An important distinction in natural gardening is between native plants and non-native plants. A native plant is one that has evolved in the region where it is planted, and which typically has developed important relationships with other plants and animals in that region. A non-native plant is one that is planted far from where it evolved. It often contributes little or nothing to the local community, because the animals in its new home cannot eat it, or may not recognize it as a potential food source.
A cultivar is a type of plant that didn’t evolve anywhere. Rather, a cultivar is the plant equivalent of a domestic animal. The same way that modern cows never existed in the wild and are the result of careful breeding, cultivars have been bred from wild plants to bring out desirable characteristics.
The characteristics that are desirable to people, however, are often of no value to wildlife. Double-flowered cultivars, for example, are considered especially attractive in a garden. These flowers are worthless to pollinators, though, because they are mutant plants that have a second row of petals instead of having the structures that produce pollen and nectar.
Nativars are cultivars of native plants. Well-meaning gardeners seeking to support wildlife are often tripped up by nativars, which are advertised as native plants, but which can be as useless to pollinators and other animals as cultivars of non-native species.
Cultivars and nativars can be recognized by the names on their tags. Plants should always be labeled by their scientific names, which help gardeners ensure they’re getting the right species. A plant that has a second, English name in quotes after its Latin name is a cultivar or nativar, not a true species.
The rusty-patched bumble bee recently became the first kind of bee to be added to the endangered species list.
This bee used to range widely, from Minnesota to Maine, and as far south as Georgia. Now, it’s only found in isolated pockets.
One of those pockets is in Madison, Wisconsin. The Arboretum reports that they still have rusty-patched bumble bees, though many fewer than in the past.
The fact that there are still some left, though, means that residents of Madison can help the bees, allowing them to increase their numbers and begin to spread back into areas where they used to be found.
Unlike some bees, which rely on specific kinds of flowers, bumble bees can gather food from many different plants. Adding plants to your yard that flower throughout the season, and avoiding the use of pesticides, can help bumble bees. Rusty-patched bumble bees also need a little bit of bare soil in which to build their underground nests and lay their eggs.
Bumble bees are different from honey bees, which are a non-native, domestic species. Many well-intentioned people who are worried about pollinators try to help by taking up beekeeping. As some have put it, being concerned about pollinator decline and putting a beehive in your yard is like trying to address declining bird populations by getting some chickens. Adding more hives of honey bees to an area can actually decrease the quality of the local habitat for native bumble bees, because it increases competition for the resources that bees need.
“A Ghost in the Making” is a short documentary about the rusty-patched bumble bee. A segment in the middle of the film focuses on Madison’s Arboretum.
Birds are the easiest kinds of animals to observe in our yards. They’re numerous, colorful, active, and loud.
In fact, birds are louder than they used to be.
Sound is important to birds – they use their calls and songs to communicate and attract mates. They also listen for predators and for prey, to find food and avoid becoming someone else’s meal.
Studies show that suburban noise – including traffic and lawnmowers – is making it hard for birds to hear each other. Birds are coping with the challenges of a noisy environment by becoming louder.
They’re also changing their songs, often shifting to a higher pitch that can be heard over the lower-frequency sounds produced by engines. In some cases, the variety of birds’ songs is decreasing, as individual birds converge on a song that their audience can hear.
Other studies have found that noise makes it difficult for birds to find food, because they spend more time looking for predators and less time pursuing their own prey. Noise can also cause birds to give up on an area altogether, and travel somewhere else in search of quieter surroundings. While that kind of mobility is usually not a hardship for birds, during migration, needing to travel further before stopping to rest and feed can threaten a bird’s survival.
Noise isn’t so great for people either. By turning the volume down in our yards, we can create a more pleasant environment for our neighbors, human and non-human alike.
There are several ways of answering this question.
First, as described in an earlier post, a mature tree can add thousands of dollars to the value of a property, in addition to saving the occupants money on utility bills.
Second, trees provide measurable value to a city through their role in absorbing and filtering stormwater, cleaning the air, and improving human health. New York City has calculated that its street trees are worth $122 million a year, and that every dollar spent on improving this urban forest generates a return of $5.60.
Third, a recent study found that adding ten trees to a city block produces benefits to the health of nearby residents that are equivalent to giving those residents an extra $10,000 a year of household income.
Urban trees have also been found to decrease childhood obesity, improve ADHD symptoms, deter crime, reduce traffic accidents, improve memory, speed recovery from illness, and even lower the rates of suicides and premature births.
Trees are usually the last thing to be considered in development projects, getting treated as nice-to-have amenities that are added at the end if there’s any money and space left. Experts on urban trees, however, say that the presence of trees in our neighborhoods is crucial to our wellbeing. Their true value, these experts say, is effectively incalculable.
The average American spends about 25 hours a year mowing their lawn. That’s about 25 mowings that take 1 hour each.
Of course, this is an average that includes Americans in southern Florida who mow their lawns year-round, and Americans in northern states who mow their lawns during a much shorter growing season.
In Levittown, one of America’s first suburbs, homeowners were required to sign contracts saying they would mow their lawns at least once a week between April 15 and November 15 – dates that line up with Levittown’s growing season. This meant that the homeowners had to mow their lawns at least 35 times a year.
Madison’s growing season is 83 days shorter than Levittown’s, lasting only from mid-May through late September. And, Madison has no requirement that homeowners have or mow a lawn. Yet, some in Madison choose to mow their lawns from mid-March through early December.
Mowing causes grass to grow faster. In other words, the more you mow your lawn, the more you have to mow your lawn.
Grass that is unmown, however, grows for a few weeks in the late spring, reaches a height of about two feet, and then dies back. If we tolerate tall grass for a couple of months in the summer, we can have short grass the rest of the year by mowing just once in the early fall.
Finally, we can plant slow-growing “eco-grasses” that remain short year-round with just two or three annual mowings – or we can seed our yards with dwarf mondo grass, a cultivar that resembles more common lawn grasses but never grows more than three inches tall.
We’re all familiar with migrations, movements of animals from one region to another. Many of these movements are annual cycles: birds and monarch butterflies go south for the winter, then travel north again in the spring.
Animals are also migrating because of climate change. Seeking the kind of weather they depend on, animals of all kinds are moving up mountains or away from the equator.
Changing weather patterns affect plants, too, and plants migrate in their own way. As plants scatter their seeds, those that land in a slightly cooler location to the north are more likely to survive and reproduce than those that find themselves in a slightly warmer spot to the south. This way, over time and generations, entire plant species migrate towards more favorable areas.
But many plant species are just not able to move themselves fast enough to keep up with the changing climate. Here is where the idea of assisted migration comes in.
We can predict where plant species will need to move to in the not-so-distant future. For example, we know that if species native to southern Illinois are going to survive, they will need to move to Wisconsin. Seeing that they’re not traveling here fast enough on their own, we can take plants and seeds and move them ourselves.
By bringing plants from more southerly areas to our communities in Wisconsin, we can help them survive, as well as prepare our yards for the kinds of weather conditions we can expect to see here soon.
One problem that gardeners face is how to get seeds or plants for their natural yards. Not knowing how to begin establishing native species, many give up and continue mowing their lawns.
A great, underpublicized resource for seeds in the Madison area is the Dane County Seed Library. Five libraries in the area allow patrons to “check out” packets of vegetable seeds. While those who use the program are asked to harvest seeds from the resulting plants and return them to the library for others to benefit from, there’s no penalty for never returning anything.
Another great source of seeds is people who already have natural yards. Since plants produce seeds freely and abundantly, gardeners are usually happy to let others harvest some for planting in their own yards.
If asking a neighbor for permission to harvest their seeds is too awkward, seeds can also be harvested from native plants in public parks. Similarly to wildcrafting, this is not harmful to the environment as long as seeds are only harvested in moderation when and where they are plentiful.
Finally, seed packets can be purchased at native plant nurseries or even at hardware stores. While this of course costs money, paying a dollar or two for something that will make many more of itself is truly one of the best investments available today.