‘This isn’t just weeds’: Native gardens are repairing local ecosystems

Courtesy of Dawn Weber
A blue dasher dragonfly lays eggs on a lily leaf in the pond in Dawn Weber’s yard in St. Louis. Her yard is a certified wildlife habitat.

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Planting native and wildlife gardens is on the rise nationwide. That includes everything from purchasing plants to help butterflies to converting part of one’s lawn to a wildflower landscape.

“Not all plants support the insects that run the food webs that feed the birds and everything else,” explains Doug Tallamy, professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware. This breakdown of the food web has triggered what environmental experts call a global mass extinction event.

Why We Wrote This

Small solutions can go a long way toward solving big problems – even 40-million-acre problems. That’s what conservationists say about the ability of native and wildlife gardens to fix the food web.

Lawns, in particular, contribute little. Professor Tallamy calls them “dead scapes.” Yet, the United States currently has more than 40 million acres of land dedicated to lawns.

Conservation experts think anyone with a yard or even a deck outside an apartment can be part of the solution.

“If enough people could dedicate a significant portion of their landscape to the native plants that have co-evolved with the insects in [their] ecosystem, we could reduce the impact and maybe even stop the mass extinction event,” says Dan Pearson, coordinator of the Bring Conservation Home program in St. Louis.

“You get a sign that says, ‘This is a certified wildlife habitat,’” he says. “It helps to tell the neighbors, ‘Hey, this isn’t just weeds.’”

It’s a hot summer afternoon in St. Louis, and Dawn Weber’s yard is teeming with life. A gray catbird meows over the low hum of bees, as dragonflies skip across the still water of the garden’s pond. At just over a quarter of an acre, the carpet of wild violet and native plants around Ms. Weber’s house is home to about 38 species of butterflies and 99 species of birds.

“I really enjoy seeing the life,” she says. “There are about 300 species of plants between the front and the back [yards].”

Ms. Weber is among the growing number of homeowners who have traded manicured lawns for wild and diverse “naturescaped” gardens. Her garden includes native species, such as yellow bell flowers and queen of the prairie, and features a small, lily-covered pond. It’s also a certified wildlife habitat, a recognition Ms. Weber earned after becoming involved with the St. Louis Chapter of Wild Ones – a national organization that provides resources for homeowners and others interested in cultivating native plants to support local ecosystems. Ms. Weber began as a volunteer in 2013, and today she is the vice president of the Wild Ones’ largest and most active chapter. 

Why We Wrote This

Small solutions can go a long way toward solving big problems – even 40-million-acre problems. That’s what conservationists say about the ability of native and wildlife gardens to fix the food web.

The trend of planting native and wildlife gardens is on the rise nationwide. So far this year, an estimated 67.2 million American households specifically purchased plants to help butterflies, bees, and birds, and an estimated 30 million adults converted part of their lawn to a natural or wildflower landscape, according to a 2021 survey by the National Garden Association and the University of New Hampshire. The popularity of native gardening follows growing awareness of the need for species conservation in local ecosystems.

“The plants and animals around us run the ecosystem,” says Doug Tallamy, professor in the Entomology and Wildlife Ecology Department at the University of Delaware. But, he adds, “We’re losing our insects, we’re losing our plants and losing our birds. This is a serious biodiversity crisis.”

“And it stems from the fact that we’ve taken away the [native] plants or used incorrect plants [to landscape],” he says, “Not all plants support the insects that run the food webs that feed the birds and everything else.”

The use of harmful pesticides also affects the food web, hurting pollinator insects like bumblebees and butterflies, as well as wildlife such as hummingbirds and song birds.

Courtesy of Dawn Weber
An American robin, perched on an American beautyberry shrub in Dawn Weber’s yard in St. Louis, holds a berry from this native plant in its beak. Providing food, water, shelter, and a place for wildlife to raise their young are among the requirements for one’s yard to be certified as a wildlife habitat.

Fixing the food web

This breakdown of the food web has triggered what environmental experts call a global mass extinction event.

But conservation experts think anyone with a yard or even a deck outside an apartment can be part of the solution. The United States currently has more than 40 million acres of land dedicated to lawns. Although wide expanses of mowed green lawns may look pleasing to the eye, Professor Tallamy calls them “dead scapes,” land that does not support biodiversity or the local ecosystem.

Native gardens of any size in residential areas form “conservation corridors” that support local wildlife. Local pollinators such as butterflies, bees, and moths depend on these conservation corridors and in turn support creatures higher on the food chain, such as birds.

“If you add all of the residential landscape, it’s far more than our national park systems combined,” says Dan Pearson, coordinator of the Bring Conservation Home program, a community outreach program run by the St. Louis Audubon Society. BCH provides consultation to private landowners in the St. Louis area on landscape practices – such as removing invasive plant species, monitoring the health of the soil, and providing a water source – that encourage the growth of native plant species. The program hopes to encourage homeowners to convert their lawns into ecologically diverse landscapes.

“If enough people could dedicate a significant portion of their landscape to the native plants that have co-evolved with the insects in [their] ecosystem, we could reduce the impact and maybe even stop the mass extinction event,” says Mr. Pearson.

From lawns to habitats

Since 2011, the Bring Conservation Home Program has completed 1,500 site visits in St Louis, with 150 more requests to fulfill before the end of the year. Homeowners who transform their land into a native garden can apply for official wildlife habitat certification. As of 2020, there are more than 260,000 certified wildlife habitats registered with the National Wildlife Federation, the largest private nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation education and advocacy. Once homeowners fulfill the requirements – provision of food, water, shelter, and a place for wildlife to raise their young, along with the use of sustainable practices – they receive a sign to post in their garden.

Courtesy of Dawn Weber
Garden phlox, hydrangea, and hazelnut all grow in Dawn Weber's St. Louis garden. She advises people considering a native garden to start small. “It gives you the opportunity to learn from your mistakes and make big changes,” she says.

“You get a sign that says, ‘This is a certified wildlife habitat,’” Mr. Pearson says. “It helps to tell the neighbors, ‘Hey, this isn’t just weeds.’”

Signs are very important for native and wildlife gardeners who may face resistance from suspicious neighbors and homeowners association rules that limit how much of their land can be dedicated to native species.

“A lot of times it’s subdivisions with homeowners associations [that resist the change] because they feel like it’s going to bring down the property value,” Ms. Weber says. “But there are things that people can do to make that landscape more formal,” she adds, such as choosing shorter native plants.

For those without land of their own who want to provide habitats for wildlife, there are other ways to get involved.

“If you live in an apartment complex and the grounds have any trees, adopt a tree,” suggests Professor Tallamy, including taking care of the soil around the base of the tree to make it more habitable for native insects that spend a good portion of their life cycle in the earth beneath the trees. He also encourages people to volunteer at parks.

In St. Louis, interest is growing as neighbors talk to each other about gardening and more people learn how to identify and make room for native plants, says Mr. Pearson. 

“I always tell people that you start small,” Ms. Weber says as she leans over a garden bed, inspecting the purple buds of the downy skullcap – a spiky, perennial plant native to the Midwest that attracts pollinators. “It gives you the opportunity to learn from your mistakes and make big changes.”

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