Protecting Natural Ecosystems with Your Home Garden

“Nature is built from millions of specialized interactions and relationships.”

– Dr. Doug Tallamy
A professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware.

This powerful quote is from professor, researcher and author, Dr. Doug Tallamy, during his online presentation, Nature’s Best Hope, back in May of 2020, inspiring members of the National Wildlife Federation to act in support of the Garden for Wildlife vision. This vision? To revolutionize the way people garden and landscape so it benefits wildlife and communities. Dr. Doug Tallamy has researched heavily how plants that have evolved elsewhere impact food webs and biodiversity creating ecosystem-wide problems. We now know that every part of this Earth holds ecological significance. We also now know how important it is to restore and protect our natural ecosystems for survival. 

So, why does this concern you?

As a home gardener, you can take steps to protect future ecosystems and humanity. And one step is planting native plants in your home garden.

This article is here to present: 

  • Why native gardens are important 
  • What types of native plants would be good for your soil and climate conditions
  • How you find helpful resources for planning and personal research
  • Where to procure native plants if you want to get started this Spring

Before we dig in, let’s identify a few terms: 

Native plants- These plants have originated in a particular habitat, ecosystem or region without human introduction. They are well adapted to that region’s soil, moisture and weather conditions. They’ve had a symbiotic relationship with native wildlife for thousands of years, and therefore offer the most sustainable habitat. 

Non-native plants or Exotic Plants- This species of plant has been introduced to its current location and has originated somewhere other than its current location. 

Invasive plants– This species of plant or animal outcompetes other species causing damage to an ecosystem. 

Why are native plants important? 

Many species are losing food sources due to urban development and degradation. One of the most important reasons that native plants are important to ecosystems at large is that they restore food and habitat sources for biodiversity of wildlife and environmental health. What does this mean specifically? The more native plants, the healthier the insects. The healthier and wider variety of insects, the healthier and wider variety the food webs.

Monarch caterpillars feed on milkweed leaves. Photo courtesy of The Northern Virginia Daily.

These important plant species provide nectar, pollen & seed that serve as food for native butterflies, insects, birds, and other animals. Native insects primarily feed upon native foliage thanks to adaptations formed over millions of years. Many, if not most, insects are specialists. They only eat plant foliage they share an evolutionary history with. Some insects can feed only with one specific plant. Also, some insects manage garden pests, pollinate much of our plants we as humans are dependent on.

Native plants are not only beautiful with a variety of structures and colors, but rather hardy. They have deep roots reaching up to 10 feet with some plants and this allows rain water to soak up into the roots and hold soil in place helping prevent erosion. Their deep roots also encourage infiltration from runoff, absorbing nutrients and reducing the risk of flooding and polluting our waterways. 

According to Erika Buri, Executive Director of Olander Park, because native plants are adapted to this region’s climates and soils, they don’t need fertilization. They attract native insects that prey on non-native insects (aka pests) acting as natural pesticides, meaning they don’t require pesticides as some lawns do. Also, native plants require much less watering than non-native species which in turn allows for our precious water source to be conserved. 

These plants are not maintenance free, but do require much less maintenance over time. If you replace your grass which already has shallow roots and minimal nutrients with more native plants, there will be less mowing which means less carbon emissions and better air quality. 

Important note: According to Natural Resource Specialist Jessica Wilbarger of the Soil and Water Conservation, perennial native plants take about three years to actually establish. Their energy is directed into making roots for the first couple of years, so you will not see the entire plant right away. The benefit of root mass holding onto water and preventing erosion begin in the first year. 

“If we don’t have the base of the ecosystem, we can’t have everything else.” says Cindy Carnicom, co-founder of Poppin Up Natives. “Plants are that base.” Poppin Up Natives is a great local resource for how to start your own rain or pollinator garden. 

What types of native plants would be good for my soil and climate conditions?

Board Member of Wild Ones, Jon Zabowski says that with any gardening, the type of plants you have depend on soil type (sand or clay), sunlight (shade, partial, direct) and water requirements. Zabowski says it is also important to identify your goal. What kind of pollinators or birds do you want to attract? What colors do you like? What do you want to see in bloom? How tall or short? How formal or wild? How much maintenance are you ready for? Do you want plants or seeds to start? Will this be a rain garden? Will this be a pollinator garden? Conditions are species specific. It’s important to find what are the species requirements and put them in the right place. 

Pro tip: Erika Buri of Olander Park suggests to start small and experiment. Most native gardens have evolved with trial and error. 

What resources can help with personal research, planning and purchasing?

  • A great start to dive in to learn about our region’s land and ecosystems would be ‘Living in the Oak Openings,’ a guide created by The Green Ribbon Initiative. The Green Ribbon Initiative is a partnership of conservation groups from Northwest Ohio to Southeast Michigan working together to protect the beauty and biodiversity of the Oak Openings Region. oakopenings.org/landowner-guide/
  • Wild Ones is a national nonprofit organization with local chapters that teach people about the benefit of growing native plants. The Oak Openings Region Chapter was renamed to highlight the globally-threatened ecosystem, the Oak Openings Region of northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. wildonesoakopenings.org/

Planning: 

  • If you want to see native gardens in person, Olander Park, as well as several Toledo Metroparks are great places to view different styles, formal or wild. It’s good to see how heights, colors and shapes of different species work together.
  • Sacred Grounds, a Garden for Wildlife program of the National Wildlife Federation, created helpful same rain or pollinator garden designs. raingardeninitiative.org/uploads/1/3/0/6/130641668/sg_toledo_garden_design_packet_complete_3_28_19.pdf
  • You can learn about invasive plants with the Ohio Invasive Plants Council. https://www.oipc.info/invasive-plants-of-ohio.html
  • The National Wildlife Federation created a native plant finder web tool. Type in your  ZIP code to find important and nutritious trees, shrubs, and native plants in their region. nwf.org/NativePlantFinder/
  • Research local gardening communities. Reach out to your neighbors to build a support for this experimental process. This process is a great community builder, so do not feel you have to do this alone. 

Purchase:

  • For a guide to purchasing native plants and seeds in person and online and to keep on the lookout for the upcoming 2021 plant sale events,(dates to be determined) visit wildonesoakopenings.org/native-plant-sources/
  • Poppin Up Native, a local gardeners support network, will help plan your home garden and answer your questions. Cindy Carnicom can be reached at 567-277-0771 or Robin Parker at 419-351-1157. They also design templates to make getting started easier. poppinupnatives@gmail.com

Photo courtesy of ‘Living in the Oak Openings” by Green Ribbon Initiative

For shaded sidebar

Before digging in, identifying a few terms: 

Native plants- These plants have originated in a particular habitat, ecosystem or region without human introduction. They are well adapted to that region’s soil, moisture and weather conditions. They’ve had a symbiotic relationship with native wildlife for thousands of years, and therefore offer the most sustainable habitat. 

Non-native plants or Exotic Plants- This species of plant has been introduced to its current location and has originated somewhere other than its current location. 

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