The first article in this series introduced the role native insects play in supporting a healthy ecosystem, including wildlife such as birds. Fortunately for gardeners as well as for insects, there’s an easy way to boost the healthy insect population in your yard: by planting native plants.
Native plants and animals are those that were in Ohio before Europeans arrived. Many common garden plants, though, have been imported into North America and sold to gardeners specifically because they’re unpalatable or even toxic to native insects. Several of these plants, including Japanese honeysuckle, Norway maple, English ivy and Bradford pear, have escaped cultivation and run roughshod over our native plants in the wild, crowding out important food sources for insects with vast swathes of inedible plant matter.
To help insects, as well as the backyard wildlife that depend on them, you can replace these non-native plants in your yard with natives. Read on to learn more about the value of native plants, both for you and for Ohio backyard wildlife.
A buffet for butterflies. Sure, you can draw butterflies to your yard with butterfly bushes. But you can coax a greater variety and number of these beautiful and even endangered insects to your garden by planting food sources they have eaten for millennia. For inspiration on how native plants can attract all sorts of butterflies, have a look at the video The Beauty of Butterflies, which documents some of the butterflies attracted to a wildlife-friendly city yard in Ohio.
Help for monarchs. The monarch butterfly population has plummeted in recent years. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed, which is the only plant their caterpillars can consume. Unfortunately for the monarchs, though, milkweed throughout North America has been largely displaced by corn and soybean fields, particularly in farming states such as Ohio, where monarchs spend their summers. You can help monarchs by planting your yard with any of the native Ohio milkweeds, which are common and swamp milkweed, as well as butterfly weed. You can even team up with neighbors to remove portions of grass lawns throughout your community, replanting them with native milkweed and native nectar plants to help this beloved butterfly.
Tough plants equal less work for you. Ohio’s weather can be a challenge for plants adapted to milder climes. As climate change drives ever-hotter summers, with long periods of drought, it takes a lot of watering to keep a bed of impatiens looking healthy throughout the growing season. Ohio’s native plants, on the other hand, have evolved to withstand our temperature extremes and droughts. A well-established native plant garden may need a deep watering only during periods of severe drought—which is good news for busy gardeners.
Stop the chemistry experiments! Perhaps the single easiest thing home gardeners can do to help wildlife is to stop applying harsh chemical treatments to their yards. Ironically, heavy applications of pesticides may backfire, as they kill off beneficial insects while pest insects adapt and return. According to the National Wildlife Federation, it’s often the heaviest manicured lawns that suffer the greatest pest problems. Native plants, however, thrive without any sort of chemical treatment.
Help for air and water. In addition to providing food for local wildlife, your planting choices may have an impact on a grander scale as well. According to backyardhabitat.info, native plants can help fight climate change by keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. Native Ohio plants have deep taproots that store much more carbon below-ground than lawn grasses. Some prairie grasses, for instance, have roots that extend 10-15 feet below the soil line. Additionally, native plants slurp up the excess water following a downpour, thus keeping that water from overburdening storm drainage systems. Native plants absorb and reduce toxins from going into our lakes, rivers and streams. Native plants protect out water quality and bring us clean drinking water.
Stay tuned for the next two articles in this series, which will explore simple ways you can transform your outdoor spaces to make them more wildlife-friendly, and the positive impact and wild visitors you might see as a result. –Meredith Southard
An animal lover since she could shriek the word “doggie,” Meredith Southard has written for national and statewide publications on topics such as wildlife rehabilitation and rescue, conservation dogs, and the animals of Ohio’s wetlands. On warm spring nights she can be found traipsing around vernal pools with a flashlight, looking for salamanders and frogs.
Photo: Monarch on milkweed in a small, wildlife-friendly city yard in Ohio. Copyright 2014. www.BackyardHabitat.info