Native Gardening is a Win-Win
It’s not often we learn that we can save the world while having fun at the same time, but conserving some of the planet’s most important animals really is a win-win. The animals in question are beneficial insects — not the few pesky ones that annoy us, but the many thousands of others that pollinate our crops and flowers, feed our birds, and form the foundation of healthy ecosystems. This includes the butterflies that delight us on summer days, the crickets that lull us to sleep on summer nights, and countless others we’re not even aware of. The fun comes in creating habitat for these critters in our own yards, through gardening with native plants.
Native plants are species that have grown in Illinois since the glaciers receded 12,000 years ago. The ability to stick around this long involves not being eaten, and so plants have evolved various ways of being unpalatable — from toxins to undigestible fibers to bad taste. But insects have their own strategy for sticking around, and it involves figuring out ways to eat these plants.
Over thousands of years, our local insects have evolved the ability to eat the plants around them. But they have a hard time making use of unfamiliar plants from other parts of the world. Which means that if our yards contain only non-native plants, then our insects go hungry and can’t survive.
Why should we care about insects, outside of the ones that entertain us? Because they are food for everything else, and because they pollinate most of our food. According to entomologist (bug scientist) E.O. Wilson, humans would only last a few months if insects were to disappear from Earth, they are that important.
Insects also attract birds, which feed their young on the juicy caterpillars enjoying our oaks, willows, and wildflowers. Without insects, there would be no birds.
The good news is that we can support healthy habitat and thriving ecosystems in our own yards and have a great time doing so.
Here’s how to support healthy habitat in your yard:
Pick a small section of turfgrass or an existing, traditional garden that you’d like to convert to a pollinator garden. Find a spot you can see from your window or porch.
Plant wildflowers that will bloom from spring to autumn, add in a few grasses or sedges to give it some texture, water until established, and then enjoy your buzzing, flying visitors.
Whenever it’s time to add or replace a tree, choose a native species such as an oak that will support caterpillars and hungry birds. Plant some wildflowers under the trees, and add some native shrubs for the birds.
Since many insects spend the winter in dead leaves and twigs, just let all that brown stuff stay in your garden beds, don’t clean it out. It will break down into natural mulch and will support a continued life cycle of health and beauty in your yard.
And, of course, have fun!