What’s new in natural yards? – January 2016

Wisconsin has just released a State Pollinator Protection Plan. The full document can be found here.

The goals of the plan are to increase public understanding of issues facing pollinators, and encourage voluntary actions to help pollinators. The plan will not create any new regulations.

“Urban flower gardens often harbor diverse pollinator communities, but in areas dominated by skyscrapers or grass lawns pollinator diversity tends to be low,” the plan explains, in its opening section. The second section of the plan is divided into four parts, each describing what a specific group of people can do to help pollinators.

One of these sections, “Best Management Practices For Improving Pollinator Habitat in Gardens & Lawns” is directed towards homeowners. It is just a few pages long and can be read on its own. It begins on page 14 of the PDF linked above. The section suggests landscaping with a diversity of native plants that are suited to the site conditions. It also encourages homeowners to “leave things a little messy” – bare soil, leaf litter, and brush piles are all important habitat elements for pollinators.

The plan is currently in a public comment period. Its official website lists the following instructions for submitting comments:

Email comments by Friday, Feb. 19, to DATCPAgriculture@wisconsin.gov. Written comments may be mailed to: DATCP, ATTN Pollinator Protection Plan, PO Box 8911, Madison, WI 53708-8911. They must be received by Feb. 19.


What’s new in natural yards? – January 2016

What is a guild?

A guild is a group of plants that work well together. In other words, they have complementary functions.

(When such a grouping of plants assembles itself naturally, it is called a community. A guild is a group of plants brought together by a gardener.)

To explore this concept, let’s look at an example of a guild. This guild centers around a linden tree, a common species in Madison, and its primary purpose is to provide habitat for pollinators – a recently-adopted goal of the city.

Plants in a guild work together in multiple ways. To start, they generally differ in size and requirements. For example, a linden tree is large and needs sun, while the other plants in this guild are small and tolerate shade. Thus, the other plants can be placed under the tree, conserving space while giving every member of the guild what it needs.

Plants in a guild normally also differ in their functions. In this guild, all the plants perform the function of providing habitat to pollinators. But, each plant also provides other functions. In this way, the guild collectively fulfills many purposes. Let’s look at the additional functions performed by this guild.

  • The leaves of linden trees can be eaten by people.
  • Early-blooming flowers – like crocus, hyacinth, and daffodil – and late-blooming plants, such as sage and 4 o’clock, provide cheerful color in spring and fall.
  • Rose apple (or the smaller rugosa rose) and turtlehead are medicinal.
  • Cup plant and compass plant form a screening hedge and attract birds.
  • Lovage and coneflower draw up nutrients from deep in the soil, making those nutrients available to plants with shallower roots.
  • Comfrey can be cut back and turned into compost almost endlessly.
  • Mint, dill, caraway, parsley, and fennel serve as groundcovers and are, of course, very tasty!

Advanced permaculture practitioners, who are familiar with the properties of many plants, can create their own guilds. For new practitioners, examples to borrow can be found by googling “permaculture guilds”.

Thanks to Bryce Ruddock of Midwest Permaculture for this guild example.

What is a guild?

What are functions?

A function is something useful that a plant or animal does. For example, a tomato plant provides food for the gardener.

Plants and animals can perform more than one function. For example, a tree can cast shade to keep a house cool in summer, offer a place for birds to nest, and produce fruit for people to eat. This concept is called ‘stacking functions’. Permaculture practitioners strive to use space efficiently by incorporating plants that can perform many functions.

Permaculture practitioners also emulate nature by having a ‘back-up’ for each function. That is, they aim to have each function performed by multiple elements, so that if one element fails, another is ready to take over the function. For example, a gardener might add several types of plants that attract beneficial insects.

A yard that performs many functions makes less work for the gardener. By casting shade, trees minimize evaporation, so less watering is needed. Plants that make nutrients available to other plants reduce the need for fertilizer, while a few backyard chickens will gobble down insects and weeds, making pesticides unnecessary. By arranging elements so that nature does the work, we can have a more vibrant yard and more time to spend enjoying it.

What are functions?

What are some lesser-known effects of climate change?

Lawns contribute to climate change. When most people think of climate change, they think of higher temperatures, melting ice caps, and rising sea levels. Global warming also causes other problems that are not talked about as much.

In addition to driving temperatures up, global warming changes precipitation patterns. Because warming causes air and moisture to circulate around the globe differently, more rain is brought to some areas, while other areas are left drier than normal. Wisconsin’s annual precipitation is expected to remain about the same over the coming decades. However, instead of arriving in the form of frequent rainy days, it is likely to be concentrated into occasional downpours. This means that Wisconsin will experience long dry periods punctuated by flooding.

Higher temperatures bring higher crime rates. While cold weather lowers crime by keeping people indoors, hot weather increases opportunities for crime. Studies suggest that heat also contributes to aggression, making people more likely to commit a crime. This holds true even for people who are used to hot weather.

Changing climate allows insects like mosquitoes to move from traditionally-hot places to newly-warm areas, bringing tropical diseases with them. West Nile virus has already spread all the way to Canada. Other tropical diseases, like malaria and dengue fever, are beginning to arrive in the United States.

Anything we can do to slow climate change will help prevent these negative changes in our community.

What are some lesser-known effects of climate change?

What’s new in natural yards? – Part 1

Madison’s new Pollinator Protection Task Force has recently released a report on what the city can do to help bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators. Following the lead of the White House, which has called for an “all hands, all lands” approach to address the rapidly-declining populations of key pollinators, Madison’s plan focuses on the importance of pollinators for our food system.

The plan lays out four basic strategies to restore habitat for pollinators:

The plan notes that the major obstacle to implementing these steps is concern on the part of city residents who find pollinator habitat unattractive. The plan calls for education and outreach programs to allay fears about the perceived dangers of pollinator-friendly landscaping practices.

The plan can be read here.

What’s new in natural yards? – Part 1

What kinds of bees live in Wisconsin?

Wisconsin has over 400 species of native bees. Unlike imported honeybees, they rarely sting. This is because our native bees lead mostly solitary lives. Not having a colony to defend, they have no interest in attacking anyone.

Instead, the bees peacefully visit flowers, pollinating them as they eat the nectar. Females then seek out a nesting site, where they lay their eggs, providing each one with a store of pollen for the larva to eat when it hatches.

Different types of bees use different types of nesting sites. Like birds, some will use artificial “bee houses”. This website has information on how to provide nesting sites for different types of bees.

Many types of native bees will happily live in a suburban yard, finding food in dandelions and clover. Pesticides, even those not targeted to bees, often hurt them. While mowing doesn’t hurt bees directly, it can leave them without a food source. Studies show that when suburban lawns are maintained with pollinator-friendly practices, they can support just as many species of bees as rural areas.

What kinds of bees live in Wisconsin?

What is a monarch waystation?

Monarch butterflies used to be ubiquitous across America. Each year, billions of them migrated from Mexico to Canada and back. Along the way, they visited many types of flowers, providing valuable pollination services.

When female monarchs were ready to lay their eggs, though, they sought out a specific type of plant: a member of the milkweed family.

The reason for this choosiness is that plants don’t like to be eaten. Not being good at running or hiding, they instead deploy an array of chemical defenses to discourage would-be predators. Each species of plant has evolved its own mix of chemicals, and each toxic concoction is palatable only to the herbivores that have evolved just the right defenses against it. Thus, with few exceptions, plants can only be eaten by the animals – including insects – that have spent millions of years adapting to them.

Adult butterflies avoid this problem by eating nectar, which plants provide toxin-free in exchange for pollination services. But caterpillars eat leaves, which plants want to keep unmunched in order to produce food for themselves through photosynthesis. Milkweed is the only plant monarch caterpillars can safely consume.

And it used to be a common plant, found along the edges of farm fields all over the Midwest. Now, however, milkweed is disappearing as farmers seek to maximize yields by planting crops all the way to the edge of their property.

A monarch waystation is a little patch of milkweed – small enough to tuck into the corner of a suburban backyard – that gives butterflies a place to rest, feed, and lay their eggs. It is easy to establish, and a network of them just might save an iconic species from extinction.

More information on creating a monarch waystation can be found at this website.

What is a monarch waystation?

Why are there insects in that yard?

Almost all living things on Earth ultimately get their energy from the sun. Plants turn sunlight into energy through photosynthesis, and almost everything else eats either plants or plant-eaters.

Insects are very good at turning plant energy into animal energy. While a cow turns 10 kilograms of plants into just 1 kilogram of beef, insects will convert the same amount of plant matter into 9 kilograms of bug meat.

Insects are therefore very efficient at transferring energy up the food chain. They are a critical component in the diets of birds, foxes, and even bears.

Unlike other plant-eating species, insects also play a key role in ensuring there will be more plants to eat. Insects that forage in flowers, like bees and butterflies, carry pollen from one plant to another, helping plants to produce seeds that will become more food for many species.

There are almost a million species of insects on Earth, and virtually all of them are harmless to humans. While many people’s first reaction to seeing a bug is to reach for pesticides, a place without insects is a place in serious ecological disarray. Give the bugs a chance, and watch life return to your backyard ecosystem.

Why are there insects in that yard?

Why are there unraked leaves in that yard?

In the context of a lawn, fallen leaves are often seen as a mess to be cleaned up and sent away as waste. In a natural system, however, leaves are a valuable resource.

In nature, fallen leaves stay near the plant they fell from. Lying on the ground over the winter, they cover and insulate the plant’s roots, protecting them from temperature fluctuations, freeze-thaw cycles, and frost heaves.

Leaf litter serves as an important habitat element for many insects, which overwinter in, or lay their eggs in, the fallen leaves. The insects or their offspring emerge the following year to continue their life cycles. Raking away leaves interrupts these cycles, leaving a crucial gap in ecosystem functioning.

With the return of warmer weather, fungi and microorganisms get to work decomposing the leaves, returning them to the soil. Plants are then able to reabsorb those nutrients, and turn them into a future year’s leaves.

When leaves are raked to the street, they must be taken away by fossil-fuel-consuming vehicles. While they are waiting to be picked up, rain can wash their nutrients into stormdrains and then into the lakes, where they contribute to harmful algae blooms. For these reasons, Madison encourages homeowners to “leave the leaf“.

Why are there unraked leaves in that yard?

What is a rain garden?

A rain garden is a planting designed to catch and absorb water, rather than letting it run off.

Rain gardens are typically sited in a naturally low or wet spot – the place where water collects during a heavy rain. They are constructed by digging a shallow pit, then adding plants that enjoy a moist location. A relatively small one can be built in a day, and requires little maintenance after that. Instead of having a mud puddle or a stream running to the storm drain, the homeowner can enjoy a profusion of flowers, along with the birds and butterflies the plants will attract.

Stormwater is filtered as it is gradually absorbed into a rain garden, instead of going directly to the lakes with any pollutants it may pick up along the way. While a rain garden holds standing water, it does not attract mosquitoes, which need at least ten days of standing water to complete their life cycles. A rain garden usually empties much faster than this, and in one that doesn’t, the problem can be easily remedied with the addition of an overflow drain pipe.

Madison encourages homeowners to establish rain gardens. The city’s website includes instructions and sample designs.

If you are lucky enough to live in Verona, the city’s rain garden rebate program will give you up to $150 to help cover the cost of plants.

What is a rain garden?