Want More Native Plants? Learn to Transplant

By Edie Parnum

You read it repeatedly on this blog—plant more native plants. Plant lots of them. Too expensive, you say.  That’s true when you purchase them at nurseries or native plant sales.  I know where you can get native plants for free—yes, really! They are already in your own backyard.

Local native plants are adapted to our soil and climate, so they reproduce abundantly.  Look carefully at the young plants in your garden.  You’ll find multiples of many of your favorite native plants. Resist pulling out these volunteers and throwing them away. They are not weeds.  Keep them growing by transplanting them to new locations.

A 5" Witch Hazel is flagged and ready to transplant.  © Edie Parnum

A 5″ Witch Hazel is flagged and ready to transplant. © Edie Parnum

Take a tour around your yard.  Locate the native plants that have popped up voluntarily, but haphazardly.  These young woody saplings and perennials are smaller versions of plants you already know and love.  Many, you recall, are particularly favored by birds, butterflies, and other creatures. Others are your personal favorites—they are so beautiful!    You already know their ultimate size, shape, and color and their needs for sun, shade, dry, or moist conditions.  These native plant treasures can be saved by moving them to new locations.

Now look for places where you can incorporate these volunteer trees, shrubs, perennials, ferns, vines, and groundcovers into your landscape.  Where can you grow another tree? How about several trees?  Shrubs can be added around the base of isolated trees. Can you install or expand a garden bed?  What about removing some non-native plants or invasives?  Keep in mind native plants prefer to touch each other, not be isolated.  Spots of bare ground should be filled in with native groundcovers. And, surely, your lawn can be reduced.   Aim to cover virtually all open areas with native plants.

Be brave.  Dare to transplant—even if you’ve never done it before.  Native plants are resilient and determined to grow.  Spring or fall, here’s how to transplant.

Directions for transplanting tree or shrub saplings

  1.  Locate a small sapling, preferably shorter than 15”, to transplant.  If the soil is dry around the plant, water it well.
  2. Before you dig out this woody plant, select the location where you want it to grow and dig a hole there.  This hole should be no deeper than the expected depth of the transplant’s roots and about twice as wide.
  3. To dig out the transplant, estimate the size of the root system (usually as wide as the sapling’s canopy).  Dig deeply around the plant and avoid severing the tap root.  When you lift the sapling out of the ground, it should have plenty of roots and soil attached.
  4. Carefully lay the sapling with its root system on a piece of newspaper or plastic and carry it to the new location.
  5.  Place the plant into the pre-dug hole.  Hold the plant upright with the top of the root system ½” above the height of the ground.  Fill in around the roots with the soil that was removed from the hole.  Do not add fertilizer, topsoil, or other amendments.  Press the soil down with your hands, but do not stomp with your feet.
  6. Spread compost and leaf litter on top.

    The sapling of this 10-foot White Pine was 6 inches tall when transplanted five years ago.

    The sapling of this 10-foot White Pine was 6 inches tall when transplanted five years ago.

  7. Water well.  Unless it rains, water the transplant every week for several months—longer if the season is dry.  In fall, water until the ground freezes.
  8. Some established shrubs such as viburnums send out horizontal roots where new plants can emerge.  These baby shrubs can be transplanted, too.  Follow the directions for free-standing saplings.  However, before digging the plant out of the ground, find and sever the lateral root growing out from the mother plant.
  9. Small woody transplants, once established, grow quickly.  After a few years they will be as big as much larger nursery-grown trees and shrubs.

Personally, I have successfully transplanted Red Maple, Bottlebrush Buckeye, Redbud, Eastern Red Cedar, Tulip Tree, Eastern White Pine, Black Cherry, Tulip Tree, and Sassafras.  I’ve also moved several native species of dogwoods, hollies, oaks, and viburnums.   Most other native woody plants will transplant well, too.  You can also relocate woody vines like Virginia Creeper, Trumpet Vine, and Virgin’s Bower.

Directions for transplanting perennials

  1. Perennials and other non-woody plants often produce volunteer seedlings.  These young plants resemble their parents and can be readily differentiated from your yard’s common weeds. Frequently I see Nodding Onion, Anise Hyssop, Amsonia, Wild Columbine, Wild Geranium, Cardinal Flower, Great Blue Lobelia, False Sunflower, Golden Ragwort, New York Ironweed, Golden Alexander—all valuable plants begging to be saved. I often find my cherished native asters, goldenrods, and phloxes as seedlings, too.
  2. You can dig out these and many other seedlings and transplant them elsewhere.  Follow the above directions for transplanting shrubs and trees.

    Lance-leafed Goldenrod and other goldenrods are easy to tansplant and attract many pollinators, including Ailanthus Webworm Moth.  © Edie Parnum

    Lance-leafed Goldenrod and other goldenrods are easy to transplant and attract many pollinators, including Ailanthus Webworm Moth. © Edie Parnum

  3. Some perennials spread by underground runners.  The lateral roots of Mountain Mint, Bee Balm, Monarda, Wild Bergamot, Obedient Plant, Ostrich Fern, and Mistflower produce growth to dig out for new plants.
  4. Divide older perennials.  Look for plants that are oversized and have lost vigor. These can and should be divided.  Push your spade deeply into the ground at several places around the perimeter of the large plant.  Lift it up out of the ground with most of the root system intact.  Thrust your shovel into the middle of the plant and separate it into two clumps. If the root system is dense, you can use two back-to-back garden forks to pry it apart. Further subdivide these clumps to yield four or more plants.
  5. As with woody plants, plant perennials and ferns ½ inch higher than the ground. Be sure to keep them watered until they are established.  If planting late in the fall, mulch the plants to prevent them from heaving out of the ground during light frosts.

With the right transplanting tool, the work is not hard nor especially time consuming. You

Tools for transplanting:  watering can, pruners, bulb trowel (extra leverage for digging seedlings) and transplant shovel (see text).  © Edie Parnum

Tools for transplanting: watering can, pruners, bulb trowel (extra leverage for digging seedlings) and transplant shovel (see text). © Edie Parnum

certainly can dig out a plant satisfactorily with an ordinary shovel.  However, I prefer using my transplant shovel.  With its narrow blade I can make precise cuts around my target plant but avoid injuring desirable plants nearby.  It has a wide ledge for stomping with my foot and good leverage.  Thus, I’m able to do most of my transplant operations standing up.  No need to kneel or squat uncomfortably.

You can’t create the landscape of your dreams all at once.  Each spring and fall, transplant as many young plants as you can.  Ever increasingly, your property will include all the layers found in nature: groundcovers, perennials and ferns, shrubs, understory trees, and canopy trees.  This dense, layered landscape will develop into a rich habitat alive with insect and animal biodiversity.

A layered landscape,including Virginia Creeper as a ground cover, asters, Fringe Tree (an understory tree), and a large Common Hackberry tree.

A layered landscape in fall, including Virginia Creeper and violets as ground covers, asters, amsonia hubrectii, Solomon’s Seal in its fall yellow color in the background, Fringe Tree (understory tree on right), and a large Common Hackberry tree (on left).

Revel in the fecundity of your garden.  Each of your native plants is a gift to nature.  Each with its leaves, flowers, seeds—in fact every part of the plant—contributes exuberantly to the web of life. Save them one by one to plant elsewhere in your yard.  Give them away, too.  Your garden will be a native plant nursery.

New Books on Gardening for Nature

Reviews by Edie Parnum

Want to become a better steward of nature on your land? These two books will inspire and guide you.  Doug Tallamy’s popular book, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, taught us to love native plants for the leaf-eating insects they host.  Tallamy has now teamed up with landscape architect Rick Darke on a new book that helps us create aesthetically pleasing landscapes for our native creatures.  Heather Holm’s book teaches us to garden for insect pollinators and appreciate the ecosystem roles they play.  We can help the environment by what we plant in our yards.  These books tell us how.

The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Diversity in the Home Garden by Rick Darke and Doug TallamyLiving Landscape Book Cover

  1. This book is beautiful—so beautiful you can display it on your coffee table.   The photographs show landscapes, combinations of native plants, and the creatures who live there.  These images inspire us to create esthetically pleasing wildlife habitats that are alive with biodiversity.
  2. The pictures and text explain how to design for beauty using native plants.  Instead of planting them haphazardly, we learn to position and combine natives to create an alluring garden.
  3. The authors teach us to imitate natural habitats by planting in layers:  ground, herbaceous, shrub, understory, and canopy.
  4. Instead of photos of individual plants, the book illustrates native plants as part of the landscape and showcases the birds, butterflies, and other creatures living there.

    Edie's meadow landscape, September, 2014.  © Edie Parnum.

    Edie’s meadow landscape, September, 2014.         © Edie Parnum.

  5. A practical book, low maintenance gardening is emphasized.  It recommends pleasing combinations of plants that don’t out-compete each other or require excessive weeding. We learn to anticipate changes in our landscapes over time, especially when planting trees and shrubs.
  6. The plant lists, organized by geographical area, are superbly designed to help us make plant selections.  Symbols concisely indicate the ecological functions for each plant, e.g., nest sites, pollen, nectar, seasonal foods for birds, and food for caterpillars.  Other symbols represent landscape functions such as seasonal flowering, fall foliage, fragrance, or groundcover.
  7. The plant lists also specify the ecological benefits to humans.  Not normally emphasized, these paybacks include carbon sequestration, shading and cooling, watershed protection, moderation of extreme weather, and air filtration.

Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Preserve and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants by Heather HolmPollinator Book Cover

  1. Like flowers?  You surely love pollinators, too!  You can’t have one without the other.  Plus, flowers and their pollinators create seeds, fruits, and nuts—actually a third of the food we eat.  Of course, animals of all kinds require these food products, too.
  2. Butterflies, the most charismatic of the insects attracted to flowers, already have fans.  Now, with this book, we also learn to value pollinating bees, wasps, moths, flies, and beetles—really!
  3. The bulk of the book describes the best pollinator-attracting plants and the interactions between their flowers and the pollinating insects.

    Gray Hairstreak, a pollinator of Short-toothedd Mountain Mint, a Backyards for Nature Prime Plant.  © Edie Parnum

    Gray Hairstreak, a pollinator of Short-toothed Mountain Mint, a Backyards for Nature Prime Plant. © Edie Parnum

  4. Insect pollinators are fascinating.  We can easily observe and identify them by watching the book’s featured flowers and examining their insect visitors. The excellent photographs in the book help us identify these bees, flies, and other insects.  Then we can observe each insect’s strategy as it probes for nectar and/or collects pollen.  We may see insect interactions like predation, copulation, and parasitization, too.

    Bumble Bee pollinating Obedient Plant.  © Edie Parnum

    Bumble Bee pollinating Obedient Plant. © Edie Parnum

  5.  Using this book we home gardeners can select pollinator-attracting plants for the various growing conditions on our properties.
  6. By planting Holm’s recommended pollinator plants and observing pollination in action, we will revel in the flourishing ecosystem we’ve created.

I highly recommend both of these books.  They will help you beautify your garden and increase its ecological value for all the creatures who inhabit it.

Looking for Nests

By Edie Parnum

Nests are hard to find.  Sure, it’s easy to see the House Wrens and Tree Swallows come and go from the nest boxes I have provided.  Most songbirds, however, build and raise

A House Wren about to feed a caterpillar to its young in Edie’s backyard.  Photo by Edie Parnum.

A House Wren about to feed a caterpillar to its young in Edie’s backyard. Photo by Edie Parnum.

their young in well-concealed cup nests.  Paying particular attention to the dense areas, I examine my trees and shrubs. I look, too, for lumps in the crotches of trees. I strain to see high in the canopy.  The breeding season is well underway, but I’ve found only two cup nests on my ¾-acre property.

Early this spring a female Robin built a nest out of grass, sticks, and mud in a dense holly below my raised deck.  I could look down and see her settled in the nest. Once I glimpsed four pale aqua eggs. Here was an opportunity to learn more about the nesting behaviors of the American Robin. From a comfortable but hidden vantage, I planned to observe the mother robin incubate her eggs, then watch both parents feed the nestlings.  Not so. One day the female and the eggs were gone.

Plenty of predators prowl around my yard.  A ravenous jay, crow, raccoon, possum, snake, or even chipmunk might have devoured the eggs and destroyed the nest. Last year Gray Catbirds screeched hysterically when a Blue Jay ate their eggs.

Besides the Robin’s, a Mourning Dove’s nest was high in my in my crabapple tree this spring.  While my nature-loving arborist was removing winter-damaged limbs, he exposed a flimsy nest with two eggs in the crevice of a broken branch.  He left it undisturbed.   From the ground I could glimpse a Mourning Dove’s eye peering at me from above the

My arborist found this Mourning Dove nest while removing winter-damaged limbs. Photo by Mark Masciangelo.

My arborist found this Mourning Dove nest while removing winter-damaged limbs. Photo by Mark Masciangelo.

limb.  Again, I hoped to watch and study the birds’ breeding routine.  After a few days of viewing the brooding dove, however, I could no longer see the bird nor any activity.  Why did the nest fail?  Perhaps the arborist’s intrusive activity caused delayed nest abandonment.  Of course, a predator could easily have seen and raided the exposed nest. Thankfully, both the doves and robins will nest again—successfully, I hope.

Besides searching for nests, I’m also watching for signs of breeding.  Catbirds, cardinals, house finches, song sparrows must be breeding here. Pairs of birds, singing loudly and persistently, cavort in my yard.  Some birds carry nest material.  Others have insects in their beaks. When they don’t eat the food, they’re carrying it to a nest—a sure sign of breeding. I hope to discover the nest where nestlings are being fed.

Though I have not seen it, I believe a pair of Brown Thrashers has a nest on my property.  Most suburban yards don’t host Brown Thrashers, especially not a breeding pair.  Thrashers like dense shrubbery, not the typical manicured landscape. With their bills they sweep and probe the ground searching for insects and spiders in last year’s fallen leaves. I was plenty pleased when a Brown Thrasher spent the winter in my yard.  This reddish-brown, jay-sized bird with a streaked belly stayed silent and sheltered in the arborvitae and other dense vegetation. Every few days I saw it stray from its hiding place and feed on exposed ground.  I assumed it would move on in the spring to breed elsewhere.

A Brown Thrasher feeds on the ground.  Photo by Howard Eskin.  Click to enlarge.

A Brown Thrasher feeds on the ground. Photo by Howard Eskin. Click to enlarge.

In mid-May, a Brown Thrasher, possibly the same bird, sang vociferously from the treetops.  Its loud doubled phrases are different from its close relative, the smaller Northern Mockingbird.  The purpose of the song is to attract a mate and defend a breeding territory.  Even so, I assumed my wintering bird (or new arrival) was just practicing and would not stay to breed here.  When the singing stopped a week later, I concluded it had departed.

To my surprise in late May and June I’ve occasionally glimpsed a soundless thrasher. Males and females are indistinguishable, but sporadically I have seen two birds together.  Could a pair be breeding after all? The thicket of forsythia and blackberries at the back of my property is perfect for thrashers. Every few days I spend a few minutes peering into the undergrowth and listening.   Once I saw it deep, deep inside the dense vegetation.  On another occasion I discerned a barely audible whisper version of the thrasher song. According to my research, thrashers are mostly silent during the nesting season but sing softly in the vicinity of a nest.

Surely thrashers have a nest in my shrubbery.  It is probably just a few feet off the ground, but hidden in the impenetrable thicket. My chances of discovering it are slim.  Because they consider me a potential predator, the birds probably engage in evasive behavior to lead me astray.  Undeterred, I keep looking and listening.

I need a vigilant, alert ornithology student to help find the nest. A sharp-eyed young person could spot the bug in the thrasher’s beak.  Together we could find the nest.  See the baby birds. Watch their parents put insects into gaping mouths.  Observe the naked babies grow pinfeathers followed by juvenile feathers.  We would thrill to witness them fledge and take flight into the world of my backyard.  Alas, without my student, I evidently can’t be a voyeur of birds’ private lives.

By searching for nests, I’ve learned more about helping breeding birds succeed. I’ll plant more dense shrubs where birds can build and protect their nests. These shrubs will be insect-hosting natives instead of the non-native forsythia. Already I do not tidy up the thickets and corners of the yard.  Thrashers and other ground-feeding birds require the leaf litter to feed themselves and their offspring. Next fall I’ll welcome leaves into the perennial beds, too. And, most important, I’ll grow more native plants where birds can find plentiful insects to feed their young.

In some ways I’m unable to help and must trust the birds’ own survival abilities.  Predators abound, but the birds possess skills to protect their nests, eggs, and nestlings.  Vigilant and ingenious, they know how to keep their nest locations secret.  Thankfully, when a nest fails, most are able to produce a second brood.

It’s summer now, and I see lots of baby birds around the yard.  The nests are somewhere nearby. Birds are breeding here successfully.


Milkweeds for Monarchs – 2014

By Barb Elliot


“The lowest numbers of Monarchs ever recorded” 

“Monarch migration at risk of disappearing”

This is the devastating news about Monarchs over-wintering in Mexico. These Monarchs migrated last fall from eastern portions of the U.S. and Canada to reach their historic Mexican wintering grounds. Each year scientists count the number of acres of trees where the Monarchs cluster during their winter stay in Mexico. This winter Monarchs covered just 1.7 acres — a significant decline from the previous low of 2.9 acres.

Male Monarch in Barb's yard.   Photo © Barb Elliot

Male Monarch in Barb’s yard. Photo © Barb Elliot

Loss of milkweed is the primary reason for the steep decline in Monarch numbers. Milkweeds are the only plant Monarch caterpillars can eat. Millions of acres of milkweed habitat have disappeared in the mid-west due to the use of genetically modified (GMO) corn and soy crops. Farmers spray their fields with Roundup, and the crops survive. However, this herbicide kills the other plants like milkweed that previously grew in and around crops. Since these Roundup Ready crops came into use over the last 15 years, almost 80% of milkweeds in the mid-west have disappeared. Monarch population decreases have correlated in lock step with the loss of milkweed.  Milkweed habitat is also lost due to development and mowing of roadsides. Extreme weather over the past few years in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada has also contributed to Monarch losses. Cold snaps, heat waves, droughts and heavy rains have also taken a toll on the Monarchs and milkweeds.

Monarch laying egg on Butterfly Milkweed.  Photo @ Barb Elliot.

Monarch laying egg on Butterfly Milkweed. Photo @ Barb Elliot.

As a result, last summer we Monarch-lovers saw few, if any, Monarchs. With these steep declines, we’ll surely see even fewer this summer. However, Monarch experts say that the Monarch population can bounce back – probably not to the high levels of the 1990s, but to a lower “new normal”. To improve their numbers, Monarchs need MORE milkweed.

That’s where we come in. We Monarch-lovers must plant more milkweeds this year. The Monarchs, fewer in numbers now, will need quantities of milkweeds to find the plants easily and lay their eggs. Also, milkweeds are very important plants in the web of life and provide high quality nectar for a variety of other important pollinators.

Monarch caterpillar on Barb's Swamp Milkweed.  Photo © Barb Elliot.

Monarch caterpillar on Barb’s Swamp Milkweed. Photo © Barb Elliot.

Let’s keep the welcome mat out for Monarchs! To that end, we are selling Butterfly Milkweed and Swamp Milkweed this year for only $2 a plant. Plant some milkweeds to help the Monarchs. If you already have some, plant even more! Plant them in containers, too. Talk to family, friends, and neighbors about the need. Get permission to plant them at a community park, church, business, roadway, or open space, too.

Now is the time for YOU to help the beautiful Monarchs survive for generations to come.


Milkweed Sale Information

Cost:  $2 per plant.  Cash only.  Money collected above our actual costs will be donated to Monarch Joint Venture, a partnership of organizations working to conserve the monarch migration.

Plants Description:  Plants are landscape plugs with well-developed (about 5”) root systems.  When in bloom, they look like this:

   Butterfly Milkweed                                                                Swamp Milkweed      (Asclepias tuberosa)                                                             (Asclepias incarnata) 

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) Photo © Barb Elliot.








Minimum Order:  5 plants of one species only.  That is, 5 Butterfly Milkweed or 5 Swamp Milkweed. Not 3 of one species and 2 of the other.

Number of Plants:  Plants will be sold in multiples of 5 per species only, e.g. 10, 15, 30

Maximum Order:  None.  However, supplies depend on availability from our wholesaler.  Plants will be reserved based on the order in which orders are received.

Order Deadline:  Orders must be received no later than April 30, 2014..

Pickup Date & Time:  Saturday, May 31st, 2014 – 10 AM to 3 PM.                                             Sorry, no alternate pickup times can be arranged.

Pickup Location:  Roberts Elementary School, 889 Croton Rd, Wayne, PA 19087       For Directions, click here

General Planting Recommendations:
1. Plant in clusters, preferably at least 5 plants per cluster to attract passing Monarchs.
2. Plant 12” apart.
3. For more detailed planting instructions and other ways to help Monarchs, click title:  Planting and Caring for Your Milkweeds.

If you have any problems ordering or questions, send an email to info@backyardsfornature.org

Order Confirmation:  You will receive a confirmation email within 7 days from info@backyardsfornature.org.  Please set your email filter to accept email from this address.  If you do not get a confirmation email within 7 days, send an email to:  info@backyardsfornature.org 

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.


Native Berries for Fall Migrants

By Edie Parnum

Birds were dropping out of the sky into the trees and shrubs around me. It was daybreak on a fall morning in my backyard.  Though I could see only silhouettes, I recognized the chips of robins and Swainson’s Thrushes.  In the dim light I couldn’t identify the other numerous birds but knew these were migrants that had flown non-stop from the north during the night.

After their nighttime exertion, they were exhausted and ravenously hungry. They needed to find high-energy food and to revive in a habitat offering shelter from predators.  With most of the surrounding area covered with buildings, roads, parking

Cedar Waxwing eating Crabapple berries.  Courtesy of and © Howard Eskin.  Click to enlarge.

Cedar Waxwing eating Crabapple berries. Courtesy of and © Howard Eskin. Click to enlarge.

lots, and sterile lawns, they were desperate for sustenance.  From above, the migrants probably see the local parks as deceptively inviting, but the grass and other non-native vegetation provide little nutritious food.  Their energy depleted, these migrants need familiar and nourishing native plant food.  Otherwise they are in trouble.

Watching these migrants, I imagine myself on a road trip, one I’ve done many times.  After hours of driving, I’m hungry, tired, and low on gas.  I’m looking forward to Rosie’s Restaurant, a favorite stop for good food, gas, and a respite from the journey.  To my dismay, the restaurant and adjacent gas station are gone.  Wasting time and energy, I must drive around randomly to locate what I need before resuming my trip.

Migrants often find my yard and use it to rest and refuel.  During fall migration, especially after a cold front, I search for recent arrivals.  Sometimes I find thrushes, tanagers, grosbeaks, and warblers eating berries on the Virginia Creeper, Arrowwood Viburnum, Winterberry Holly, Spicebush, Black Chokeberry, Flowering Dogwood, Crabapple, and Northern Bayberry I’ve planted for them. One winter a southbound Hermit Thrush stayed in my yard all winter eating American Holly berries.

This fall I’ve been watching a Gray Catbird eating berries on the Virginia Creeper

Cape may Warbler eating Virginia Creeper berries.  Courtesy of and © G. Dewaghe.  Click to enlarge.

Cape may Warbler eating Virginia Creeper berries. Courtesy of and © G. Dewaghe. Click to enlarge.

hanging above my deck railing.  Because the bird is just a few feet away, I don’t really need my binoculars.  It lands on a branch, leans forward, grabs one of the blue-black berries, then quickly swallows—again and again, all day long.  Either a resident breeder soon to migrate or a recent arrival using my yard as a stopover, this bird needs these berries. Besides Gray Catbird I’ve seen Red-bellied Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Brown Thrasher, Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Bluebird, Swainson’s Thrush, American Robin, Cape May Warbler, and Yellow-rumped Warbler eating Virginia Creeper berries.

Prior to migration, songbirds must increase their weight by 50-100%.  Thrushes, grosbeaks, waxwings, orioles, tanagers, and other songbirds switch from a diet of insects to mostly berries.  Finding berries consumes less energy than pursuing insects.  Scott McWilliams and Navindra Seeram, researchers at the University of Rhode Island, are studying the diet of birds preparing for migration on Block Island.  According to this new research, birds select deeply-pigmented berries

Highly nutritious Arrowwood Viburnum berries were most preferred by migrants preparing for fall migration in the Block Island study.  Photo © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Highly nutritious Arrowwood Viburnum berries were most preferred by migrants preparing for fall migration in the Block Island study. Photo © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

that are high in antioxidants and fat prior to migration.  Antioxidants help birds(as well as humans) handle stress.  Because migration is certainly stressful, birds need to find nutrient-rich berries at stopovers along their migratory routes.

Migration is hazardous for birds.  On their southward journey they fly at night for four to six hours without a break. They must stop and refuel several times before reaching their wintering grounds, especially if their final destination is the tropics.  They spend four to five days at each stopover where most consume nutrient-rich berries.  If they fail to find sufficient fuel for the next leg of their journey, they become weak and vulnerable to hawks, owls, and other predators.

Scientists tell us even small patches of native plants can provide food and shelter for migrating birds.  On my three quarter acre property, I’ve planted scores of fruit-bearing native shrubs, trees, and vines.  Besides the shrubs mentioned, I’ve recently planted Black Gum, Hackberry, Sassafras, and Spicebush that will offer fruits in future autumns.  Also, in a few spots I allow Pokeweed (regrettably considered a weed by most gardeners) to grow and produce beautiful dark purple berries irresistible to birds.

Since many ornamental and invasive non-native plants produce berries, why are native plants so important for migrating birds?  With their high fat content and extra antioxidants, native berries are highly nutritious.  Because the natives usually have

Birds do eat non-native berries.  This Gray Catbird is eating invasive Porcelainberry and, regrettably, spreading the seeds. Photo courtesy of and © Adrian Binns/Wildside Nature Tours.  Click to enlarge.

Birds do eat non-native berries. This Gray Catbird is eating invasive Porcelainberry and, regrettably, spreading the seeds. Photo courtesy of and © Adrian Binns/Wildside Nature Tours.com. Click to enlarge.

strongly-colored berries, either black or red, or have leaves or stems that are bright red, birds can easily find them.  Also, the native berries ripen at the right time.  Many migrants, especially warblers, continue to eat insects as well—found primarily on native plants.  If necessary, of course, birds will also eat the less nutritious fruits of non-native plants.

Most yards have room for shrubs.  You can plant native fruit-bearing shrubs and small trees around your property’s perimeter to create a hedgerow laden with nutritious fall fruits.  You can also group them around isolated trees.  By reducing your lawn, you’ll find room for more shrubs and other fruiting plants.

Birds, especially those that migrate to the tropics, are in trouble.  On average, the populations of long-distance migrant species drop 1% each year. We assume we can do little except give money to organizations that preserve land.  However, we can help migrating birds survive their perilous and crucial journeys by growing the plants they need and love.




 Top Native Berry Plants for Fall Migrants
Latin Name Common Name
Celtis occidentalis Hackberry
Cornus florida Flowering Dogwood
Ilex opaca American Holly
Malus coronaria Crabapple
Nyssa sylvatica Black Gum/ Tupelo
Sassafras albidum Sassafras
Aronia arbutifolia, A. melanocarpa  Red Chokeberry, Black Chokeberry
Cornus racemosa, C. amonum Gray Dogwood, Silky Dogwood
Ilex verticillata Winterberry Holly
Lindera benzoin Spicebush
Myrica pensylvanica Bayberry
Viburnum   acerfolium, V. dentatum, V. lentago,V. nudum, V. prunifolium Mapleleaf Viburnum, Arrowwood   Viburnum, Nannyberry, Possumhaw,  Black   Haw
Vines and   Herbaceous Plants
Parthenocissus quinquefolia Virginia Creeper Vine
Phytolacca americana Pokeweed