Bringing Conservation Home

We’ve lived in our home for over 20 years, and have a relatively mature landscape that we’ve cultivated over that time.  Our now 50+ year-old home is blessed with two handsome pin oaks and a number of other mature trees, including a pair of pink and white dogwoods that offer spectacular spring blossoms.  We inherited little else besides a few bushes and the sun-loving zoysia grass that requires little mowing during the summer.

We recently participated in the St. Louis Audubon Society’s Bring Conservation Home program.  For a small fee, we had an on-site evaluation of our property to identify ways to more fully embrace a native landscape.  Mitch Leachman, who coordinates the program for the Audubon Society, visited our home a week into spring, so only the bravest of plants had emerged from our harsh winter.

We walked around the house, and explored the various parts of the landscape.  Of course, some areas were more abundant with sunshine or shade, and we noted how storm water flows on and off the property.  As we walked, Mitch pointed out the non-native species, and made particular note of the invasive species, including honeysuckle and two different types of euonymus. We inherited the burning bushes, and unwittingly planted another variety, the wintercreeper, only to watch how quickly it has taken over a corner of the backyard!

These non-native plants were introduced to the region from other countries to provide visual appeal and the comfort of familiar plantings as immigrants settled across the land.  However, as Doug Tallamy explores in his book Bringing Nature Home, non-native plants contain chemical defenses to make their leaves unpalatable to native insects.  While the lack of insect damage may seem appealing, this unfortunately offers no insect protein for native Missouri songbirds. It’s important to restore this delicate balance in nature, as many insects have retreated to the countryside, with birds following their source of food.

Mitch offered a variety of insights and positive feedback on what we’ve done with our landscape.  While we initially bought into the beauty of flowering annuals, over the years we’ve invested in more perennials to reduce the amount of spring planting.  We have, of course, unknowingly planted both native and non-native plants along the way, and since most of the plants had yet to emerge from the long winter, we were limited to my recollection of the plant names.

Within a few weeks we received a custom 7-page report of observations and recommendations of the site visit.  The first section documented the non-native invasive plants, with tips on how to eradicate these plants in an environmentally-friendly way.  The bulk of the report was dedicated to listing recommendations for native plants in each of nine distinct areas around the house.  The report included a variety of resources and links to show examples of plants that flower in spring, summer and fall.  While this was not intended to be a design guide, it is a great list to choose from.  One shopping tip was to look for the Grow Native label; however, the best suggestion was to visit showcases for native plantings, including Shaw Nature Reserve’s Whitmire Wildflower Garden in Gray Summit, and Forest Park, Powder Valley Nature Center, and the Brightside St. Louis Demonstration Garden in St. Louis.

Finally, the report offered suggestions for birdhouses, stormwater management and how to spread the word about the importance of planting a native landscape.  For example, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website provides a wealth of information for both novices and serious bird watchers.  We all delight in the songs and playfulness of birds, as well as the beauty of butterflies.  By offering a more attractive habitat of native foliage, we can more fully enjoy the wildlife in our tiny slice of heaven!

This was published in the Going Green section of the May 2014 issue of Spirit Seeker magazine.

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