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Gardening to engage with the native wildlife

Becky Gallery
April 30, 2020

As the days lengthen and the soil warms, my thoughts turn toward the gardens. Vegetables to feed us, flowers to cheer us and trees to cool us with shade on a warm, summer day.

Gardening always connects me to nature, to the soil, to the plants and to the creatures that share the world with us. Will the groundhog nibble off the newly-planted vegetable seedlings? Will the hornworms eat my tomatoes this summer? Will the birds devour the blueberries before I can gather enough for a pie?

There is a bit of give and take when it comes to gardening. I give new plants a chance to thrive by nurturing, watering and weeding them. I allow the neighboring wildlife to have their share, too. There may be a fence to tell Mr. Groundhog to stay away, but there are no pesticides. As a result, the insects have something to nibble and the birds get their share of insects, especially the caterpillars in the spring, with berries and seeds later in the year. But what plants are the best to encourage our native insects and birds to share the outdoors with me?

The National Wildlife Foundation has developed a native plant finder website that lists the native plants in each zip code that will attract the largest variety of native insects. Why would I want to attract native insects, you may ask? To feed the baby birds! Caterpillars are to birds what breast milk or formula is to babies: food that is easily swallowed and nutritious for newborns. To feed a nest of newly-hatched chickadees, the parent chickadees need more than 6,000 caterpillars before the chicks are fledged! Your yard and garden can provide food for the caterpillars, which in turn provides food for the baby birds.

Goldenrod (solidago) is great: at least 124 varieties of insects are attracted to these plants. Joe Pye weed (eupatorium), a wonderful butterfly-magnet in late summer, attracts more than two dozen varieties of insects. The sunflower (helianthus) will make great bird food later, and it attracts at least 60 different types of insects! Wild geranium (geranium) and yarrow (achillea) are also good for drawing a crowd. And the milkweed plants (asclepias), known for the Monarch butterflies they attract, support several dozen types of insect life.

Tree swallow babies (Photo by Steve Byland, iStock)

Looking for shade? Plant an oak (quercus), a willow (salix) or a maple (acer) tree. Please, native varieties only: stay away from Norway maples and other invasive species! Beach plum (Prunus Maritima) is part of the cherry family, a native plant, and can withstand seaside conditions. The cherry family of trees attracts more than 400 varieties of insect life! And those native Maine blueberries? Not only do the berries make great pies, the vaccinium family of plants attracts nearly 300 species of insects, and the birds love the berries too!

Pollinators also adore native plants. The asters, sunflowers and black-eyed susans all satisfy a pollinator’s appetite, attracting a wide variety of insect life. Coneflowers also help the local pollinators, and their seed-heads will feed some hungry birds later if left to dry on the stems in the garden.

For a complete list of native plants attractive to insects in your area, visit the National Wildlife Federation’s native plant finder site, plug in your zip code and learn which plants you can add to your garden to bring insects and birds into your yard.

Read more about the relationships between our plants and wildlife with Douglas Tallamy’s excellent books, Bringing Nature Home and Nature’s Best Hope.

Another source of information on native plants in your garden is the University of Maine’s Extension Service website. They have a section devoted to plants for Maine’s landscape, as well as a variety of information on other gardening topics.

So why not consider the wildlife as you’re planning your garden this year? Enjoy!