Create your own backyard ecosystem
Starting and maintaining a garden gives you the opportunity to create your own backyard habitat. The plant choices you make will determine how full, functioning and diverse your home’s ecosystem can be. As the creator, you have the opportunity to invite a host of helpful insects into your garden, insects that not only add vitality to your landscape, but can shoulder some of the burden and expense of garden maintenance.
What are Beneficial Insects?
While we tend to focus on insects as pests, most insects are an integral part of a healthy and diverse ecosystem. Beneficial insects provide services such as pollination, pest control and soil fertilization. Additionally, while these beneficials are doing their daily chores, they might also end up providing food for birds and other wildlife. The Xerces Society estimates the value of native beneficial insects to crop pest control at $4.5 billion annually! Having a diversity of insects in your yard gives you and your family a chance to see, right before your eyes, a miniature version of the wildlife dramas played out on a much greater scale in wild lands all over the world.
The Delaware state insect, the ladybug, is just one example of the importance of beneficial insects. Ladybug larvae are voracious eaters of aphids, those tiny bugs that suck the juices from your plants. And firefly larvae prey on slugs, those slimy critters that eat big, ugly holes in your hosta plants. The diversity of beneficial insects is astounding: assassin bugs, lacewings, hoverflies, even Parasitoid wasps. But wait, don’t all wasps sting? No, they don’t. Less than three percent of wasps sting and will only do so if you threaten them. Actually, most bees and wasps just want to go about their business of collecting food; if you leave them alone they will leave you alone too.
How to Attract Beneficial Insects
You can put beneficials to work in your yard by planting a diversity of native plants. Many of the plants that attract beneficials also support butterflies, other pollinators and songbirds. And if you’re tired of seeing Japanese beetles chowing down on your plantings, replacing lawn with native plantings makes your yard less attractive to them.
As curator of your garden, with the right choice of native plants you can enjoy beautiful (and animal-friendly) blooming from early spring to late fall. Red maple and pussy willow are among the first native plants to bloom in the spring, followed by New Jersey tea, viburnums and blueberry. Throughout the summer, butterfly weed, buttonbush, Joe Pye weed, coreopsis and coneflowers put on a beautiful show. And in the fall, migrating monarch butterflies rely on asters, goldenrods and native sunflowers to fuel their journey south. Many native shrubs provide spectacular fall colors that can give you a glimpse of New England’s famed leaf-peeping without even leaving your back porch.
Foundation plantings can include native grasses such as switchgrass, broomsedge and little bluestem. These offer shelter for insects and food for birds, while groundcovers such as golden Alexanders, pussy willow and golden ragwort also support beneficial insects and songbirds while protecting your trees’ roots.
The Delaware Nature Society’s Native Plant Sale may be your best resource for building a diverse backyard habitat. With the theme “Diversity: Beauty in Every Season,” it will be held May 2-4 at the society’s Coverdale Farm Preserve in Greenville. For more information, go to delawarenaturesociety.org.
— Lori Athey, Habitat Outreach Coordinator, Delaware Nature Society