The idea of supporting more wildlife in your yard can be expressed in many ways. It might be that you want to provide food for birds, attract butterflies, create safe small mammal pathways, or improve pollinator resources. Animals and insects need a variety of plants, both bare and planted areas, plant litter, and deadwood for safety, food, and different stages of growth. When it comes to ecological health and diversity, a spotless yard is not a healthy yard.
Some of the strategies you can use to meet these goals are rather broad and simple:
- Stop using pesticides: insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides, etc.
- Choose a variety of flowering plants and stagger bloom times throughout the year.
- Chose plants of different heights to create layers in the garden.
- Designate areas in your yard that you don’t mow.
- Make your lawn smaller or eliminate it completely.
- Don’t remove all your fallen leaves and yard waste – mulch with them or allow a few piles to remain in out of the way spots, such as under shrubs or corners of the garden. Butterflies and moths often overwinter in curled up fallen leaves. Insects often pupate or overwinter in hollow plant stalks.
- Leave some patches of earth bare of leaves and mulch for ground-nesting bees.
- Ensure that there is clean water nearby (without pesticide and fertilizer runoff).
If you are interested in choosing plants that will support more wildlife in your yard, please look over this list of Plants to Attract Butterflies and Moths by Doug Tallamy, entomologist, professor, and author. When you make habitat for butterflies and moths, you are also creating habitat for other beneficial insects and wildlife.
I like a lot of Trillium species and there are a lot of Trilliums to like, but the big, bright white flowers of Trillium grandfilorum is one of my favorite plants. The leaves and blossoms unfurl in a spiral from sheaths as they emerge. The white blossoms brighten the shady areas where they like to grow and the flowers remain for a long time, slowly turning to pink as they age. Trillium provide pollinators, like bumblebees, an early source of nectar and the bees return the favor by pollinating the plant. The seeds have a sticky substance that attracts ants, and the ants carry the seeds back to their colonies, thereby establishing new nearby colonies of Trillium. Browsing deer can disperse the seeds over greater distances.
Trillium generally grow in moist, shady woodland soils, but many species’ tolerance will allow then to grow well in urban conditions. It is important to establish them in loose soil and amend it with a top dressing of leaf mold/mulch that will insulate the soil from too much heat and retain moisture. In the heat of summer, they will usually go dormant, which helps ensure their survival for future years. Trillium species that I have seen adapt well in the city are Trillium grandiflorum and Trillium cuneatum. There are probably others that will tolerate urban conditions, they just haven’t been tested or reported yet.
Stormwater management is an important element that separates sustainable and ecological landscape design from conventional, unmanaged landscaping. Stormwater runoff is often contaminated with various substances like fertilizers, pesticides, road salt, oil from cars, trash, sediment, grass clippings, pet waste, and farm waste. These pollutants make their way from yards, driveways, and parking lots into water as rain falls and runs through the landscape, but then it keeps going and eventually makes its way into rivers, lakes, ponds, vernal pools, and oceans.
This pollution affects our quality of life. Many rivers and lakes aren’t clean enough to swim in and fish caught from them can’t be safely eaten. Even many of the the ponds and lakes that offer swimming need to be closed frequently due to dangerous algae blooms that result from the water having too many nutrients, an process called eutrophification. Fertilizers from lawns and gardens get washed into the water and create the perfect growing conditions for bacteria and algae overgrowth. Pollutants also find ways into wells and public water supplies, increasing the cost of maintaining safe drinking water. Research published in the American Journal of Public Health found that “the estimated annual cost of waterborne illness is comparable to the long-term capital investment needed for improved drinking water treatment and stormwater management.” Properly managing stormwater pollution can directly impact public health and decrease costs associated with treating waterborne illnesses.
Below is one of the first simple, usable criteria I have seen for determining a site’s level of risk for adequate stormwater management (from Penn State; adapted from the Univ. of Nebraska). Tools like this should be adopted to improve awareness about the quality and quantity of stormwater runoff in our communities. By identifying high risk conditions and implementing some simple strategies (think downspout redirection into gardens, choosing deep-rooted plants, decreasing lawn area, and building raingardens), we can decrease the amount of contaminated water running off a site. Whatever water does leave the site could be much cleaner, and clean water is healthy water for us all.
Water Management/Runoff Scorecard: