“Overgrown” means that a plant is bigger than someone thinks it should be. Like “weed”, it is a completely subjective term. Objectively, plants do not get bigger than nature intended them to be. A plant that is growing enthusiastically is a healthy, happy plant.
Getting bigger than nature intended does happen to people. We call that obesity. Though the obesity rate in the US is now 35%, many of those who are not obese mistakenly believe they are. Persistent exposure to images of supermodels has caused us to mistake malnourishment for a healthy weight, and to see a healthy size as obesity.
Similarly, persistent exposure to lawns has caused us to see a system in which grass is no more than an inch or two tall, and shrubs grow in tight, compact forms, as just right. In fact, outside of areas with especially harsh conditions, like deserts and high mountains, such a system is seriously undervegetated.
We live on a planet full of life – not just some life, but abundant life. Nature squeezes life into every available space. When we visit a healthy prairie, forest, or wetland, we see plants of all shapes and sizes fitting together to fill the entire area.
By changing our frame of reference to recognize abundant plant life as just right, we can fill our yards with healthy vegetation, and stop fighting with plants to prevent them from growing.
We often think of watering plants by pouring water over the top of them. Plants, in fact, don’t like this. They need water at their roots, and can be harmed by water on their leaves, since the dampness can invite mold and other diseases.
But wait. Aren’t plants watered in nature by rain falling on top of them? Yes! Plants have evolved to deal with this by developing various strategies for moving water off their leaves and down to their roots. These strategies also work pretty well when the water is coming from a hose, sprinkler, or watering can, rather than from rain.
But this is a case where we can do better than nature. We can water plants directly at their roots, keeping their leaves dry.
It might seem intuitive to do this by watering at the base of the plant’s stem, but that’s not quite what the plant wants. When plants water themselves by moving rain off their leaves and down to their roots, that water doesn’t end up next to the plant’s stem. It falls along a circle defined by the plant’s outermost leaves. That circle is called the drip line.
Pouring water on the ground in a circle that approximates a plant’s drip line is the most efficient way of putting the water where the plant can absorb it.
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.
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.
Use and value diversity.
Aldo Leopold once wrote, “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’ … To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
More recently, Breitbart published an article titled “Animals That Aren’t Delicious or Useful Deserve to Be Extinct.”
The more scientists study ecology, the more they discover that every species is important. While some plants and animals are more crucial to the healthy functioning of their ecosystems than others, every species plays a role.
Since humans can’t survive without healthy ecosystems, this means that every species is useful to us. It is in our interest for every species to not just be present in its native range, but to be present in sufficient numbers to perform its function within the ecosystem.
If we want our yards to be functioning ecosystems – and we should, since for our own wellbeing we need healthy nature near where we live, and not just in a park somewhere – we need to welcome a diversity of species. We need tall grass to be distributed throughout the yard, playing its role of supporting wildflowers. One ornamental clump doesn’t do the job. We need plenty of bees to pollinate the flowers. We need predatory insects to limit populations of insects lower on the food chain, preventing them from eating all our plants. We need the occasional large predator to stop rabbits from doing likewise.
We may not like all these members of the community. We may not understand what some of them do. But they are all almost certainly doing something useful for us, and we will be much better off if we leave them to it.