Gardening for Nature

 

Gardens that are designed with dominantly native plant species are strikingly beautiful. They have the added bonus of promoting a balanced food chain from bug to bird, enriching our environment.

 

Images of Insects and other Garden Wildlife:

 

 

Butterflies observed at Green Art

 

Beetles found at Green Art

  Gardens are no longer just a place for flowers, vegetables and a lawn. Especially in the United States, where urban sprawl is destroying natural landscapes on a grand scale, backyards have become habitats for uncountable species of bees and butterflies, beetles, birds and even mammals. Some of them turned into a nuisance, such as wood chucks who don't encounter natural enemies as they are grazing ornamental back yards. Others, like many birds and butterflies, are welcome for their beauty and make us feel connected to nature.

 There is no way to reverse the damage that sprawl of housing and commercial development causes, but there are however things that can be done to fight the impoverishment of the terrain that is left for nature. Instead of seeding large swaths of 'sterile' lawn we can enrich the landscape with a variety of plants that play important roles somewhere in the food chain of wild animals (including insects).

       

Dragonflies at Green Art

 

 

coming soon:

 

 Flies (Diptera)  - a fascinating group of high-tech fliers with amazing abilities and life cycles!

 

A need for Native Plants:

Most of these ecologically useful plants are natives, because native plants have the chemistry that the native animal world is used to and needs for it's survival. Alien species do not provide significant sources of food for native caterpillars and other plant-eating insects. We all know of these alien plants: Japanese Barberry, Burning Bush, Buckthorn, Purple Loosestrive and Phragmites Grass, and the list goes on - they have few enemies in their new homeland, and therefore lack agents that control their growth and spread.

Native species of insects in most cases prefer native species of plants for their diet. For example, the native species of oak support over 500 species of moths and butterflies. Native birch, willow and cherry support over 400 species each. Alien garden plants, even if they are related to a native species, in most cases support very few animal species and can not make up for the loss of natives.

The reedgrass Phragmites australis australis for example supports 170 herbivore animals in its European home range, while in North America, where it is an alien plant, it only supports 5 species. (source: Douglas W. Tallamy: 'Bringing Nature Home', Timber Press, 2007).

       
 

Technical recommendations:

Butterfly gardens

Low-Maintenance Gardens

Mulch and Compost 

 

  Specialized Caterpillars:

Many herbivore insects are specialists whose diet is limited to a small number of food plants. Monarchs can drink nectar from many plants, including aliens, such as the butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), but everybody knows that the caterpillars of Monarch butterflies only thrive on Milkweed (Asclepias sp.). Their survival entirely depends on these native species of plants.

       

Recommended Literature:
  The Karner Butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) has become rare and was federally listed as an endangered species in 1992 (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). If depends on Lupines for its diet. How is it possible to become extirpated in the State of Maine, where lupines are so abundant? The answer is: the wrong lupines! The native blue lupine of Maine, Lupinus perennis, has become a rare species. What we see at the road sides are escaped garden plants of aliens species and hybrids, such as Lupinus podophyllus and the widespread 'Russel Hybrids' - they are useless to the Karner Butterfly.

 When reading 'Maine's Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy', Chapter 3: Distribution and Abundance of Wildlife  a sad truth becomes clear: the Karner Blue Butterfly is not the only species extirpated from Maine - astonishing since it is a state with very few urban areas and much natural space! The obituary contains names like 'Frosted Elfin', 'Persius Duskywing', 'Regal Fritillary', 'Tawny Crescent',... and these are just the extirpated butterflies, the list of endangered insects is much longer. (source: http://www.maine.gov/ifw/pdfs/reports_chapter3.pdf)

 
       

Roger B. Swain: Groundwork / A gardener's ecology

1994, Houghton Mifflin, New York

 

Roger Swain discusses garden ecology in a direct and natural language, at times humorous and philosophical. This is a readable book, not one to use only as a reference, and full of garden wisdom.

 

 

 

Douglas W. Tallamy: Bringing Nature Home / How you can sustain wildlife with native plants 2009, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon

 

This bestseller of garden ecology caused a small revolution in garden design, explaining the essential role of native plants versus non-natives for the food chain from caterpillars to garden birds. I am deeply influenced by this book, which made me rip out Hostas and Japanese Maidengrasses and replace them with native Trilliums, Penstemons and Panicums. And by the way, I have more birds now in my garden.

 

Nectar can come from alien sources:

While caterpillars eat leaves and are very picky about these, the adult butterflies don't care where their nectar comes from. To provide for pollinating insects is generally an easy task, and one of the most rewarding ways to promote wildlife in a garden. Flowers and pollinators are dependent on each other, but most pollinators are not picky about what flowers they use. Nectar is sweet no matter where it comes from. Certain garden plants seem to be especially attractive to pollinators, such as the butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii). Bumblebees, butterflies and moths feed on this plants for months throughout the summer and early fall. Another alien plant, the Gooseneck Loosestrive, is just as attractive, especially to many species of solitary wasps. Summersweet is another example. Native or not, most Nectar-collecting insects don't seem to care.

Nectar is a sweet juice that plants deposit in their flowers in order to attract insects. As these insects fly from flower to flower gathering nectar, they brush by the anthers and some pollen gets stuck on their bodies. As they visit more flowers, some of these pollen will rub off on the stigma of another flower, which will fertilize that flowers ovule. The benefit for the plant is to insure pollination, and with that production of seeds for the next generation of their plant species.

Bees are well known pollinators and producers of honey, which they fabricate from flower nectar. Bees also collect pollen, which is rich in protein, and serves as food for their larvae.

Other pollen-collectors are bumble bees and many other species of wild bees, as well as butterflies and moths, certain beetles, and even birds and bats.

 
       

The Xerces Society Guide: Attracting Native Pollinators

2011, The Xerces Society, Storey Publishing, North Adams, MA

This guide is useful for the habitat gardener who wants to promote native pollinating bees and butterflies and learn about their life cycles, classification and food plants.

  Providing all for wildlife:

Most pollinators visit flowers of any plant - native or not - but their larvae are often dependent on a narrow selection of certain native species in order to develop. This is especially the case with butterflies and moths. Selecting the suitable food plants for the different caterpillars is a challenge that we like to take on as landscape designers with an ecological mindset.

Pollinating insects also require shelter such as wood piles and leaf litter for nesting. For many solitary bees, blocks with drill holes can be provided, which will be used for nesting. All insects benefit from a shallow source of water.

       

James B. Nardi: Life in the Soil: a guide for naturalists and gardeners

2007, The University of Chicago Press

 

There is a lot to discover in this book, and although it is hard to remember the names of the many different kinds of organisms that live in the soil, it is fascinating to learn about their existence - there is an entire zoo under a gardener's footsteps. It makes us understand why we need to take care of our soils.

 

 

Erin Hynes: Rodale's Successful Organic Gardener: Improving the Soil

1994 by Weldon Russell Pty Ltd, North Sydney, Australia

 

This book is my reference for anything I put on or in the soil, including everything from chicken to horse manure, from lime to wood ashes,  and different kinds of cover crops. Everything is well explained and extremely useful for the gardener.

 

 

  Other than pollinators there are many more insects, spiders, and arthropods of the soil that need our consideration and protection.

For a healthy balance of various insect populations in the garden it is important that predators are present. Many wasps hunt for caterpillars of moths who damage crops and ornamental plants. Unfortunately, these predator wasps will occasionally kill the caterpillar of some of our much liked butterflies, but they are nevertheless desirable because they play an exceedingly important role in controlling pest populations. In fact, for almost every pest there is at least one predatory wasp species that controls it. Predatory wasps can range in size from around 1 mm to several inches in length. Some wasp species are bred and released in fields and orchards as a means of biological pest control.

       

Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis:

Teaming with Microbes / The organic gardeners guide to the soil food web

2010, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon

 

In the first part the various groups of soil life are explained with a focus on their function in the soil. The second part gives practical and valuable advice on how to bring your soil to life and how to brew a fresh cup of compost tea. To my judgment, the authors over-emphasize the duality between bacteria and fungi in the soil, and are a bit dogmatic in other ways: I ignore rule #18 and still use my rototiller to work cover crops into the soil, with great results!

  Dragonflies will live in gardens with ponds and other natural water features. They too hunt pests and are especially efficient to control mosquitoes. Since the larvae of dragonflies develop in water, a good way to provide habitat for dragonflies is building a pond and leaving the ground of this pond undisturbed, so that larvae can overwinter and continue their live cycle the following year. The pictures of dragonflies on this page have all been taken on my property, where I provide several small ponds with "mucky" bottoms.
       

Eric Grissell: Bees, Wasps and Ants

2010, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon

 

The amateur entomologist will enjoy this book about the various families of Hymenoptera in North America, with an overview of their classification and exciting descriptions of their life cycles.

  
  Many insects seem to be entirely useless to us, such as grass hoppers and cicadas. The damage they cause in our gardens is negligible, but they are an important food source for birds and furthermore it is wonderful to listen to their song in the summer.
       
    Sucking insects such as aphids and plant bugs have a bad reputation and sometimes do serious damage to our garden plants, but if their predators, such as ladybeetles, are well established, the aphid populations will never grow out of control and remain a minor nuisance.

The photo on the left shows larvae of lady beetles on foliage that has been cleaned of aphids.

       
    Adult beetles often eat pollen, but the larvae of many beetles can cause damage to trees and many other plants. In a natural garden predatory wasps and woodpeckers will help to control the beetle populations.

Here is one other thought: To keep predators alive they have to be able to feed on something. No predator will ever reduce any pest population to 'cero', because they would extinguish themselves even before they find the last pest for them to eat. If we remove all food sources for certain predators they will not be there when we really need them. This is the rule of tolerance. A sterile garden will always be more susceptible to unexpected mass invasions of pests because there is no low-level predator population who could develop with the rise of any of their pest prey.

A practical example: To control wood-boring beetles we need ichneumon wasps and wood peckers. To keep a population of these beetle-eaters alive they need to find food to survive: old tree trunks. By overdoing the clean-up we will deprive the beneficial predators, while we will never be able to completely remove the pests. The result will be strong fluctuations, with occasional explosions in pest populations.

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