Making It Easier For Us To Make A Home For Birds And Pollinators
A lot of people want to help pollinators, birds, and other wildlife. But if the first task we face is finding the right native plants, it is not always easy to do in 2021.
“There’s a supply chain problem in the nursery trade,” says Mary Phillips, director of National Wildlife Federations’ Garden for Wildlife program. “Some wonderful nurseries grow native plants on a regional level, but they tend to be small suppliers.” As for the dominant suppliers, she says, “The big players in the horticulture industry follow consumer demand. Often, the consumer demands features in plants that cause growers to “breed out” characteristics that offer wildlife benefits.” These bred plants are often called “cultivars,” or in the case of native plants, “nativars.”ap
“Unfortunately, the birds, butterflies, moths, and other creatures can’t wait for the nursery trade to catch on,” says Phillips, referring to marked declines in wildlife populations.
In a bid to break down the barriers to native plant supplies, National Wildlife Federation (NWF) launched Garden for Wildlife Native Plant Collections this year, a science-based collection of pollinator “keystone” plants for ecoregions of the northeastern US and Midwest. The program’s goal is to make it easy for anyone to buy and successfully plant a high-value pollinator garden. Because the plants are perennials, they continue to provide support year after year. The collections are delivered directly to the purchaser’s address with instructions.
The Science Behind Biological corridors
The science behind these collections comes from the work of Dr. Douglas Tallamy, a University of Delaware professor, and his entomology research team. Tallamy is the author of four popular books that have influenced many people and institutions to change the way they manage their land. He argues that, by offering plants that support large numbers of native insects, we can overcome many of the barriers created by the modern world. Among other ideas, he urges all landowners to think of their parcels as functional parts of a biological corridor. (Learn about Tallamy’s books and research at www.homegrownnationalpark.org.)
Another bee and pollinator conservationist, Jarrod Fowler, also publishes research that influenced the Garden for Wildlife plant selections. (See www.jarrodfowler.com)
Securing a Supply of High-Value Plants
Behind the scenes, the Garden for Wildlife team works with the horticulture trade to increase the supply of keystone pollinator plants. “Our goal is to reach 500,000 wildlife gardens, planted by 2025,” says Mary Phillips.
That’s an ambitious goal, given the shortage of native plants at this time.
“We place pre-orders with our growers in the fall,” says Phillips. “That way they know what to grow and they know they won’t be stuck with unsold plants.” Garden for Wildlife is currently contracting for plants native to ecoregions in 20 northeastern and midwest states, of which Connecticut is one.
There’s more to the story, however. “It’s not enough to supply lots of native plants,” says Phillips. “The growing methods are important. For instance, we are only working with suppliers who avoid the use of neonicotinoids.”
These insecticides, commonly called “neonics,” are a known hazard for bees. When used in a nursery setting, neonics can remain in plant stems, leaves, and roots for up to a year.
The Garden for Wildlife team had to address other tricky questions, such as plant propagation. “We guide growers towards seeds sourced from places as close to the plants’ ecoregions as possible,” says Phillips. This is a difficult undertaking. Over the past century, most seed suppliers concentrated production in the Midwest or western US, as well as overseas.
“There are regional adaptations that are passed along only by regionally produced seeds,” says Phillips. “We lose those valuable adaptations when plants are grown from clones, cuttings, or from seeds produced far away from their native regions.”
Phillips notes that locally-grown seeds protect plant biodiversity. “The next generation of plants is made more resilient by the exchange of genetic material between locally-adapted parent plants,” she says.
Finding the Right Kit
After I entered my zip code at www.gardenforwildlife.org/s/questionnaire, I completed a brief questionnaire about my location and interests. The site provided two kit recommendations, one for full sun and one for part shade. Plant descriptions and planting instructions appeared. The site also showed that these selections support 102 bee species and 144 butterfly species in our region.
Even if you’re not ready to purchase, the resulting plant list will tell you whether you already have high-value species in your gardens. My sun list, for instance, included three plants I already grow: orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), smooth blue aster (Symphotrichum laeve), and stiff leaf goldenrod (Solidago rigida). It also listed one that I do not grow, lanceleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata). Thus informed, there’s a new species on my shopping list.
“We are trying to supply not just plants, but a planting experience that supports success,” says Phillips.
Regional Connectivity Important
Even though we talk about plants as “Connecticut natives” or New England natives, in reality, our state has eight ecoregions. These small areas have differences in soil, rainfall, topography, temperatures, and other characteristics that influence plants, pollinators, birds, and animals.
The shoreline towns, for instance, are labeled 59g, The Long Island Sound Coastal Lowland. However, north of the shoreline region is ecoregion 59c, The Southern New England Coastal Plains and Hills.
Learn more about ecoregions by visiting the EPA website: www.epa.gov/eco-research/ecoregions-north-america.
Learn about native plants for local ecoregions by using these plant-finder databases: • National Wildlife Federation Native Plant Finder: www.nwf.org/nativeplantfinder
• Native Plant Trust Native Plant Finder: www.plantfinder.nativeplanttrust.org
• Plant-Search Audubon Plants for Birds: https://www.audubon.org/plantsforbirds
• Earthtones Native Plant Nursery: www.earthtonesnatives.com/search.php
• University of Rhode Island Native Plant Finder: www.web.uri.edu/rinativeplants
• UConn Tree and Shrub Database: (Use CT Native filter!) https://plantdatabase.uconn.edu/
Kathy Connolly is a writer and speaker on landscape ecology, horticulture, and landscape design. Kathy@SpeakingofLandscapes.com.