By planting native species, homeowners can provide a habitat for wildlife, birds and bees—and help save the planet
To reverse the troubling statistics, experts advise us to envision our yards differently—seeing them as tiny oases that grow and support bees, butterflies and birds, and also the vital caterpillars and moths. Nonnative azaleas, nandinas, crepe myrtles and boxwoods may have curb appeal, but they aren’t nurturing the insects that are the foundation of the local ecosystem.
“When you have plants in your yard that have no feeding damage, no little holes in them, that means you have a dead landscape,” Tallamy says. “These plants that we picked because they were pest free—meaning nothing eats them—they might as well be plastic. They’re not contributing to local food webs and the creatures that run our ecosystem.”
Local bees, butterflies, birds and moths coevolved with the native plants. To understand this, think of the monarch butterfly, which only lays eggs on one type of plant—milkweed. If milkweed no longer populates gardens or roadside areas, then there won’t be any more monarchs. Ninety percent of plant-eating insects are host-plant specialists, meaning they don’t exist without a particular plant, Tallamy says.
“To keep those native species alive, we need to have native plants,” says Rochelle Bartolomei, the native plant program manager at Pope Farm Nursery in Gaithersburg, a division of Montgomery Parks. The nursery grows mostly native trees, shrubs and flowers to plant in the county’s 423 parks and also to sell to the public at sales held at the parks department’s nature centers. “It’s critical that we create these kinds of environments in our gardens to help create corridors of vegetation that the insects need to live,” she says.
Planting a variety of native flowers, shrubs, vines and trees in yards—such as mountain mint, arrowwood viburnum and oak trees—provides much-needed nectar, pollen, foliage, nuts and berries for local fauna.
Across the county, there’s a surge in homeowners who are rethinking the ecological role of their yards, says Ann English, the RainScapes program manager for the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection. “The urgency has really ramped up in the last three years. People are alarmed at climate change. They’re alarmed at not seeing the butterflies they used to see, and now people are actively soliciting plants that will attract bees.”
The RainScapes program works with homeowners, churches and other groups to strategize how they can both reduce stormwater runoff from their properties and contribute to local ecosystems, in part by adding native plants. Rebates for conservation landscaping and other changes are available from the county for approved projects. “People feel so powerless, but this is something they can do at home,” English says. “And that’s tremendously satisfying.”
Some concerned residents go even further. Last year, Rockville resident Wayne Breslyn, a former science teacher who’s always been fascinated by insects, grew 100 milkweed plants from seed on his patio, and then used the social networking site Nextdoor to offer neighbors the 8-inch-tall plants for free so they could also support the monarch population. Through that effort, Breslyn met others who were interested in supporting birds and insects, and has exchanged plants with several people.