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It’s Easy Being Green

blue-bird-with-larva-1.jpgKermit and our local frogs alike would love the surge of environmental awareness. With housing developments popping up like fungi on a log, our local habitats are disappearing. The ray of sunshine in all this is that each of our homes can be an oasis of plants and their animal visitors.

Whether you own a multi-acre lot or a “postage stamp” plot, you can make a difference in keeping our lands “greener” and hospitable to wildlife. Who doesn’t want to see songbirds nesting in the trees, butterflies flitting above flowerbeds or dragonflies zipping about, eating mosquitoes? Personally, I welcome even those critters such as bats and snakes that suffer from bad press.

I see many homes with nothing but a lawn and a few shrubs along the foundation. My brain screams, plant something!! Okay- I’m a nursery worker; of course I want the entire yard planted. But there are other reasons for me to project my sense of gardening on all of those barren yards. For starters, with concern about carbon footprints, consider what a lush garden could help counteract:  the lawnmower, leaf blower and car, for starters, not to mention the power-plant output for providing your electricity.

Planting just a couple of trees has a great effect on carbon dioxide absorption and oxygen production; they will help reduce water runoff, cool the yard, and shade the hotter side of the house, reducing air-conditioner demand. They provide nesting sites for birds, and food and hunting grounds for numerous insects-creatures which provide critical food for the birds and their nestlings.

Taking things a step further, adding planting beds with shrubs and perennials creates more habitat for animals that need cover. That plodding box turtle, baby bunny or shy chipmunk isn’t going to like the exposure of a sea of grass…even if the bunny trims it for you on its way through. Berries and seeds from such plantings will feed birds and other animals, especially in winter. Even your lawn can be converted into an oasis of prime habitat. A quilt of different groundcovers and interspersed beds would create the perfect mix of open ground to hunt in and shrubbery to hide in.

promethea-silverbell.jpgAnimal diversity studies show that species diversity is greatest in “edge habitats” -areas where forest meets meadow,  meadow meets stream, and so on – for the simple reason that species from both habitats are present in the mixing zone. Sure, your yard achieves this on a miniature scale, but the results should be rewarding nonetheless.

You can help reduce the impact of habitat fragmentation, where developments and roads have split habitat into little pieces too far away for animals to move between. Why is this important? Plants that need animals to disperse their seeds can’t establish new colonies; animals risk inbreeding if they can’t disperse to find mates; and if resources run dry, animals and plants can’t reestablish themselves in a new area, and a local population might die out. A yard with good plant diversity creates a “rest stop” of sorts, a stepping stone to bridge the gaps between the remaining woods and meadows.

cecropia-on-alt-leaf-dogwood.jpgConsider this as a means of reducing pesticide use as well. Most pest outbreaks occur either when plants are stressed or when they are used in monoculture plantings. If properly sited, our native flora tolerate our soils and the quirks of our weather. Even if plants are stressed by a pest outbreak, they have “allies” to come to their aid as “beneficials” cue in on their chemicals broadcasting distress. A monoculture of plants is a buffet to pests-instead of the hunt-and-peck nibbling demanded by a mixed planting.

A big party is always going to be harder to control than a dinner for two – it’s easier to manage a pest or disease outbreak on a few scattered hosts rather than a whole hedge of them. Plus, more insect problems will be self-limiting due to the bounty of predators you’ll attract by offering a diverse garden – more alternate food sources, hiding places, and sites to raise their own young. There also will be fewer pesticides to pollute the Bay, and more time to enjoy the garden as it should be – wild, yet in balance.

Certainly native plants will help flesh out your ecologically-sound garden, but non-troublesome exotics can also provide an ecological benefit in addition to their esthetic qualities. Shrubs and trees improve air quality and offer shelter.

Gardens should be everywhere – inside and outside of our homes and offices, covering our roofs, as planters hanging off parking garages and as beds lining the streets. Each of us really can make a difference right at home. Plant more of your yard, and when you do, consider native plants first. Mix it up! Try lawnless areas with a walking path, garden beds with a medley of plants and a few more trees.

Put a couple of vines on that fence surrounding your yard; plant a strawberry jar and a blueberry patch; put out a birdbath, or install a rain garden or a small pond. Apartment dwellers, green up those balconies and try some window boxes. Advocate for common spaces and community gardens for harvesting and bird-watching. Freshen your living space and school rooms with more houseplants or enchant your children with a terrarium. Plant a young tree – or several! – for you and your children to watch grow. These simple steps will not only enrich our environment, but in doing so, will enrich your lives.

Save The Birds!

In Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens, University of Delaware entomologist Douglas Tallamy explains that parkland is too fragmented to sustain native species. Explaining the food chain takes us from birds to their food sources (almost exclusively native insects when raising their chicks). The native insects in turn evolved to feed on specific native plants and are unable to feed on other sources: so while your butterfly bush helps sustain adult butterflies, butterfly larvae are unable to feed on its leaves. Thus, not only does butterfly bush ultimately reduce the adult butterfly population, but it removes a prime food source for birds. Dr. Tallamy urges you to include native plants in your gardens to help sustain wildlife, and he provides lists of natives which have ornamental value as well: a critical point in landscape design which often is left behind when the use of native plants is discussed.

by Miri Talabac, Woody Plant Department Manager

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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