We Have the Power - Plant Natives!

By Peg Castorani, Owner Gateway Garden Center, Hockessin Delaware

| Published 01/22/2014

Listening to the news for the last 2 days, before the snow, I have heard a lot about forest fragmentation as a result of drilling for gas in Pennsylvania. It can be depressing to hear another media story that feels like a hopeless slide towards more habitat destruction.

Being the proactive sort, I have been thinking about what ecological issues I can influence right here in my yard. When you look around our communities, you see beautiful homes with expansive lawns, foundation plantings and a few trees. This typical model landscape is how we have learned to manage our properties. We all have busy lives and few of us have gardeners. We were taught that lawns and landscapes are for recreation and keeping our property values up. Lawns can be managed with a weekly mowing . Foundation plantings need some seasonal maintenance. Our foundation plantings and shrub borders are typically a mix of tough and durable plants, often of European or Asian origin. However, miles of  mowed  grass and exotic shrubs do not contribute to the critical need for food and shelter our native birds and insects require.   

No finger pointing here, I have sold a lot of japanese hollies and azaleas over the years. We were taught to select plants for their ornamentation and durability without regard to the needs of nature. We created islands of ornamental plants that do not play a role in restoring the ecology that has been shattered by urban and suburban development. Even agriculture reduces biodiversity. Our parks and natural areas are overrun with invasive plants. Scientists and ecologists are taking this threat to our birds, mammals and insects seriously. And so should we. It turns out this matters, a lot.

 Nearly 1/3 of our bird species are threatened or declining. Our methods of development have destroyed the web of biodiversity and support systems that allow for a rich and diverse insect life.  That's right, no butterflies,  no caterpillars, no birds.
Sounds like the "No bees, no food" cover of Time Magazine. We need to change our methods.

As an example, a single Chickadee mom needs to supply her brood with 4,800 caterpillars to get them from egg to independence! How about the nuthatches and wrens, the robins and bluebirds?

Butterflies lay eggs that once fertilized, evolve into caterpillars.  These caterpillars thrive on native plants,  not the exotics we have filling our gardens.. Native insects require the native plants they co-evolved with.  Attract the butterflies, provide them with native host plants for food and reproduction, and you are recreating a food web. Link the webs together with your neighbors and you have a wildlife corridor. Nature wins!

The premier native plant for butterflies is the mighty Oak. The Oak tree is a host to 543 species of butterfly and moth species. Oaks are easy to grow, stunning and stately.  Along with our neighbors, we can plant Oaks in our back and side yards to create a corridor for birds and insects to expand their range.    

I will continue to introduce you to native plants that will contribute to an ecological revolution right in our own yards. By choosing to add native plants to our gardens we have the opportunity to restore the diversity of nature and add life to our landscapes.

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