Small changes, big impacts

Alabama Living Magazine

By Katie Jackson

When it comes to gardening for nature, big changes come in small packages and work best when approached with baby steps.

That’s the message that ecologist Michelle Bertelsen, naturalist David Mizejewski and entomologist/conservationist Doug Tallamy all try to emphasize whenever they share their passion for nature-friendly gardening, especially when they’re talking to folks who are new to the concept.

“Developing a wildlife-friendly landscape only becomes scary and un-doable if you think you have to do it all by tomorrow,” Tallamy says. Instead, he suggests approaching it with an eye toward one or two of the four components of a healthy ecosystem (supporting pollinators, supporting the food web, sequestering carbon and managing the watershed).

“Look at your property and ask yourself, ‘Which one of these can I do better?’ Almost everyone can do at least one of those better,” he says. “Think of it as an ecological hobby: I’m going to improve the ecological integrity of my property a little bit each year.”

Research conducted at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas has shown that a mixture of low-growing native grasses can be used as a substitute for lawn turfs. These native grasses, similar varieties of which exist in every region of the country, require less mowing, watering and fertilizing. Photo courtesy of Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

All three experts encourage the idea of starting in a small and specific area of the yard or garden rather than trying to make-over the entire yard. This saves time, money and allows gardeners to learn as they go.

They also all agree that the basis of any nature-minded landscape is the use of native plants, which are suited specifically to local environments. Because these plants evolved with local wildlife species, they will provide almost everything local wildlife needs to thrive.

And once established, native plants can also help lower maintenance demands in the landscape. “There’s no garden in the world that is ‘no maintenance,’” says Bertelsen, “but you shouldn’t have to water and fertilize native plants as much as you do nonnative species.”

It’s also important to plant natives densely and diversely. Filling a space with lots of compatible but different plant species is ideal. “The more plants you have and the bigger the grouping of them, the more likely you’re going to support wildlife,” Mizejewski says.

Reducing the amount of land dedicated to a lawn can open more space for wildlife-friendly native plants and lower lawn care maintenance costs. However, lawns are often happy places for many homeowners, so there’s no need to eliminate lawns entirely. Just replace under-utilized areas of the lawn with native plants.

It’s also important to assess a site’s growing conditions including its soil profile (run a soil test for this), moisture levels (determine if the area is naturally wet, dry or somewhere in between) and lighting conditions (shady or sunny, for example).

“The key to all native gardening is matching the plant to the conditions rather than matching the conditions to the plant,” Bertelsen says. “Really, it’s the same as it would be for any kind of gardening.”
Armed with an understanding of local conditions, gardeners and homeowners can explore the choices of native plant species suited for their sites and find plants that also appeal to their goals and personal styles.

Once gardening for nature becomes second nature, homeowners can expand their efforts across the yard and, quite possibly, become the envy of the neighborhood.
“If you choose the right plants, your yard can look just like your neighbor’s, only yours will be supporting nature and wildlife whereas your neighbor’s yard might not,” Mizejewski says. That’s something to aspire to.

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Award-winning Alabama Living is the official statewide publication of the electric cooperatives in Alabama and the largest magazine of its type in the state, reaching some 400,000 electric cooperative consumers.

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