By planting native species, homeowners can provide a habitat for wildlife, birds and bees—and help save the planet
When Chevy Chase residents Anna Holloway and Tejinder Singh built their new home in 2017, they weren’t interested in planting a typical grass lawn on their property, which has multiple levels and a creek. “We wanted to have wildlife and birds and insects in our garden,” Holloway says.
Water conservation was also a concern, so they didn’t want to choose plants that required significant irrigation. For help, the couple turned to Moody Graham, a landscape architecture firm in Washington, D.C., and then followed the firm’s suggestions to put in mostly native plants, including purple coneflowers, yarrow and native grasses.
Ongoing construction of the adjacent light-rail Purple Line had required the removal of some trees from their land, so the couple took advantage of the Tree Montgomery program, which plants shade trees for free in Montgomery County, to add six native elms and oaks to their backyard. Now their yard “brings them an immense amount of joy” during the summer, Holloway says. Their two young boys often play outside while she’s gardening and love the nesting goldfinches that visit the property.
By implementing their ideas, the family joined a nationwide trend toward reevaluating both the purpose and aesthetic of American yards and public green spaces.
“We’ve had this notion that humans and nature are separate—that humans are here and nature is someplace else,” says Doug Tallamy, an entomology professor at the University of Delaware and the author of the influential 2009 book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. “There is no someplace else anymore. Now we have to share where we are with functioning ecosystems, and that’s why we have to welcome nature to where we are.”
At the same time, the “natural” areas of many county parks and private yards have become overrun by invasive species—English ivy, porcelain berry and lesser celandine to name a few—that don’t nurture local fauna, experts say. In addition, the widespread use of pesticides is killing the insects that both pollinate and sustain larger species, such as birds. After a 2015 law was upheld last year, many pesticides are now banned in most of Montgomery County—some incorporated municipalities, such as the Town of Chevy Chase and the cities of Rockville and Gaithersburg, are exempt from the law unless they opt to accept it.
Tallamy warns that communities risk ecosystem collapse if people don’t act quickly to reconfigure both their personal and public land use. There are plenty of warning signs. Forty percent of all insect species are threatened with extinction worldwide, according to a 2019 study in the journal Biological Conservation. The journal Science reports that since 1970, North America has lost 29% of its bird population—that’s approaching 3 billion birds. And while monarch butterflies registered an uptick in population last year, their overall numbers have declined rapidly, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Grim statistics like these can easily discourage and overwhelm, but all is not lost. “There’s a lot you can do about it, particularly insect declines,” says Tallamy, whose latest book, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, was published in February. “It’s totally reversible.” Moreover, supporting native birds, bees and butterflies is an effective way to combat some of the negative effects of climate change, Tallamy says.
The worldwide decline of pollinators is “an issue that is so fundamentally foundational for all ecosystems and for the health of the planet, but also for human health,” says Laurie Adams, the president and CEO of the Pollinator Partnership, based in San Francisco, which advocates for awareness and pollinator-friendly practices in farming and government. Some of humans’ most nutrient-rich foods, she points out, are seeds, berries and nuts—all of which rely on pollinators.