Declining biodiversity is one of the most serious issues today. With the growing demands of the human population, species in all parts of the world are being stressed due to climate change, habitat loss, and pollution. We are seeing unprecedented rates of extinction.
As landowners and gardeners, we need to recognize our role in providing a safe haven for native plants and their dependents while attending to our own needs. We can collectively help counter the negative effects of human activity by simply tuning into Nature, our best teacher, always there, always showing how. In recognizing, understanding and applying her principles and copying her designs, we ourselves will achieve a sense of place within the natural order.
The natural environment is a complex mix of living and non-living components with little separation between them. Life is perfectly tuned in to the length of day, climate and seasonal changes. Interrelationships and interdependencies have been fine-tuned over thousands of years. The most profound thing we can do is let go of our need to control and fall into step with natural processes and rhythms.
Nature’s gardens are not raked, groomed and artificially fertilized. Natural litter is vital to countless creatures. It nourishes, protects and is in constant state of change. It is a way to ensure resources aren’t depleted. So, what originates in a yard should stay in a yard. That’s one way we can work with Nature to live sustainably.
In the process of naturalizing a yard we intentionally share our space with indigenous plants and allow ancient interrelationships to reestablish into the natural community meant to exist here. We will then gradually see the diversity of life return and recognize our own place within it.
Before European settlement, indigenous plants represented the only sources of food, medicines and materials for the indigenous people. Much of this knowledge has been lost, but as we learn more about plant species native to our area, we begin to understand their importance to the indigenous people and potential value to us as food or medicine. Maintaining biodiversity is absolutely vital as every species that goes extinct represents a loss that will impact us as a member of Earth’s community.
We often see our yards as a lot of work that absolutely has to be done. It’s time to let it go and step into our yards with wonder and humility, recognizing Nature as teacher, nurturer, and healer. Rather than seeking to control Nature we best allow ourselves to be controlled by her.
Nature is perfect in design, rhythms and inter-relationships. Everything we see or don’t see is an integral part of the well being of the whole. Our finite minds can’t fully grasp the significance of everything around us.
Cycles ensure perpetual existence for species on board this remarkable planet. A fungus we see popping out of the ground is actually a small part of a huge underground network of fungal mycelia that connect many plants to these effective decomposers and ensure them a constant supply of nitrogen and other important nutrients. Turning over the soil disrupts this network. Gardening is best accomplished with minimal soil disturbance.
Nothing in nature goes to waste and there is naturally a home for everyone. An old stump or log plays nurse to young plants. Inside is a bustling community of animals and fungi – interacting in such a way that ensures a place for those who follow. There is constant rebuilding. Removing materials from the natural environment leaves creatures homeless and disrupts natural balance.
All around us we see incredible design, texture, and colour. Why are we so determined to try to improve on that? Every square inch of the natural world is inhabited by plants and animals so diverse in form, colour and patterns, it boggles the mind. Most of us are awed and inspired by Nature’s tapestry when we visit a park but see it as messy just outside our doors. It is time to redefine our concepts of beauty and order.
Growing native plants is a way of reaffirming the natural order. We imitate Nature’s gardens and so attract many forms of wildlife. A naturalized yard is a paradise within easy reach, a completely self-sustaining community which requires nothing from us other than being an integral part of it.
To help bring balance back to our planet, we need to see our yards and communities through the eyes of indigenous species who must find food, shelter, water and a place to reproduce. Asphalt, perfect lawns and raked gardens do not support much life. However, every yard is potentially a small section of wildlife habitat and corridor that threads through urban and rural areas providing shelter, food, and water for resident creatures and those migrating through. Every type of yard can become a different type of wildlife habitat featuring a diversity of plant life. Shady yards can feature shade tolerant trees, shrubs, vines, ferns, woodland wildflowers, grasses and sedges. Soggy spots or shorelines can feature an incredible diversity of trees, shrubs, wetland grasses, sedges and wildflowers. Sunny yards can feature pollinator gardens. Dry, sandy or rocky areas can be planted with shrub, wildflower, and grass species specially adapted to thrive under difficult conditions.
Within our backyard communities, plants convert sunlight energy into chemical energy by removing consumer waste in the form of CO2 from the atmosphere and turning it into life-sustaining food and O2. All the energy required to make our yards vibrant, biodiverse areas comes from the sun. Any energy we expend is a futile attempt to control Nature and ultimately we suffer.
All life-sustaining elements are recycled constantly between living and non-living components of the environment. Natural mulch in the form of dead plant material soaks in rain water, slows down evaporation and protects soil organisms from extreme heat or cold. Plant mulch and animal waste eventually break down into the rich humus of topsoil. From there the elements are incorporated back into living tissues and the process repeats itself ad infinitum.
The water cycle ensures a constant supply of clean water even during droughts. Dew supplies water on an almost daily basis. Rocks cooled during the night become sites of condensation during hot, humid days. These trickles of condensed water are important to many creatures and become available to plants whose roots extend under the rocks. Even the gentlest rain that falls on a roof allows for collection opportunities that will help sustain our yards through the hotter, drier days of summer. In a sustainable yard, we rely on the water available to us naturally rather than watering heavily from ground water or treated municipal sources. Rocks and mulch are important components of any natural garden as they help condense and retain moisture.
Soil comes from rocks eroded into sand and clay; the precious humus of topsoil comes from decomposition. Under natural processes, it took thousands of years to form soil. When we strip away the vegetation or till the soil, seeds that need light to germinate will quickly take over the bare ground and so prevent wind or water erosion of precious topsoil and scorching from the hot summer sun. These are the annual weeds which would naturally be replaced by perennials in a process called succession. So, when we prepare soil for planting, it’s best to immediately plant perennials and cover any exposed areas with mulch. Better yet, avoid turning over the ground when putting in a garden by laying down a biodegradable barrier like cardboard, covering it with composted material which builds the top soil and then plant into that in a way that doesn’t interfere with the underlying soil ecosystem.
Every natural community has predators whose ecological role is to prevent runaway populations of another resident. Natural predation never eliminates a prey species but it controls the extent of damage done to vegetation. In a small yard, it’s the spiders, lady beetles, predatory wasps, stink bugs, ground beetles, toads, snakes and a host of other carnivorous creatures that ensure balance.
There is growing concern with the plight of pollinators. Habitat loss and use of pesticides are the causes of many of these important species being threatened with extinction. Without pollinators we would have little to eat. The more diverse the plant life providing nectar and pollen from early spring to fall, the more likely we will have the pollinators we need to ensure our own food supply. A sustainable yard supports hundreds of pollinating species including butterflies, moths, bees, wasps, flies, beetles and hummingbirds.
A butterfly garden is aesthetically pleasing with its showy flowers and beautiful visitors. However, it is important to remember a beautiful butterfly was once a hungry caterpillar. A butterfly garden or yard should include larval host plants to ensure the food supply is complete throughout a butterfly’s life. This is where we eagerly look for chewed leaves and celebrate the holes left by the young ones. For example:
- The Giant Swallowtail caterpillar needs to have prickly ash or hop tree in the vicinity.
- The Crescent Butterfly is dependent on asters.
- The Tiger Swallowtail depends on trees like cherries, ash and poplars.
- Red Admiral larvae feed on nettles,
- Great Spangled Fritillary larvae feed on violets
- The American Lady butterfly larvae feed on pussytoes and pearly everlasting.
- The Baltimore larva feeds on turtlehead.
- The Silver-spotted Skipper larvae feed on the foliage of legumes.
- The Monarch larva feeds exclusively on milkweeds.
The wildlife that inhabits natural areas, whether plant or animal, is specially adapted and is able to thrive without competition from other species. However, as natural barriers have become less effective with human travel and trade between continents, plants and animals alien to local natural communities have taken over ecological niches of indigenous species. The more we can prevent the intrusion of invasive non-native species into our yards, the more likely we can help maintain the ecological diversity of our local area.
We should also keep in mind that climate change is naturally encouraging species to move northward. In adapting to climate change, we need to recognize our role in facilitating this process as many species indigenous to this area will not do well with the changing environmental conditions. Given the current and evolving situation, it is misguided to think that we can re-establish the natural communities that existed here before European settlement. Our focus should be on providing space for indigenous species as new natural balances come into play. This will take a lot of patience. Change in nature doesn’t happen overnight. It can take decades, centuries or even millennia
Plants native to the area are an integral part of the original sustainable systems that existed in this part of the world before the ecological upheaval brought about by human activity. Planting them is the first step to working with Nature to rebuild sustainable communities. Biodiversity is essential to the health of a natural community and every species, whether gorgeous or not, has its special place. Every native plant we establish in our yard will attract its special dependents and these, in turn, will attract other species. Rather than judge any of these visitors as good or bad, we best rely on Nature to establish balance. Our investment in protecting biodiversity is vital to the well-being of future generations.
Our existence on earth is similar to that of creatures living inside a closed terrarium with little more than sunlight entering. Whatever happens in our small corner of this earth does impact the whole. Our challenge is to abandon many of the ways gardening has been done in the past and tune into natural processes. Clearly, we modern humans have not acknowledged our close connection with all that is and thus have collectively failed to acknowledge and protect the very systems and processes that have allowed us to thrive as a species. It is time for us to look directly to Nature to help us get back on track.
The most exciting thing about a natural garden is that we never know what we’re going to see next. We learn to become observers and participants. We take our cues from Nature in planning the garden, plant the species suited for the area, and then we let it go. Gardening naturally allows us to relax. We are encouraged to reconnect with our roots. We tune in to what works in Nature, copy what we see and watch our yards become a source of food and pleasure for us and an oasis for wildlife.
Naturalizing our yards is a way of expressing our oneness with Nature and making peace with the natural world.