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Keeping the Garden Native, Integrated

Ecology is on many gardeners’ minds these days.

Gardeners who value the science of relationships between living things and their environments increasingly want to know more about those connections — how toxic chemicals worsen a yard’s overall health and why bees, birds and butterflies are crucial to our daily lives, for example.

To help gardeners sort through the options for gardening naturally and responsibly, the Virginia Horticultural Foundation spotlights the theme “Natural Gardens” during its annual Home Gardener Day this year.

“We have a responsibility to support the land that we depend on for our own survival, and that responsibility includes thoughtful choices about how we landscape our own tiny spot of Earth,” says Carol Heiser, habitat education coordinator with the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries.

During Home Gardener Day, she discussed “Habitat at Home: Landscaping for Wildlife.” The conservation program, outlined in great detail at www.dgif.virginia.gov/habitat, encourages public, private and corporate landowners to provide habitat for songbirds, mammals, amphibians and other native wildlife. Free, downloadable information for home yards and schools is available at the website, as well as lists of native plants, water features and shelter options.

In Carol’s viewpoint, naturalist Doug Tallamy makes the best case for habitat gardening in his book, “Bringing Nature Home,” about the critical connections between insect and plant communities.

“Insects and plants co-evolved for millennia and have developed intricate inter-relationships. Unfortunately, over the past 300-plus years of American history, we’ve replaced a substantial portion of the natural landscape with non-native plant species from other continents — most notably European and Asian countries — and the result has been an altering of the food web,” she says.

“This, in turn, has had the effect of depressing insect populations that depend on specific ecosystem patterns, along with an associated decline in bird populations which rely on insects to feed their young. Although land clearing and development are certainly contributing factors to the loss of habitat, the introduction of non-native species has had an insidious but far-reaching, deleterious outcome.”

Habitat gardening, which is more accurately called conservation landscaping, around homes is one way of “putting back,” or making an attempt to mimic the original native plant community, she continues.

This means removing exotic invasive plant species like nandina, barberry, butterfly bush, privet, autumn olive, Bradford pear, English ivy, Japanese honeysuckle and periwinkle, and replacing them with their counterpart native species.

“Also, there are other non-native plants that may not be invasive but nevertheless equally useless to insects and other wildlife, such as crepe myrtle, hosta, liriope, boxwood, fescue — the list goes on and on,” she says.

“Responsible habitat gardening includes replacing these species with native plants, too. We have to get away from the idea that ‘habitat gardening’ is just a cute patch of flowers for butterflies, and that it’s OK if the rest of the yard is a mono-cultured acre of turf grass.”

To acquaint yourself with habitat gardening, Carol suggests you first go online to look at photos of invasive exotic plants and learn to identify them. Then, take a clipboard and walk your yard, listing any invasive plants.

“When that list is done, make another column of all the other non-natives that aren’t invasive but exotic just the same — you’ll probably be surprised that most of your favorite ‘ornamentals’ are non-native,” she says.

“They’re called ‘ornamental’ because they’re just that: decorations without any biological purpose.”

Next, go back online to find out what native species are best for your growing needs, she advises. This spring, select one non-native plant species in your yard, remove it and replace it with a native species, many of which can be found at garden centers, as well as master gardener, native plant society and botanical garden plant sales.

“After you’ve installed the native species, pay close attention throughout the growing season to what insects you’ve never seen before that are now visiting these new plants,” she says.

“This should give you a huge sense of pride that you have done a good thing, because you’ve just added more insects for young birds to get their protein. Congratulations, you are now a ‘grandparent.’”

Finally, repeat the removing and planting process every year for the next several years — until your yard has been converted into a native plant landscape.

“Keep a journal of the insect species that visit your yard, which will represent an increase in biodiversity and evidence of your success,” she says.

“You can expect a renewed sense of personal connection to nature, knowing that you’ve taken part in — even if only a very small way — a change in our landscape ‘culture.’ ”