit thrushes, and American robins. And its leaves are a larval host for spring azure butterflies and snowberry clearwing moths.
4. Possumhaw viburnum
Why I love it: I never thought I’d love berries as much as I love flowers, but this bush changed my mind. As the fruits ripen, the colors change from light pink to deep pink to blue. Viburnums don’t typically flourish in the baking heat of my yard. But Viburnum nudum is adaptable in a variety of conditions. Near the treeline that borders our property, it gets a little of everything—some sun, some shade, and varying levels of water, depending on the season.
Who else loves it: As the name implies, opossums eat this fruit, as do raccoons. Many birds, including cardinals, woodpeckers, and robins, feast on it, too. In May and June, the white flowers host bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.
5. Golden ragwort
Why I love it: I bought a single pot of Packera aurea about 12 years ago. If I had to count them now, it would take me days. We have thousands. But that doesn’t mean this plant is invasive—quite the opposite. Its shallow roots are easy to pull, and it spreads only where it’s planted. After it finishes blooming in early spring, the leaves stay lush all summer and provide a natural groundcover. In lieu of seas of barren mulch, we grow golden ragwort under chokeberries, dogwoods, and in the bare spaces between meadow plants. When flooding forced me to rip out my beloved fern garden where I’d planted that very first ragwort, it took only one season to bring it back to life in another spot.
Who else loves it: The flowers attract early pollinators, including little carpenter bees, cuckoo bees and various Halictid bees.
One last tip: When choosing plants, look for ones that match your yard’s light and moisture conditions. As hardy as they are, many natives need to be in the right spots to thrive (though some will have a party just about anywhere). Also be on the lookout for affordable deals, such as bulk offers on small plugs for grasses and perennials or special sales of bareroot trees and shrubs. Young plants can grow into mature specimens just as quickly as older ones, and buying more than one will help you create more cohesive, natural plantings for wildlife.