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Plants aren't just for decoration: Use them to improve soil, attract wildlife

This June 2, 2015 photo shows allium, rhododendron, berry-laden shrubs and an Asian pear tree that provide pollen and syrup for pollinators plus food and shelter the year-'round for birds, animals and other insects on a property near Langley, Wash. Plants can be more than decorations and are useful to improve the soil, attract birds, animals and insects. (Dean Fosdick via AP)
September 22, 2015 - 6:30 AM

To attract wildlife to your garden, plant in layers, year-round, from ground level to tree canopy.

Birds, animals and insects need food, water and shelter to survive. In a garden, that means a mix of flowers, shrubs and trees.

"Plants are more than decorations, and landscapes are three-dimensional, not two-dimensional, if you layer the landscape," said Douglas Tallamy, a professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware. "Leaf litter from that accumulation also builds a healthy soil and that's very important."

"Sustainability" is a buzzword used today by many landscape designers. It applies to vegetation particular to its site, attractive, adapted to local conditions and requiring little maintenance.

"The perception by many is that a sustainable landscape takes care of itself, which is far from true," said Chris Enroth, an Extension horticulturist with the University of Illinois. "When I teach sustainable landscaping, I ask the audience when they hear 'sustainable' to instead think 'resilient.'"

Enroth doesn't subscribe to the native-plants-only landscaping approach if the exotics brought in aren't invasive.

"There is nothing wrong with mixing native plants with plants adapted to your site," he said. "In fact, that is likely to be what can make your garden so dynamic and unique while still being part of a local identity and ecology."

Important ways to create biodiversity in the landscape also include:

— Planting in layers using different dimensions and plant types as well as leafy and evergreen species. Incorporate a variety of plants in every layer.— Doing your research. "Butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) is a great nectar source for butterflies but is native to Asia and not a host for butterfly caterpillars," Enroth said. "A better option would be milkweed, which is a host to the monarch butterfly, and a nectar source for adult monarchs and various other nectar feeders."

— Providing a benign environment and tying it in with neighbouring landscapes. Lay off the chemicals.

— Adding water. "Many birds are attracted to moving water," Enroth said. "A small inexpensive pump in a bird bath may draw in bird species that typically don't frequent your backyard."

— Paying attention to trees — including those in boulevards or public right-of-ways. "Other than when severe water regulations are in place, homeowners who water street trees usually are seen in a positive light by a city," said Jim Zwack, director of technical services for The Davey Tree Expert Co. in Kent, Ohio. "Water is one of the most critical resources needed by trees, and growing conditions along a street can be difficult."

Check first with City Hall, however, Zwack said. Some cities have ordinances prohibiting homeowners from managing trees on public property.

— Be cautious about growing one plant species on a single site at a time. "It's nice to have matching trees with an arching canopy over city streets," Tallamy said. "It looks nice, but biologically, it's diversity that works."

— Plant species that thrive in your location. "Don't try to create an Eastern forest in South Dakota," Tallamy said. "Know something about the local biology. Go for plants needing the least maintenance."

If you create a landscape good for insects, then you've created a landscape good for just about anything, Tallamy said.



For more about layered landscaping and plant diversity, see this fact sheet:

You can contact Dean Fosdick at

News from © The Associated Press, 2015
The Associated Press

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