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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

If you plant it, they will come

One thing I promised myself that having a child wasn't going to take away from me was my voracious reading habit, and I'm happy to say, I'm still reading a LOT. Blogging, not so much, but what can a girl do? Blogging occasionally seems to be how it'll go for me.

Booby and I dismantled our veggie square foot garden this year, because we put our little house up for sale, and we figured that an additional parking space would be more attractive than 6 feet of garden space surrounded by red bricks. As a result, both of us are feeling garden withdrawal, and plotting our future house purchase with special attention to The New Garden (did you know that some boros will give you trees for your yard - for FREE?).

I've also been reading a lot to get myself set up for the next place. On the bedside table this month: Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens, by Douglas W. Tallamy, who lives in Southeastern PA, just like I do. This book is a very interesting read. It makes the case that if we plant native plants in our suburban gardens, rather than alien ornamentals, we'll have a thriving insect community, which will then support and sustain other wildlife who will eat those insects. It's a pretty simple theory, but clearly a workable one.

Before I started this book, it had occurred to me that picking all the aphids from my roses wasn't going to leave much for the ladybugs who lunch on them, and I did manage to restrain myself from hosing them off of my milkweeds, since those plants exist only to be chomped by monarch butterfly larvae, anyway. We've been trained to remove all bugs from the garden, so just leaving it all be and let it exist as its own balanced ecosystem might make your fingers itch - though the rewards will be great if you do. Example: last year, our garden was enough of a pest palace that not one, not two, but five praying mantises (manti?) left egg cases behind (possibly after mating and then chewing their men's heads off post-coitally). I was fortunate enough to be outside shortly after one of the egg-cases, or oothecae, delivered its precious cargo into the world. I have never seen so many tiny, freaky little  praying mantises. They were everywhere, just hanging out, and some of them stuck around for several days (Booby has photos here). Safe to say that if we didn't have a few native plants providing food for the mantises, I wouldn't have seen those babies sunning themselves on my false dragonhead.

Tallamy also includes an appendix with lists of appropriate plants for your region. Since no one, not even the most dedicated entomologist, has ever listed which insects eat which plants (in full), this is not as simple as it sounds, so he has concentrated on the plant species favored by butterflies, moths and their larvae for each region, including information on which natives provide food for the most species, so you can get the most bang for your buck (or for your foraging trouble, since you can easily find many native seeds on your local wooded hiking trail). The idea here is that these insects are a particular favorite of nesting birds to feed their young (even herbivorous birds will feed exclusively protein-rich bugs to their nestlings), and thus bring birds (and bats!) to your yard, and keep the whole system in balance.

I have a few natives in my garden, particularly in the shady parts, but I have to admit that I had been remiss - I had three patches of alien, potentially invasive honeysuckle in there, due to my fondness for nice-smelling flowers. These plants are often seen colonizing vacant lots and slowly taking over trees, kudzu-like, until there's nothing left but a massive pile of vines. Birds disperse the plants by eating and then pooping the seeds, but insects ignore them and it's easy for them to take over. Now my garden is non-native honeysuckle-free (except for some shrubs whose berries are ignored by the birds anyway), and the garden at my next house will (eventually) be as native as I can stand for it to be, though it might mean chopping down a Norway maple or two.

If you're interested in planting natives and need a source in your state, you can find one here.

How is your gardening going this year?


At 11:23 PM, Anonymous SlowGardener said...

The native plant discussion is always an interesting one. I tend to favor natives, though my motivation has mostly to do with differentiating "here" from "there", horticulturally and aesthetically. I like to see Pennsylvania plants growing in Pennsylvania. But I've heard Doug Tallamy speak about the connections between native plants and the insects that feed on them, which in turn support local bird populations (and who doesn't like birds?). As I recall, oak trees support the largest variety of insects on a single tree species, yet insects rarely if ever significantly damage an oak. We can live in harmony with most bugs!

At 10:21 AM, Anonymous apathy lounge said...

Two gardens thriving in our backyard as I write this. Weedy, but thriving. And, damn! We need some rain!

At 2:57 PM, Anonymous Michelle said...

I put in a couple of rain barrels and a completely native rain garden in this year. I also added something called a cup plant to my flower garden. I was stunned to see how the native plants thrived without my help. The contrast between them and my droopy non natives has made me (the lazy gardener) a believer.


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