Backyard Biodiversity – Terry Thormin
Biodiversity is a word that is being used and misused a lot these days. Twenty years ago most people were unfamiliar with the word, but now most people have at least a general idea of the meaning. Just for clarification here is Wikipedia’s definition “Biodiversity is the degree of variation of life forms within a given species, ecosystem, biome, or an entire planet”. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that biodiversity on our planet is declining rapidly, and that this is largely due to human factors.
I have no intentions of getting involved in a dissertation on destruction of our forests or draining of wetlands or pollution of the oceans, but rather I want to bring this right home, to our own backyards. Most people have yards with lots of green grass and perhaps a few flower beds that support cultivated flowers that they purchased from a greenhouse. More and more people are starting to grow their own vegetables in their backyards, but there is another trend taking place, that is native plant gardening.
Typical lawns are very sterile and both time and energy consumers. They need mowing, watering and weeding. Gardens of cultivated plants are pretty much the same. Going native can change much of that, and ultimately increase biodiversity in other organisms as well. I live in a townhouse, and as such only have a very limited area where I can do any growing. There is the gravel strip along the back fence where I can practice some container gardening, and the concrete patio area where I can have a few more containers. In these areas I have gone primarily with the usual greenhouse plants and some vegetables. The thin strip of lawn, of course, I cannot do anything with. But when I bought the place there was a raise garden bed that is about 10 feet by 8 feet, and I immediately saw the potential here.
The bed, which is on the north side of the house, was dominated by a lilac bush in the back corner that was growing at a 45 degree angle as it reached for the sun. Other than that the only thing I could see was a thick carpet of bishop’s weed, Aegopodium podagraria, which is an invasive Eurasian plant. It was too late in the fall to do anything, and that winter when the bishop’s weed died back, it revealed a thick carpet of moss.
Backyard fall 2009
The next spring I started to work on the garden. I was suffering from a badly arthritic left hip so I was limited in what I could do, but I did manage to plant a few native plants that I saved from a roadside ditch where construction was going to wipe them out. These included some fawn lilies and a small clump of yellow wood violets.
Pink Fawn Lily
Yellow Wood Violet
The following year, with a new hip in place, I got really busy. I decided that I did not want to dig up the bishop’s weed, and I refused to use chemicals, so I plucked it all by hand. When I did, this left space for other things to grow, and I realized that the bishop’s weed was not the only non-native plant I had to contend with. There was herb-Robert, creeping buttercup, field mint and wild lily-of-the-valley to mention a few. Then I bought a number of plants from a local nursery, Streamside Native Plants that sells nothing but native species. These included twinflower, Hooker’s fairybell, star-flowered Solomon’s seal, shooting star and many others.
A year later and I have most of the non-natives under control. Oh, I’m still picking, but not nearly as much. The lilac bush is still there, but destined to go next year and be replaced by an evergreen huckleberry. There is still a patch of bishop’s weed under the lilac bush that will also go when the lilac goes, and I am still trying to decide about some of the non-natives such as the cultivated columbine. The main thing is that I now have 28 species of identified native wildflowers, ferns and mosses growing in the garden, with several other species waiting to be identified. There are 5 species of non-native invasive plants that I have not been able to get rid of as yet, and probably will never get rid of. Most of the flowering plants were purchased from the same nursery, but a few came in on their own, or perhaps with some of the plants I purchased.
Garden plot spring 2012
This has also led to a greater diversity in the insect life in my backyard. I have not worked on identifying the insects nearly as hard as I would like to, but so far I have put names to 59 insects, 10 spiders and a sprinkling of other invertebrates. I am sure that with a bit of work I will easily double that number. I also am looking at other ways to improve insect habitat. I just recently put up a mason bee house, but so far no takers. If I do not have any success this year I will buy some mason bees next year.
Boreal Jumping Spider with Sweat Bee
I count any birds I see on my property, or from my property, so things like Bald Eagles flying overhead get counted. Because I have bird feeders up, I get a pretty good diversity of birds even for such a small backyard. I am now up to 44 species.
My total list, including plants and animals is 160 species, and I figure that with enough effort I should get up to 300 species, most of the new ones being insects.
Okay, so I am going to talk a bit about cutting down forests and draining wetlands, because that is what we do when we clear land for houses. When you think of all the creatures that lived on your property before it was cleared and developed, then you consider what is there in a typical suburban lot, the difference is appalling. Sure, we need our spaces too, but do we really need to make them so sterile for native wildlife? With a bit of thought and a bit of effort, often far less than is required for grass lawns and cultivated gardens, we can make our backyards into a haven for wildlife.
I know that my little 8’ X 10’ plot is not going to provide much habitat for wildlife, but most homes have much larger properties that can be utilized. If everyone converted at least a portion of their yards to native plant gardens then this would constitute a considerable increase in native plant habitat. A well thought out native plant garden can have flowers in bloom throughout most of the summer. Such a garden, if combined with some cultivated flowers that last the summer, can be of huge benefit to a wide variety of wildlife including pollinators such as bees and flower flies. Studies in a number of major European cities have shown that in these flower-rich and pesticide-free environments bees are thriving, whereas in agricultural areas where monocultures are grown and pesticides and herbicides are used bees are declining rapidly. This is a case where everyone truly can make a difference, and the rewards of pleasure and knowledge gained from taking this approach is a bonus.
Flower Fly, Eupeodes sp.
If you are interested in seeing more photos of my backyard you can do so at my pbase website here.