Gardening has typically been approached from a strictly aesthetic viewpoint, with visual satisfaction often being the most desired outcome. However, with frequent news coverage of pollinator decline and “insectaggedon” making headlines, gardeners are starting to realize that their backyards play an important role in these issues.
As human development continues to expand into natural areas, many of our plant and animal species are facing extinction. Typical green-space in human dominated landscapes is characterized by manicured lawns/gardens, maintained with chemical inputs and filled with exotic plants. Neither lawns or exotic plants provide sufficient habitat to support the species which our urban world has displaced. Such landscapes are also poor at providing ecosystem services that we depend on, such as clean air, clean water, flood/drought mitigation, pollination and many more. We can’t live without these services, so if we are to design healthy landscapes then we need to understand theit role in our landscapes.
With this in mind, gardening with an ecological mindset has never been more important. If we are to make a place for nature in our modern world then we need to re-design our landscapes to not only be beautiful, but also provide ecosystem services and habitat for declining wildlife.
When we design our gardens with ecological value in mind, they suddenly inherit a deeper meaning than aesthetics alone. Our gardens can be more than just something pretty to look at - they can become a safe haven for butterflies, native bees and songbirds, they can contribute to ecosystem services such as clean air and water. Understanding the importance of gardening with an ecological mindset is the first step in creating a world where humans and nature can coexist.
Here is how to garden with an ecological mindset:
Choose Native Plants: Native plants are an essential part of healthy landscapes. These are the plants that our wildlife have evolved to use. The interaction between native plants and animals creates stable, healthy ecosystems. They are always the best choice for your garden. In fact, native plants are four times more likely to attract native pollinators than non-native plants. Learn more about native plants here.
Say no to pesticides: There is no place for pesticides, insecticides or other harmful chemicals in a wildlife garden. Such chemicals will harm wildlife by killing them directly, killing their food sources or preventing reproduction. By choosing native plants, we can attract insect predators who do the pest control for us.
Plant diversity: A diversity of native plants with overlapping bloom times will provide the best forage opportunities for pollinators. When pollinators thrive, so do all other wildlife as pollinators make the production of fruits, nuts, seeds and berries possible. Diverse planting structure with herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees will provide ideal habitat for a variety of beneficial wildlife.
Learn to love a “messy” yard: Many wildlife species over-winter under leaf litter, rolled up in leaves, under logs or in hollow stems. When you clean up a garden in the fall(raking leaves, cutting back plants etc) you are potentially reducing the amount of butterflies and other beneficial species you will have next season. Leaving your plants standing over winter doesn’t make a garden look scruffy at all. It is one of the best ways to add winter interest to your yard, especially as seed heads attract hungry birds.
Beauty is only petal deep: To become an ecological gardener we have to acknowledge that plants are not here to look pretty for us, but rather, they exist to fulfill important roles in ecosystems - like provide us with ecosystem services such as clean air, water and many more. Of course the plants we choose for our gardens should be beautiful, but they should also be functional. Once we acknowledge this, our gardens become so much more than just ornaments - they become tools for positive environmental change.
Avoid cultivars: A cultivar is a plant variety selectively bred by humans to show certain traits. Many cultivars vary greatly from their native counterparts and may not be the best choice for wildlife. Cultivars are generally grown from cuttings, meaning they lack the genetic diversity that makes plant communities resistant to pests and disease.
Educate others: Your garden won’t save the pollinators on it’s own, however, it’s an important piece of a much larger, interconnected ecosystem. Educate and lead by example to encourage others to become ecological gardeners and together we will make a much bigger impact. A great way to educate others is to garden in your front yard and include educational signs for other to read.
Buy plants from local native plant nurseries: Buying your plants from a local native plant nursery does two things: First, if your grower propagates plants themselves, it means that you are buying locally adapted plants which will grow better in your climate conditions. Second, it means that you are increasing demand for native plants.
Retire the lawn mower (or at least give it a break): Mowing your lawn less often is a proven way to increase the wildlife value of your yard. Reduced mowing results in an abundance of low growing flowers in your lawn which will provide food for pollinators. Better yet, leave a section of your lawn to go un-mowed. Many common native meadow plants such as Goldenrod(which actually doesn’t cause allergies), Asters and Milkweed(Monarch food) are just waiting to grow in your lawn. All you have to do is give them a chance.
Use Nature as inspiration: Gardening with native plants is as much of an artistic endeavor as it is ecological restoration therefore it’s important to reflect the design of natural ecosystems in our gardens. In a healthy ecosystem you will notice different heights and layers of plants which offer different levels of habitat for different species. This structure also means every available niche is filled, therefore limiting the growth of weed/invasive species.
Provide a (insect friendly) water source: Whether its a birdbath, small pond or a natural water body, a water source is one of the most important elements of a wildlife friendly garden. When providing water, make sure to provide a shallow area to allow insects to safely grab a drink.