Environmental Sustainability: The Use of Native Plants in Urban, Suburban, and Rural Landscapes

by Kathleen M. Contrino

1. Introduction

An increasing threat to the environment comes from habitat loss. One way to mitigate the threat of habitat loss from destruction, fragmentation or degradation is by including native species in residential landscapes. The most attractive native varietals to local wildlife are locally sourced.

Habitat loss in many communities comes from the loss of native plants. Butterfly weed and milk weed, both necessary plants for monarch butterflies, have decreased as fields have been demolished for new housing. Bumble bees rely upon the late blooming Joe Pye weed grows in moist lowlands not found in residential areas. Purple coneflower, a favorite of Monarch Butterflies, is often purchased at nurseries who rarely sell the native varietal. Suburban lawns frequently contain plant material with little or no food value and exotic and non-native plants from nurseries also contain little food value for native insect species. The removal of native ecosystems and replacement with sterile, barren landscapes has caused wildlife colonies to move on or perish [1]. Pollinators, with the most recent addition being the rusty patched bumble bee, are increasingly being listed on the endangered list and face extinction [2].

Humans have long impacted wildlife in other ways than the destruction of habitat. Pesticide use and grass fertilizer are one of the many hazardous practices in residential communities. Fall clean-up of yards removes winter protection material used by fall hibernating caterpillars. Mosquito spraying contaminates ponds and reduces food for swallows. The use of non-native plants and grasses require more watering and fertilizer. Non-native and exotic plants, like Japanese Honeysuckle, escape the residential yard, propagating with little or no natural controls and overtake areas once rich with food for local wildlife [3-5]. Genetically-engineered crops containing pesticide within the plant are suspected of contributing to winter honeybee colony collapse and can be harmful to other, more native, pollinators [6, 7].

Another recent addition to the endangered list in New Jersey is the short-eared owl [8]. The short-eared owls were once residents in the northeastern United States but habitat loss reduced the owl’s presence to the winters [9]. The short-eared owl relies upon acres of grassland to hunt for small rodents [10, 11]. Increasingly large tracts of grassland are converted to industrial sites or residential areas in the northeast and can revert back to prime habitat once the site is abandoned by the industry [9]. Snowy Owl sightings, on the other hand, have increased their presence in the States in recent years [11, 12]. Research has begun to determine the basis for the increased presence.

2. Residential Landscapes and their Potential

While residential communities can harm the environment, they also have potential to help [4, 13]. By planting locally sourced native plants residential gardens can provide food sources for local bees, birds and butterflies [14]. Suburban gardens in one New York community, for example, were found to contain intact bee colonies with a similar diversity found in a 1,520 hectare research preserve [1].

While residential communities can harm the environment, they also have potential to help [4, 13]. By planting locally sourced native plants residential gardens can provide food sources for local bees, birds and butterflies [14]. Suburban gardens in one New York community, for example, were found to contain intact bee colonies with a similar diversity found in a 1,520 hectare research preserve [1]. eplacing native roses, maples and flowering bushes. If native bushes were chosen instead birds who roam widely in the summer for their food would have plenty of food to pick from. Cedar waxwings can be found feasting on Serviceberries until they are all consumed wherever they are found. I have found cedar waxwings in significant numbers at the University at Buffalo (Buffalo, New York) and Buffalo State College (Buffalo, New York) in the summer where native bushes are planted throughout their campuses.

Tallamy opined that gardeners have the ability to replace missing ecosystems. Gardeners are passionate about their hobby and work hard to ensure their yards thrive. If gardeners added native flora to their carefully cultivated gardens, they could help return the local ecosystems to the landscape. Favoring native plants over non-native species can increase biodiversity and strengthen ecosystems.

Ideally, residential gardens have the ability to benefit plants, insects and birds the most due to critical mass [14, 15]. Pockets of diverse native plants and ecosystems within a suburban or urban community have the potential to sustain local wildlife communities [16]. Gardeners can be resistant to native plants because of the belief that they look weedy or unappealing [17]. Conservation organizations have turned to education and certification to encourage gardeners to include natives in their gardens [3, 18, 19].

One certification program has been promoted by the National Wildlife Federation. In 1973, the National Wildlife Federation created its Certified Wildlife Habitat program. Gardeners apply for the certification after completing an application detailing in what ways their residential landscape contained critical components for wildlife. Those components include food, water, places to raise young and cover [19]. Planting highbush cranberry bushes, for example, provide food and shelter for wildlife while providing three seasons of interest for the gardener. Year round feeding of birds is another component of the certification process. While not required for certification feeding helps sustain bird populations throughout the year. The chickadee, for example, enjoys peanuts in my feeder as much as the insects who reside in my yard. The certification program was in part an educational program, part grassroots organizing approach, and part propagation of native plants plan. This program aimed to harness that critical mass of gardeners in order to help native wildlife communities. Gardeners who certify their yards receive a plaque for display in order to educate others in the residential community.

Another avenue for education and grassroots organizing for the use of native plants is through conservation groups in the community. The Western New York Land Conservancy, for example, had promoted a 10 percent club to its members during their Natural Garden & Backyard Habitat Tour conducted on July 8th, 2012. The purpose of the garden tour was to educate and promote their “10 percent natives” concept to gardeners. The tour showcased native gardens in residential communities and asked attendees to consider planting 10 percent of the garden with native plants.

A related program, primarily educational, is citizen research for bird watching. Cornell Cooperative Extension relies upon backyard birders to count birds while that come to their feeders between November and April. Participants note the weather and bird counts during each weekend and enter them into the FeederWatch database at the end of the season. The numbers are analyzed to give scientists information on distribution and abundance, noting changes in trends and diseases that may show up in populations of native birds. A side benefit to this citizen research is educating the public on native wildlife and flora [20].

Local conservation groups, garden clubs and government organizations focused on conservation can all play a role in promoting gardens of native plant ecosystems. Community gardens in the urban landscape, gardens tours showcasing native plant gardens, native plant sales, education in the schools, scouting merit badges, and demonstration gardens can play a roll in educating the general public on the benefits of native plants. If every residential garden included 10% of native plant material environmental sustainability is achievable.

3. Why Locally Sourced Native Plants

Helden, Stamp and Leather (2012) researched insect groupings on native trees compared to non-native trees. Helden, discovered that invertebrates were drawn to native trees in greater numbers and greater diversity. This, they opined, has meaning in the urban landscape to foster and promote biodiversity [21].

I found this in my own yard. I harvested some plants from my yard when I moved and planted them in my garden in my new yard. I planted native asters, like the smooth aster, next to some nursery specimens. Both varietals did well but I noticed a difference in the bees on each varietal in October. The native varietal was covered with more honey bees than I could count. The nursery propagated aster contained only a handful of bees.

October is critical month in New York for insects. Most other plants have stopped producing nectar, so migrating monarchs and bee colonies rely on native asters heavily. Upon reflection, the value of the native aster makes sense. Nurseries produce varieties of plants based upon color and presentation while native varieties evolved to attract local populations of wildlife. As bees and butterflies hunt for food they are attracted to those plants that are familiar and entice them [22]. Nursery plants could never have the same appeal. It stands to reason that locally sourced varietals would be ideal for residential gardens.

Locally sourced native plant varietals have evolved sustain the particular weather in a community and likely to attract the greatest number or native wildlife within its community.

4. Ecological Communities

Random plantings would not give the same benefit as plants that belong together. It is smart to understand which plants belong in a wetter environment and which thrive in a dry environment, planting accordingly. I made the mistake of planting a native cactus in the shade. The cactus did not thrive and eventually died.

Tallamy (2012) suggests balanced plant communities to balance pollinators, pests and beneficial insects for each season to ensure the garden is beneficial and beautiful. In addition, the Xerces Society suggests planting larval food, sheltering plants and nectar plants for adduct insects in order to support native pollinator insects [3, 18].

As important as the plant material is – placement of the plant material is equally important. Animals, birds and insect prefer a layered look to their plant material [4]. Trees, planted closely to bushes then flowers provide shelter and food. Native plant varietals, happy in their placement, self-seed in a bed to provide an abundance of food and shelter for birds, insects and small wildlife. Columbine and Blue eyed grass self-seed freely providing a mass of blooms in the bed. For birds, the layered bed provides a safer place to nest, raise their young and feed. It is what is abundant in the forests and keeps them safe from roaming hawks.

I built my new house in a rural community on land that was a former horse pasture. It is wide open with few trees and bushes. I feed birds year round and have built feeding stations for them. The birds are nervous when they are at the feeding station and are easily spooked. I have begun to plant native species but it will take years for that plant material to grow large enough to protect the birds. In the meantime, I provide abandoned Christmas trees placed strategically around the feeding station to help protect them from a local Coopers Hawk.

5. Conclusion

My generation has witnessed unprecedented ecological changes with global warning, habitat loss and species extinction. My generation has also witnessed the comeback of brown pelicans, bald eagles, and peregrine falcons. I choose to focus on what can be done, not what has been lost.

It is important to ensure that my children’s children and grandchildren will watch monarch butterflies flitter in a field, be dazzled by a field of fireflies and wonder at the diversity of nature [23]. As such, I have increasingly relied upon native plant, tree and bush varietals for my garden, reaping a bountiful harvest of diversity.

It is important that this kind of progress happen in every community. I believe that education can be a key component to incredible biodiversity. Residential landscapes can provide the support wildlife if these gardens provide the basic elements of life – food, water, shelter and places to raise their young. Migrating and resident wildlife both require these basic elements. Today, most communities are barren of all of these elements. Now is the time, this is the place, and with that commitment we can make a difference.

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2. Gorman, S. U.S. Lists a Bumble Bee Species as Endangered for First Time. 2017 [cited 2017 January 12].

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22. Pardee, G.L. and S.M. Philpott, Native plants are the bee’s knees: local and landscape predictors of bee richness and abundance in backyard gardens. Urban Ecosyst, 2014. 17: p. 641–659.

23. Berry, T., The Dream of the Earth. 1988, San Francisco, California: Sierra Club Books.

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