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Green Speak

Horticulture topics from gardens to lawns and then some.

Habitat in the Home Landscape

If I may steal a line from Doug Tallamy- For decades the prevailing notion of developers is that humans are here, therefore nature needs to be elsewhere. In our minds we always think of nature as elsewhere, but certainly not in our very own yards. With the expansion of housing and commercial properties into the rural hinterland and urban greenspace, nature is running out of alternative habitat.

This is where property owners can help. Whether you live in the country, in an apartment, or at the end of a cul-de-sac, you can provide much needed habitat for our wildlife.

The best place to start is with the lawn. Lawn was a term that first described a wildflower meadow in the 16th Century. In fact, grasses were considered weeds back then. Over time, lawns transitioned to mimic the grass pastures of large estates. Today, a lawn is considered a low-cut, highly manicured grass groundcover and is present on most every property in the US.

Fact of the matter, lawns provide very little habitat, unless you are a Canadian goose or beetle grub. This makes lawns the obvious candidate for an alternative planting scheme.

Consider transitioning a portion of your lawn into habitat for wildlife. It doesn't have to mimic Yellowstone; instead it could be a few square feet in the corner of your property. Or even simple containers growing plants that are larval sources for certain butterflies and moths. Milkweed is the obvious example of a larval source for the Monarch butterfly.

Incorporate more native understory trees and shrubs that produce berries for birds. Or plant evergreens that will serve as cover for birds in the winter. In my backyard, we place our winter feeders near our eastern red cedar evergreens and the birds seem to prefer these. This spring the feeders are gone, but the chickadees have remained and entertain us as they flit from tree to tree in our small backyard.

Consider shredding fall leaves and use them as mulch. In my shade garden, shredded leaves serve as mulch. It offers wonderful habitat for smaller critters and insects, along with nest building material and foraging options for birds.

Water is integral to habitat. This could be in the form of a birdbath to a small wetland. Mosquitoes should be of concern, but are easily managed with the use of Bacillis thuringiensis israelensis (Bti). This insecticide comes in slow release dunks that can be placed in bird baths or water features. Bti also comes in granular form and can be applied to your small wetland habitat. Always read and follow label directions when using any pesticide.

Finally, don't be over-zealous. You may be passionate about providing habitat for wildlife, but your neighbor may be equally as passionate about their lawn. Few converts will be made on a 'ban all lawns' platform. Compromise is the best tool. Lawns have their place in our communities integrated alongside natural habitat for wildlife.

Contact your local Extension office for more resources on creating habitat in your own backyard.

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