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Invitation to nature

Attract wildlife to your home with a garden

May 24, 2008
I have a million purple coneflower seedlings in my garden. OK, maybe not a million, but too many! This is because I didn’t dead head the flowers and they reseeded themselves with gusto.

Call it laziness, but I sort of prefer “natural” since this is what the plant would do on its own. It does pose a problem for me since now I either have to dig up the seedlings and find homes for them, or just pull them out as weeds.

Curiously, that’s what most kids that come to Audubon on field trips call dandelions — weeds. I then explain to them that a weed is a plant that is growing where you don’t want it to be growing. A tree could be a weed. So could a rose bush or daffodils. The idea behind a weed is that it wasn’t planted with a purpose by a person in a specific spot. But at Audubon, I explain to the kids, a dandelion isn’t a weed. We want them in the yard. Then I stop at a few and show them the different kinds of insects that are feasting on the pollen and nectar of this so-called “weed.”

Most often, weeds are pioneer species, the ones that move in shortly after the soil has been disturbed. If you’ve ever tilled your garden, you know this. All those little floating bits of fluff take root instantly when they hit that soil. Some of these are native pioneer species that might host hundreds of native insects. Some are non-native plants that are just really good at taking over. Either way, you didn’t plant them and they don’t look quite appealing next to the dahlias and black-eyed susans. But, they might be more important.

In a nutshell, our obsession and infatuation with the classically beautiful and manicured is wreaking havoc on the native insect, bird and plant populations. The increase in building and destruction of habitats further eliminates the host plants for much of our native fauna. Showy flowers, flawless foliage, and hybridized variations seem to be the stuff gardens are made of. The price we pay for that is a significant decrease in biodiversity. It’s time to revaluate our definition of a garden and garden beauty. It’s time for the suburban and backyard garden to step up and fill a larger role.

I’m not a fastidious gardener, as my neighbors will tell you. I plant things, and occasionally weed around them. For the most part, it’s pretty wild at my house, though. As a result, I have a ton of bugs, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles. I have juncos that nest among my wild hillside, toads that lay eggs in my garden ponds, green snakes that bask on the rock pile, white crowned sparrows that reside in my “habitat pile” (this is just a pile of the sticks that fell out of my trees), and more bugs than I can possibly identify. I love it, I really do.

The difference between native plants and introduced plants is significant. While a plant introduced to this country over 100 years ago might host five species, our native oaks support more than 500 species of butterflies alone. Monarch butterflies need milkweed — that is the only plant that the caterpillars eat. No milkweed means no Monarchs, it’s a pretty simple relationship.

Monarchs aren’t the only ones that have such a specific relationship. There is a rare butterfly called the West Virginia White which lays eggs on a variety of toothworts, which are in the mustard family. The invasive Garlic Mustard, also in the mustard family, is similar enough to allow the butterfly to lay its eggs upon it. However, Garlic Mustard appears to be toxic to the eggs and they never hatch. This is a perfect example of how an invasive species disrupts the balance of an area or a species.

Native or non-native, invasive or non-invasive, hybrid or not, conventional or organic — there are so many choices nowadays when it comes to gardens and the plants you can choose. At my house, I mix them because there are some non-native cultivated plants that I just love, hosta and lily-of-the-valley among them. They are interspersed with native grasses, native bleeding heart, bloodroot, trillium, native toothwort, milkweed, goldenrod and, of course, dandelions. (A note — dandelions are not native, but they are naturalized.)

So, back to my purple coneflower. I still have a ton of seedlings. I think I will pull some as weeds and dig up others, put them in pots and bring them to the Plant Exchange on June 7 from 1 to 3 p.m. at Audubon. Maybe I can trade them for some native plants. Maybe I can find a hosta I don’t have. But I know I’ll find something, because that’s the benefit of the plant exchange. The idea of the event is simple — dig up your extras or your unwanteds, bring them to the Audubon and trade them for something else. Maybe you’ll find a treasure; I know I have in years past.

Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. Call 569-2345 for more information on this event or other programs. You can visit our Web sites, and for more information as well. The trails and Liberty are open dawn to dusk, and the building is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily, except Sundays, when we open at 1 p.m.

Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at Audubon and loves her garden and all the critters that call it home, even the spiders.

Article Photos

Photo by Dave Cooney
A Great Spangled Fritillary.



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