Resolutions to Bring Nature to Your Yard in 2014

By Edie Parnum

Oh, no, you say.  I never make resolutions—too much self-denial and discipline.

Here are some resolutions that don’t require much work.  And, in fact, they’ll add pleasure to your life. Pick one of these to get started. Birds, butterflies, and other creatures will visit your yard.  Pick three, and you’ll see nature flourish abundantly–guaranteed.

  1. Plant a tree.  Adding a native (historically part of our local ecosystem and food web) tree is the single best contribution you can make to your property’s habitat.  It will offer more food, shelter, and nesting places than any other plant.  Besides providing seeds, fruits, or nuts directly to birds and other animals, the tree’s leaves host native insects.  Birds and other small animals eat native insects in
    White-Marked Tussock Moth caterpillar eats leaves of oaks, birches, cherries, and other trees.  Click to enlarge

    White-Marked Tussock Moth caterpillar eats leaves of oaks, birches, cherries, and other trees.

    large quantities. The small animals are prey to larger ones.  Thus, this native tree and its insects contribute enormously to fuel your yard’s ecosystem.  It’s easy and inexpensive to plant a sapling tree.  It will establish quickly, grow fast, and sustain wildlife for decades.  Surely you have room for one tree (small or large), perhaps several of them.  Native oaks offer the best wildlife value but check our website for other valuable native trees.

  2. Plant shrubs.  Requiring less space than a tree, they offer nearly as much value to a healthy habitat. Besides the nutritious fruits these woody plants produce, insects eat their leaves.  As with trees, these insects sustain birds and the other animals in the web of life.  Also, dense deciduous and evergreen shrubs provide
    Red Chokeberry’s fruits are eaten by thrushes, catbirds, and waxwings.  Click to enlarge.

    Red Chokeberry’s fruits are eaten by thrushes, catbirds, and waxwings.

    cover and places for nesting birds.  Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), Red and Black Chokeberry (Aronia sp.), Northern Bayberry (Morella pensylvanica), and various native dogwoods (Cornus sp.) and viburnums (Viburnum sp.) are excellent choices. Plant three or more of each species.  See our website for recommended shrubs.

  3. Plant perennials, not annuals.  Annual flowers are so much trouble to put in each year, fertilize, and keep watered.  Forget the bothersome begonias, impatiens, marigolds, coleus. petunias, and the like.  Native perennials will grow
    Hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators feed on Wild Bergamot’s nectar.  Click to enlarge.

    Hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators feed on Wild Bergamot’s nectar.

    and bloom beautifully for years without any extra care. My favorites are Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Summer Phlox (Phlox paniculata), New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angelae), Bee Balm (Monarda didyma), and Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum), but there are many other beautiful native perennials. All provide nectar and pollen for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. Like other native plants, they host native insects, too.

  4. Plant a vine.  If you want hummingbirds in your yard, plant a Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) (not the invasive Japanese Honeysuckle, of course) or Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans).  Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana) is a magnet for bees, moths, and other pollinators.
  5. Plant groundcovers.  Minimize weeding.  Instead, cover the ground with native groundcovers like Allegheny Pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens), Green and Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum), and Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea).
  6. Take out a patch of lawn.   It’s the most biologically deficient part of your yard—not much better than your driveway.  Every year decrease the size of your lawn
    Great-spangled Fritillary nectaring on False Sunflower.  Click to enlarge.

    Great-spangled Fritillary nectaring on False Sunflower.

    and keep only what you use for family activities, dog play, and other outdoor activities.  Instead of turf grass, plant any and all of the above: trees, shrubs, perennials, vines, groundcovers.

  7. Take out invasives.  Invasive plants spread aggressively and crowd out desirable native vegetation.  Yes, whether you cut, pull, or smother the invasives, it can be a lot of work.  Plus, if you leave the ground bare afterward, of course they’ll come back.  Immediately fill in the cleared area with native plants.
  8. Learn native plants.  You can attend botany walks at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, and Tyler Arboretum.  Visit a botanical preserve where native plants are labeled such as Bowman’s Hill and Jenkins Arboretum. When buying plants at native plant nurseries like Redbud Nursery and Yellow Springs Farm, you’ll see labelled plants and learn growing tips from their knowledgeable staffs.  Use the internet photos and gardening information, too.
  9. Read a book.  I recommend Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants.  The author, Douglas Tallamy, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, will inspire you to plant native plants and increase your determination to host native insects, birds, and butterflies in your yard.

    White-throated Sparrow, a common visitor in winter. Click to enlarge.

    White-throated Sparrow, a common visitor in winter.

  10. Walk around and enjoy nature in your yard frequently.  Take your binoculars to better see and learn about the birds, butterflies, and other creatures that live in your garden.  With a camera you can take photos of your plants and wildlife sightings.   You’ll be inspired to become more familiar with your own wildlife preserve. Spread your enthusiasm: take a child with you on your backyard adventures.

Personally I will do all ten of these—with pleasure.

If you’re a beginner to habitat gardening, pick one of these ideas to get started.  Perhaps you can tackle two or three this year, but don’t get overly ambitious.  Start planning now in the dead of winter. Time and money may be limited, but you can start small and keep improving your habitat each year.  Before long you’ll notice more insects including butterflies and moths, more birds, and, indeed, much more wildlife activity in your yard.

Do something for nature in 2014.

 

Fall: Time for Planting Trees and Shrubs

By Edie Parnum

I thrust my spade into a patch of my lawn.  It’s fall, and I’m planting a 4-foot Chestnut Oak.  As I dig, I imagine this young tree next spring with its new green leaves.  Even as a young sapling, it will host insects and birds.  Looking into the future, I imagine this stately native tree a century from now.  It has given life to thousands of birds and other animals.

Edie planting a Chestnut Oak (Quercus prinus) sapling. Photo © Barb Elliot

My neighbors, I’ve noticed, aren’t thinking about spring.  They are clearing their yards of leaves and the dead vegetation from last year’s ornamental plants.  They are putting this unwanted garden debris out on the curb along with the cocoons and eggs of next year’s insects. They are getting ready for winter. Fall is the best time for planting trees and shrubs, any time before the ground freezes. During the autumn rains, the new plants aren’t asleep. They’re putting energy into their roots for a spurt of growth next spring.This fall, as usual, I will plant several trees and shrubs.  When I bought this ¾-acre property five years ago, it was mostly grass with just a few trees, mostly non-natives.  Since then I’ve planted 39 native trees and 45 native shrubs. It’s still not enough.

I keep planting native woody plants because they support wildlife.  Certainly non-native woodies offer fruits birds will eat—witness the bird-spread proliferation of invasives like Multiflora Rose, Burning Bush, and Japanese Barberry.  Natives, however, offer fruits of optimum size and superior nutrition. The fruits of the dogwoods, blueberries, winterberries, viburnums, spicebush, and sassafras I’ve planted ripen just in time to nourish hungry migrating birds in fall. Now in late October most of the berries are gone—consumed by thrushes, catbirds, mockingbirds, waxwings, and warblers.

The main reason I plant native woodies, however, is for the caterpillars and other insects these plants support.  I’m inspired by Doug Tallamy, Professor and Chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware.  His research shows

The caterpillar of the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly uses Spicebush or Sassafras as its host plant. USFWS Photo by Ryan Hagerty.

that native plants host 29 times more of the native insects essential for our birds. After all, 96% of terrestrial birds feed their young exclusively insect food.

This year to augment what I’m already growing, I’ll plant ten small trees and shrubs.  I’m planting the Chestnut Oak, Quercus prinus (according to Tallamy, oaks host 534 species of caterpillars); American Elm, Ulmus Americana (hosts 213); and Pawpaw, Asimina triloba (host plant for Zebra Swallowtail butterfly, a species I covet for my yard butterfly list).

Planting a tree or shrub is easy.  For my Chestnut Oak and the other trees and shrubs, I don’t need to dig a huge hole.  I make my hole only as deep as the soil in the plant container and twice as wide.  After putting the plant into the hole, I make sure the soil line of the plant is level with the ground. Then I use the soil that was removed from the hole to fill in around the plant.  Because my oak is a local native adapted to our soil, I am not tempted to add special topsoil, fertilizer, or any other enrichment.  That would stimulate fast but weak growth.   A hole filled with artificially enriched soil encourages the roots to stay confined rather than to reach into the ground below for nourishment.  Next, I push down on the loose dirt with my hands, but avoid stomping on it with my feet.   I spread a one-inch layer of my compost (last year’s leaves and garden debris) on top to provide some extra humus not available in the turf grass.  Then I give my oak a good watering.  That’s it for this tree.  I’m ready to plant more.

Three-year-old Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica) with cage to prevent deer browse. Photo © Edie Parnum

Newly planted trees and shrubs may need extra water.  During any week without significant rain, I put a leaky watering can next to each plant and let the water drip slowly into the soil.  A 1-2” layer of mulch will help retain the moisture, but I never let the mulch touch the trunk.  Once established, these woody plants, situated appropriately for light and moisture, should thrive without any additional help from me.

The trees and shrubs I plant are usually small.  They are cheaper and suffer less transplant shock than a big tree or shrub.  These smaller saplings start to grow more quickly and in a few years usually out-compete larger nursery stock.  To save money, I also frequently transplant volunteer trees and shrubs in my yard to more appropriate locations.  Some of my shrubs—virburnums, for instance—send out shoots that I dig up and plant elsewhere.  I also accept gifts from my native plant gardening friends.  As I say, there’s always room for more.  Anyway, I’m not growing ornamental specimens.  The plants can touch each other and offer extra shelter, just as they do in the wild.

Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) – flagged shoots are ready to transplant. Photo © Barb Elliot

My trees and shrubs are still small, but they already support birds and other wildlife.   Next spring I’ll see warblers and other hungry migrants eating caterpillars on the leaves of my native woody plants.  The remaining areas of grass are begging to be planted with additional native trees and shrubs.  Next fall I won’t resist planting more.

—————————–

For Doug Tallamy’s list of woody plants supporting butterfly and moth caterpillars, click here.

 Trees and Shrubs on  Edie’s Property
Botanical Name Common Name Wildlife Value
Trees
Acer rubrum Red Maple L, F
Aesculus pavia Red Buckeye L, N
Amelanchier canadensis Serviceberry/ Juneberry L. F
Asimina triloba Pawpaw L, F
Betula lenta, B. nigra Sweet Birch, River Birch L, F
Celtis occidentalis Hackberry L, F
Cercis canadensis Eastern Redbud L, N
Cornus alternifolia, C.florida Pagoda Dogwood, Flowering Dogwood L, F
Ilex opaca American Holly L, F
Juniperus virginiana Eastern Red Cedar L, F
Liriodendron tulipifera Tulip Poplar L, N, F
Magnolia virginiana Sweetbay Magnolia L
Nyssa sylvatica Black Gum/ Tupelo L, F
Pinus strobus Eastern White Pine L, F
Prunus serotina Black Cherry L, F
Quercus   alba,Q. coccinea, Q. pinus, Q. rubra White Oak, Scarlet Oak, Chestnut Oak, Red Oak L, F
Sassafras albidum Sassafras L, F
Tsuga canadensis Eastern Hemlock L,F
Shrubs
Aronia melanocarpa. Black Chokeberry L, F
Clethra alnifolia Sweet Pepperbush N
Cornus racemosa, C. amonum Gray Dogwood, Silky Dogwood L, N, F
Hydrangea arborescens, H.   quercifolia Wild Hydrangea, Oakleaf   Hydrangea N
Ilex verticillata Winterberry Holly F
Myrica pensylvanica Bayberry L, F
Rosa virginiana Wild or Pasture Rose L, F
Sambucus canadensis American Elder L, F, N
Vaccinium corymbosum Highbush Blueberry L, F, N
Viburnum   dentatum, V. lentago,V. nudum, V. prunifolium Arrowwood Viburnum, Nannyberry,   Possumhaw,  Black Haw L, F
L   = Leaves support moth and butterfly caterpillars and other leaf-eating   insects that are eaten by birds
N   = Nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators
F   = Food products such as berries, seeds, nuts, buds, and pollen for birds,   mammals, and pollinators

Places to buy native plants:

 

Create a Living Legacy: Plant an Oak

By Edie Parnum

dd

Planting an oak is the single most important thing we can do to support wildlife.

As a birder who loves spring migration, I have long noticed that my beloved warblers and other colorful birds prefer the native oak trees.   On May mornings, just when their foliage is emerging, I scan the oaks.  That’s where I find American Redstarts, Blackburnian Warblers, Scarlet Tanagers and other favorites in their resplendent spring plumage.  Only recently have I learned why these birds are in the oaks.  I credit Doug Tallamy, Professor of Entomology at the University of Delaware and author of Bringing Nature Home.  Oaks, according to Tallamy, support 534 species of lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) caterpillars– more than any other native tree or plant. These caterpillars are not only the primary food source for migrating and breeding birds, but are essential food for baby birds. Other native plants support caterpillars, too, but non-native plants host very few at all.

Double-lined Prominent caterpillars can be found on oaks. Photo by Jon Rapp

I’ve always known that acorns are important food for turkeys, woodpeckers, jays, nuthatches, squirrels, chipmunks and other animals.  However, birds and other animals are even more dependent on the insects that munch on the oak leaves.  According to Tallamy, in addition to myriad lepidoptera species, oaks host aphids, leafhoppers, thrips, and other bugs–all target foods for animals throughout each growing season.

Professional landscapers may try to dissuade you from planting an oak.  They’ll tell you it grows too big for the average-sized yard, though most yards are big enough to support a full-sized mature oak. 

Eastern Bluebird with caterpillar to feed its young. Photo by Jake Dingel, PA Game Commission.

Perhaps, without any sense of irony, they will say that an oak will grow too slowly.  Certainly most oaks will be small for many years, but even young trees will support lots of insects.

While there are many local, native oaks to choose from, the handsome White Oak (Quercus alba) is my personal favorite.  From my childhood days in Salem County, NJ, I have fond memories of a nearby magnificent, ancient White Oak.  John Fenwick, an early settler, signed a treaty with the Lenape Indians in 1676 under this tree, now approximately 425 years old.  This species grows slowly (about a foot per year), but can live for centuries.

White Oak, Quercus alba, Edie's favorite oak

Other recommended oak species include Scarlet Oak (Q. coccinea),  Chestnut Oak (Q. montana),  RedOak (Q. rubra), and Black Oak (Q. velutina). These oaks are available at native plant nurseries and native plants sales. Since oaks have long tap roots, choose a small specimen (4’ or less) or grow your own from an acorn.  Because they are adapted to our soils and climate, no fertilizer or other amendments are needed.  However, regular watering during the first year helps the root system get established.

An oak is your personal legacy.  Your oak can live for centuries. It will host an inestimable number of birds, insects, and other wildlife during your own lifetime and for generations to come.