Health

‘This isn’t just weeds’: Native gardens are repairing local ecosystems

Planting native and wildlife gardens is on the rise nationwide. That includes everything from purchasing plants to help butterflies to converting part of one’s lawn to a wildflower landscape.

“Not all plants support the insects that run the food webs that feed the birds and everything else,” explains Doug Tallamy, professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware. This breakdown of the food web has triggered what environmental experts call a global mass extinction event.

Why We Wrote This

Small solutions can go a long way toward solving big problems – even 40-million-acre problems. That’s what conservationists say about the ability of native and wildlife gardens to fix the food web.

Lawns, in particular, contribute little. Professor Tallamy calls them “dead scapes.” Yet, the United States currently has more than 40 million acres of land dedicated to lawns.

Conservation experts think anyone with a yard or even a deck outside an apartment can be part of the solution.

“If enough people could dedicate a significant portion of their landscape to the native plants that have co-evolved with the insects in [their] ecosystem, we could reduce the impact and maybe even stop the mass extinction event,” says Dan Pearson, coordinator of the Bring Conservation Home program in St. Louis.

“You get a sign that says, ‘This is a certified wildlife habitat,’” he says. “It helps to tell the neighbors, ‘Hey, this isn’t just weeds.’”

St. Louis

It’s a hot summer afternoon in St. Louis, and Dawn Weber’s yard is teeming with life. A gray catbird meows over the low hum of bees, as dragonflies skip across the still water of the garden’s pond. At just over a quarter of an acre, the carpet of wild violet and native plants around Ms. Weber’s house is home to about 38 species of butterflies and 99 species of birds.

“I really enjoy seeing the life,” she says. “There are about 300 species of plants between the front and the back [yards].”

Ms. Weber is among the growing number of homeowners who have traded manicured lawns for wild and diverse “naturescaped” gardens. Her garden includes native species, such as yellow bell flowers and queen of the prairie, and features a small, lily-covered pond. It’s also a certified wildlife habitat, a recognition Ms. Weber earned after becoming involved with the St. Louis Chapter of Wild Ones – a national organization that provides resources for homeowners and others interested in cultivating native plants to support local ecosystems. Ms. Weber began as a volunteer in 2013, and today she is the vice president of the Wild Ones’ largest and most active chapter. 

Why We Wrote This

Small solutions can go a long way toward solving big problems – even 40-million-acre problems. That’s what conservationists say about the ability of native and wildlife gardens to fix the food web.

The trend of planting native and wildlife gardens is on the rise nationwide. So far this year, an estimated 67.2 million American households specifically purchased plants to help butterflies, bees, and birds, and an estimated 30 million adults converted part of their lawn to a natural or wildflower landscape, according to a 2021 survey by the National Garden Association and the University of New Hampshire. The popularity of native gardening follows growing awareness of the need for species conservation in local ecosystems.

“The plants and animals around us run the ecosystem,” says Doug Tallamy, professor in the Entomology and Wildlife Ecology Department at the University of Delaware. But, he adds, “We’re losing our insects, we’re losing our plants and losing our birds. This is a serious biodiversity crisis.”

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