“Chances are, you have never thought of your garden – indeed, of all the space on your property – as a wildlife preserve that represents the last chance we have for sustaining plants and animals that were once common throughout the U.S. But that is exactly the role our suburban landscapes are playing and will play even more into the near future.” – Douglas W. Tallamy.
I do not usually begin newspaper articles with quotes, but this one by Doug Tallamy from "Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants," says what I want to say better than any words I can conjure. We used this quote to introduce how important our Florida yards can be for wildlife when we revised the Florida Wildlife Commission’s publication, Planting a Refuge for Wildlife.
Many Tallahassee neighborhoods are blessed with a rich canopy of tall native trees – pines, oaks, wild cherries, hickories and sweetgums. However, the remaining aspects of the landscape (small trees, shrubs, groundcovers and lawn) in most neighborhoods are made up primarily of plants that are native to Asia and other distant parts of the world.
Research has shown that non-native plants have considerably less value to wildlife than native plants, mainly because they have not evolved with our native insects which cannot digest the protein of foreign plants. Since insects are the base of the food chain, it is important to include native plantings in your yard.
In our yard, which we purchased over 25 years ago we have converted slowly over the years to a mostly native yard by doing three things. First, we removed invasive non-native plants such as nandina, female podocarpus, Oregon grape, coral ardisia and others.
This is ongoing because neighboring yards harbor berries which are spread by birds and through stormwater run-off. We remove seedlings of ligustrum, Chinese privet, camphor, Chinese tallow and others when they are young since they pull up quite easily. We patrol the woodland borders and hedges periodically and pluck the seedlings from the ground.
Secondly, we increase the percentage of native plants in our yard every year. This is easily done by even planting just one native plant per year! We tuck them in between the lovely non-native plants that were already here when we moved in – camellias, azaleas, hydrangeas and a Japanese magnolia. The border between our yard and a neighbor is a mix of large white blooming sasanqua camellias and native plants – agarista, needle palm, Florida anise, wild azalea, American beautyberry, witch-hazel and silverbell – all planted over the 25 year period.
Finally, we removed some of the lawn in a sunny area to include a very productive pollinator garden. It is quite colorful and provides nectar and habitat for honeybees, native bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects, and hummingbirds as well as forage for caterpillars. This is a good spot for some great non-native flowering plants too like Mexican sunflower, African blue basil and porterweed which supplement our base of natives – purple coneflower, horsemint, dwarf ironweed, asters, salt and pepper bush, Heliopsis and other wildflowers.
Greatly influenced by Doug Tallamy’s book, fellow Audubon member and friend Rob Williams has been converting his Foxcroft yard from mostly non-native to mostly native plants over the years. He has taken his passion one step further. There is a 7.98 acre unmanaged wetland preserve behind his house.
Unfortunately, like so many other green spaces in town, this forest had been taken over by invasive plants beneath the canopy of large native trees. He has made it his mission to remove these invasive plants, thus making room for the natural regeneration of native species and improving wildlife habitat in the preserve and in his yard. He also gets good exercise while working on this project. You can tour his yard on the Audubon Wildlife Friendly Yard Tour in February.
Improving your yard for wildlife can be a fun family project. Get started today by planting a native plant or removing an invasive plant from your yard.