Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Creating a Wildlife-Friendly Yard With Native Plants

By Rebecca Deatsman

    Between finishing my undergraduate degree back in 2009 (how has it already been five years) and moving to Walla Walla, Washington this past June, I was moving continuously from one temporary housing situation to the next - a year here, three months there. In those five years I lived in four different states plus a couple foreign countries. All that time, I was telling myself that someday, when I had a house with a yard, there were two things I wanted to plant in it: heirloom vegetables (an idea started by a mild obsession with the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) and native wildflowers.

    Well, now I have a yard. The vegetables were easy enough; I helped my then-boyfriend (now fiance) pick out tomato and pepper seeds from the Seed Savers catalog last spring before I even moved in. The wildflowers, however, are a work in progress, and I’ve decided to share what I’ve learned so far in my first official post as a contributor to Living Alongside Wildlife.

Benefits of Native Plants

    Plants provide both shelter and food for wildlife in a number of ways, and native plants, the ones that local animals have adapted to make the most use of, are the best of all. In addition to fruit, nuts, and seeds for food, birds use plants for both material and sites for their nests. Flower nectar will attract and feed pollinators (including hummingbirds as well as insects). And many butterflies can only lay their eggs on specific plant species - think of the famous relationship between monarchs and milkweed.

White-Crowned Sparrows (pictured) passed through our yard during the spring migration, but I’m hoping that by improving the quality of habitat in our backyard, we can tempt them to stay and nest.  Photo by Ingrid Taylar, via Wikimedia Commons

    In addition, since native plants are adapted to local conditions, they can be very low maintenance, requiring less pesticide, fertilizer, and water to thrive.

But What Should I Plant?

    Not all commercially-available “native” flower species are the same as their wild counterparts; many are hybridized varieties that have been specially bred to be prettier or easier to grow. Actual wild-type plants may be a little harder to find, but not only will you be closer to recreating a true native 
landscape in your yard, they’ll reproduce and spread more readily once you plant them, since hybrid plants often don’t produce viable seeds.

The bright colors and sweet nectar of native flowers like camas lillies (on right) may tempt more butterflies onto our property.

    If you’re not sure what plants are native to your area (remember that “native to North America” doesn’t necessarily mean native to where you live) or which ones would do well in your yard, a great starting point is the regional planting guides produced by Pollinator Partnership, which include suggested species lists for attracting insects and other pollinators. Once you’ve picked a couple to start with, Plant Native has directories of native plant nurseries listed by state to help you find places that can sell them to you.

    I’m starting small. After a lot of Googling, I found a tiny Oregon company that was selling bulbs for Camassia quamash, a beautiful blue lily found here in the Northwest. I planted them at the base of the dogwood tree in our backyard, and with any luck they’ll flower next spring. I’ve started bookmarking other plants that would work well to fill the gaps in our landscaping. Over time, we can attract more insects and birds and make our suburban yard function just a little bit more like native habitat - and so can you.

    Have you tried adding any native plants to your landscaping? Share stories and pictures below!

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