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Building Blocks of a Healthy Ecosystem

As spring unfolds, much of the wildlife that has been dormant for months begins to emerge. The birds are singing a sweeter tune, the frogs are serenading our nights and the flies and beetles are abundant. It’s gratifying to see all the plants we have planted in previous years emerge.

A thriving ecosystem all starts with building blocks; like atoms make up molecules, insects and plants are the bottom layer that make up the wildlife pyramid. For example, there is the acorn weevil which drills a tiny hole into an acorn and lays its larvae. The larvae consume the nut and eat their way out. The next occupant will either be an acorn moth who lays her egg in the hole to finish eating out the inside or the acorn ant colony which can fit 50-100 ants in a single acorn.  The interdependence of wildlife is all on such a micro level.  As Dr. Doug Tallamy has observed, the relationship between native pants and insects that have evolved over time are essential for a healthy ecosystem.  And, we can contribute by providing habitat and critical resources in our own yard.

The best way you can help this food chain is to plant native plants that, in turn, support the best natural bird food there is – insects of course! There are only a few bird species that do not need insects as food at some point in their lives. Plants produce carotenoids, the same antioxidant you’ve read about in carrots.  This is a vital nutrient for birds who get it from caterpillars that eat plants.  The top five tree types that support caterpillars are oaks, native willows, cherries, plums, and birch trees. The most varied native perennials will support the most wildlife.  A few good choices include native asters (Astreraceae), blueberries (Vacciniu spp.), little blue stem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and milkweeds (Ascleipias spp.).  Focusing on a varied selection of native trees is important to feed the a variety of insects and provide the most habitat.

Most birds and insects will only feed on those plants with which they have evolved over time. For example, the evening primrose plant is the only genus the beautiful pink primrose moth will use as a host plant.  Some think that butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) is a great plant for pollinators because they attract so many butterflies; however, this is not true.  The nectar from the butterfly bush is not nutrient dense and is like junk food for humans.  Butterfly bush is also non-native, having been imported from China in 1790, and considered an exotic invasive by the USFS.

Another important sustainer of life is fresh water. You can provide this with a bird bath that is cleaned out regularly, a pond, rain garden, even a terracotta saucer with pebbles or sand to encourage bees and butterflies to take a sip.

Other common problems people often ask about when turning their monocrop lawn into a living natural landscape might be concerns about deer.  Deer do like native plants, but you can help deter them with natural sprays and other applications. If your neighbors have a corn feeder for deer, talk to them about how you are investing time and money into your landscape and prefer they did not invite the deer over for lunch!  At SHR, we use several different deer deterring methods including  high frequency solar powered devices that flash and give off sound when triggered by motion, deer deterring foliar spray and a granular application that is made of natural ingredients such as cloves, garlic, and dried blood.

We are doing all we can to provide habitat and food for the wildlife on our mountain by only planting natives, letting leaves decompose in as many areas as possible, grinding and chipping organic matter to put back into the landscape and leaving snags up, to name a few. We also have a wide variety of tree species, a pond and several different mini ecosystems to provide food and shelter to as many animals as possible.  Hopefully, this article has inspired you to plant varied native plants and to provide water for the birds and bugs that live in your neighborhood. The planet depends on all of us doing our part to support and enhance the ecosystem that was here long before us.