Create a thriving ecosystem, one plant at a time
By Katie Bohri, Mt. Cuba Center
Reusable straws and shopping bags, high-efficiency cars and turning off the lights when leaving a room are some of the ways consumers consciously curb their impact on the environment. This spring, consider committing to something that heals the environment: your front yard.
A University of Delaware professor is something of a legend when it comes to researching and advocating for the hidden power of our yards. Dr. Doug Tallamy’s new book, Nature’s Best Hope (Timber Press, 2020), lays out a plan that any person can take into action, whether he or she stewards a hundred-acre wood, a suburban lawn, or a window box in the city. And it’s simpler than you think.
Remember learning about the food web in science class? The ways creatures connect to each other in a thriving ecosystem—an ecosystem upon which our lives depend—has everything to do with who eats who, and the plants that can convert sunlight into food to make up the foundational layer. These plants support all manner of insects and herbivores, which then support birds and other mammals, and on through the web.
Building habitat to support a strong ecosystem can simply mean cultivating the plants that can feed our insects—native plants. These plants support the poster children of conservation, like monarch butterflies and bees as well as the flies and beetles that are equal contributors to the system’s biodiversity.
Some Plants are Better than Others
Planting natives need not mean ripping out every patch of lawn and replacing it with a wild meadow. That would certainly help the environment, but it may not help the homeowner’s association’s opinion of your lot. Work incrementally to transform your yard into a healthy home for insects or, as Tallamy likes to call them, “the little things that run the world.” Add a favorite perennial here and there, plant a tree and watch it grow over the years, or add a fruit-bearing shrub to draw birds to the window in wintertime.
Tallamy describes several elements of a home landscape that are powerhouses of ecological support, calling them keystone species. White oak trees, for example, support 534 species of insect larvae, and beech trees support 126 species. These are much better performers than a nonnative tree, like a zelkova, which supports near-zero insects, or an invasive Callery pear tree, which actually takes over the space from native plants.
Trees are the backbones of our landscapes and others add a painterly touch. Adding a favorite tree and perennial to the landscape —even if it’s a decorative container on the front porch—supports the environment and the beauty of our landscapes.
Meet the local biodiversity and natural wonder of native plants at Mt. Cuba Center, a botanical garden in Hockessin dedicated to putting the beauty of native plants and ecosystems on display. This spring is the Trillium Trek, where guests can explore Mt. Cuba Center’s lush woodland gardens to find 10 unique trilliums while they last. These fleeting flowers bloom for only a short period of time. The Trillium Trek is on display from April 15-May 24. Plan your visit at mtcubacenter.org.