Guest post by Angelique Mori. Published in NANPS 2020 Fall edition of Blazing Star.
.As human-dominated landscapes relentlessly diminish ecosystems crucial for our own survival, it’s wise to consider the words of writer/ecologist Doug Tallamy, “Garden as if life depends on it.” Native plants support not only human life but the lives and reproductive capacity of countless animals. They are foundational to the inter-connected systems and associations with fauna that have evolved over millennia; remove pieces and the complex system risks collapse. When we plant native flora in our yards we not only restore habitat, but a whole world of wonder emerges.
Sara Stein’s Noah’s Garden (1993) serves as an inspiration to dedicated habitat gardening. Each individual who contributes to this effort promotes awareness, applying eco-conscious practices in their own life. This has a ripple effect in each community. Passers-by may feel inspired, seeing an urban native plant oasis lush with life. The spark created by your garden may lead to curiosity, learning, action and the sharing of knowledge.
Among the wild, unexpected delights of a native plant garden are the insects. People may scoff at the foolishness of providing nourishment for what they perceive to be pests. Yet these tiny protein packs invite the creatures that eat them! Frogs, salamanders, snakes, birds, bats and others relish the bountiful insect buffet! Consequently, it’s imperative to be pesticide free. Moreover, messy garden areas invite magical evenings dotted with the twinkling dance of fireflies. Visualize the extraordinary emergence of monarch butterflies, whose exclusive host plant is milkweed (Asclepias spp.), or the doily-like foliage created by nursery-constructing leaf cutter bees. Every spring, the redbud tree (Cercis canadensis) in my yard takes on a lacy effect as a result of their harvesting!
It’s important to consider the interrelationships in the natural world when selecting plants for the habitat garden. Native flora plays host to innumerable bugs which, in turn, act as one of the lowest rungs in the food web. In my garden, I planted dwarf hackberry (Celtis tenuifolia), designated as a species at risk in Canada, to attract several butterfly species, including the overwintering mourning cloak. This beautiful, aptly named butterfly, can appear when scattered snow still powders the ground in spring! Likewise, wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) was added specifically to attract red admirals, tortoiseshells, question marks and eastern commas! As a bonus, nettles are a delicious and nutritious potherb and tea! Later butterfly arrivals, the darting American ladies, readily deposit their progeny on woolly pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea). This reliable source of nutrition guarantees the butterflies’ unfailing return every year. Intriguingly, American lady butterflies in the chrysalis state, have a unique behavioural strategy to deter predators: they quiver, rattle and shake! However, sometimes, despite our best intentions to provide native plants as hosts, such as the delicate golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), black swallowtail caterpillars may still nibble on the parsley in your vegetable garden! Habitat gardeners need to be patient (maybe even delighted?) with tattered foliage for a brief time, for butterflies’ sake.
Several years ago, I was startled by the appearance of enormous promethea moth caterpillars. When I planted a cucumber tree (Magnolia acuminata), a rare Carolinian species, endangered in Ontario, I was unaware that it played host to this moth. Now, we keenly await the queue of early instar larvae that gobble leaves in systematic rows, akin to little soldiers on parade. Later instars withdraw each to their own leaves to complete their life cycle. Given their immense size, you’d think they’d be a cinch to spot. Not so. Their particular shade of chartreuse mimics the luminous back-lit green of the leaves. You can find them by looking for defoliated branch tips, copious frass (excrement of insect larvae) and surprisingly audible chewing! You might see them hibernating in rolled leaves that persist through winter like rustic little ornaments. If you’re observant – and lucky – you might witness the remarkable pairing of a newly emerged female and her mate. Promothea moths have also discovered the tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipfera) in my yard and share that bounty with tiger swallowtail larvae. Small wonders can surprise you at any moment when gardening for wildlife.
Since I build brush piles and retain snags, many amphibians and reptiles claim our yard as home. I eagerly anticipate March and the call of diminutive spring peepers. Their deafening, lusty chorus resonates when thin ice sheets still grace the pond’s surface. Neighbours enjoying their evening strolls are first perplexed, then incredulous, to learn that frogs are capable of such racket! Every year it’s fun to wager on where the grey tree frog will take up summer residence. Will it be under the birdbath, in the log pile or behind the shed door?
Summer resounds with the banjo twang of green frogs and the ardent trill of the American toad. Any pesticide use would silence these wild and wonderful seasonal songs, since the abundance of bugs keeps these amphibious singers sated and multiplying!
Salamanders and snakes, also, find accommodation beneath “artfully” arranged log piles. I love finding small, glistening salamanders in their moist hidey-holes. A recent delight was the discovery of a northern ring-necked snake quietly rustling through running strawberry bush (Euonymus obovatus). It’s a diminutive, delicate-looking creature, but a proficient hunter among tangled ground covers, such as foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides) and golden star (Chrysogonum virginianum) where small fauna find cover. Once, while I was removing invasive plants from around the vernal pond, I startled a substantial garter snake as it stalked its prey among the ostrich (Matteuccia struthiopteris) and sensitive ferns (Onoclea sensibilis). It swiftly slipped through the rushes (Equisetum hymale) and proceeded in a hasty, serpentine swim to the sunnier side of the pond. Who knew? Garter snakes can swim! Habitat gardening provides on-going learning opportunities!
Many native understorey shrubs, such as dogwoods (Cornus spp.), ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) and viburnums (Viburnum spp.), provide food and shelter for birds. One time as I worked in the shrubby area of my yard, loud chortles and squawks emerged from the bushes, immobilizing me with the thought that something interesting was about to occur. Sure enough, in a startling flurry, a rafter of wild turkeys burst out. As I stood motionless, I was able to study these impressive, iridescent birds at length. Oblivious of me, they gorged on the delectable treats around my feet, presumably thinking I was a shrub, then strutted off towards the pond. Even in my developed neighbourhood, a stone’s throw from Walmart, small residential woods or wetland havens attract surprising visitors, like the wary Virginia rail that appeared briefly, snacking on a wealth of snails and slugs.
An enormous, swollen anthill annually sprouts a jumble of calico asters (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum), Virginia mountain mints (Pycnanthemum virginianum) and sneezeweeds (Helenium autumnale). It’s not slipshod landscaping, but merely the result of my scheme to encourage flickers and thrashers, ground-feeding birds whose preferred food is ants! Bird feeders are fine, but native plants provide opportunities for wild foraging. The stunning woodland pinkroot (Spigelia marilandica), vibrant, crimson oswego tea or beebalm (Monarda didyma) and lanky carpenter’s square (Scrophularia marilandica) entice ruby-throated hummingbirds. Seeds of purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) and bottlebrush grass (Hystrix patula) offer exceptional winter nutrition and shelter. You can feel noble shirking fall garden clean-up! Late bloomers, like goldenrods (Solidago spp.) and asters (species of Symphyotrichum and other genera ), satiate autumn pollinators and deliver “meatier” meals, such as energy-rich goldenrod gallflies, to sustain overwintering birds. Some nights, you may hear the deep, resonant hoots of a great horned owl or the sweet trill of the eastern screech owl. These nocturnal predators appreciate snags, cavities and conifers, like the towering trio of eastern white pines (Pinus strobus) that dominate the back garden. Among other things, habitat gardening is for the birds!
One morning while enjoying a revitalizing tea on the garden bench, I heard furtive noises from the hazelnut (Corylus americana). A handsome, tuxedoed creature trundled through the robust stone root (Collisonia canadensis) and fragrant wild beebalm (Monarda fistulosa). Mindful of skunks’ poor vision, I remained still, but murmured quietly to reduce alarm. At the first sound, the skunk stood stock still, warily raised his moist, black nose, did an impressive military turnabout and retreated. If he were to spray, I’d be concerned that he would be defenceless for the time required to replenish his arsenal. Skunks are not welcome visitors for everyone, but I was happy he habituated to my presence, becoming a regular visitor. Of course, the lawn became pitted as a result of his grub explorations- Natural pest control!
Let’s applaud an unacknowledged champion in the battle against Lyme disease – the unassuming Virginia opossum. Over the years we’ve “hosted” regular guests that persist in investigating our unsatisfying recycling boxes. We can easily differentiate individuals by the unfortunate frostbite injuries on their ears and tails. Canadian winters are tough on North America’s only marsupial! Considered ugly by some, these maligned animals are fastidious groomers, adeptly consuming upwards of 5,000 ticks per season. Gardeners will appreciate that they also eat snails and slugs, and clean up fallen, over-ripe fruit. Their ungainly toddle is an endearing sight. In winter, their characteristic tracks lead to marsupial occupied brush piles. They are benign, beneficial creatures to welcome into one’s yard- a veritable wild clean team.
Large insects, small rodents and, occasionally, songbirds are on the menu for golden foxes and swift raptors in habitat gardens. Deer are welcome to enjoy Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum spp.) and cheery woodland sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus) in my garden. Admittedly though, I’m relieved that the trilliums (Trillium spp.) and Virginia spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) have yet to be discovered. I consider it a small sacrifice on my part to have my beleaguered shadbush (Amelanchier laevis) and exquisite jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) devoured to inches.
The eco-mindful recognize the absurdity of “improving” plants to resist animal appetites and the folly of the “dead-scapes” of turf monoculture. Ecological gardening provides benefits far beyond the mere aesthetic. As urban sprawl intensifies, it is time to awaken to the repercussions of destroying habitats. The known benefits of preserving or restoring ecosystems are enormous: flooding mitigation, water quality improvement, air filtration, traffic noise hushing, climate regulation and carbon storage. Human materialism and arrogance can very well lead to global ruin. For the well-being of all living things, at the very least, we should embrace gnawed bark and nibbled leaves to support biodiversity and help restore ecological function.
Plant ecologist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer mentions in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (2013) that the word for plants in some First Nations languages can be translated as “those who take care of us.” (italics mine) It all starts with plants- plant it and they will come…
Angelique Mori, a wildlife aficionado, delights in habitat gardening in Hamilton, Ontario, where her property offers small refuge amidst inexhaustible urban intensification. Angelique was a 2020 recipient of Hamilton’s Pollinator Paradise Monarch Award for gardens that nature loves.