If you want to have a healthy variety of butterflies and moths on your property, you need to provide their host plants. Ben bought our house in 1991, and it sits on a .4 acre plot of land just north of downtown Asheville. Besides three magnificent oaks and a nice pine, the landscaping consisted of lawn, an ornamental well, and dozens of non-native, aggressive trash plants like privet, honeysuckle, clematis, vinca, and ivy. I came along in 1994 and slowly replaced lawn with natives and felt gratified to see a greater number of bird species in the yard as the years and plantings increased.
Today, I’d bet the previous owners would hardly recognize the place. Our yard is now a wildlife habitat, not a mono-culture of grass or showpiece for the greedy non-native landscaping and nursery industry. The urgent calling for landowners to get away from the golf course-type lawn and beds full of non-native, ecologically disastrous plants has never weighed heavier than it does today. Dr. Doug Tallamy says it best:
In the past we didn’t designed gardens that play a critical ecological role in the landscape, but we must do so in the future if we hope to avoid a mass extinction from which humans are not likely to recover either. As quickly as possible we need to replace unnecessary lawn with densely planted woodlots that can serve as habitat for our local biodiversity.
Homeowners can do this by planting the borders of their properties with native trees plants such as white oaks (Quercus alba), black willows (Salix nigra), red maples (Acer rubrum), green ashes (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), black walnuts (Juglans nigra), river birches (Betula nigra) and shagbark hickories (Carya ovata), under-planted with woodies like serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis), arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum), hazelnut (Corylus americnus), blueberries (Vacciniumspp).
Our studies have shown that even modest increases in the native plant cover on suburban properties significantly increases the number and species of breeding birds, including birds of conservation concern. As gardeners and stewards of our land, we have never been so empowered to help save biodiversity from extinction, and the need to do so has never been so great. All we need to do is plant native plants!
Under the oaks, I stopped mowing and replaced the grass with native woodland plants. In sunny spots, I adopted the planting philosophy of the Botan — controlled chaos through native plant beds. It’s a constant battle to keep invasive plants from creeping in from adjoining lots or from seeds spread by the birds, but it gives me such a deep, almost spiritual sense of peace to manage my property as a wildlife sanctuary.
This year, I got a surprise. One of our volunteers at the Gardens emailed us a picture of some caterpillars that he had seen on some Fernleaf Phacelia (Phacelia bipinnatifida), a beautiful biennial native that makes a great ground cover during the growing season. I didn’t know that Fernleaf Phacelia served as a host plant for a caterpillar, but it turns out that it does!
And, it turns out the Ethmia zelleriella caterpillar had made its home on the leaves of my phacelia! Once it appeared on my radar, I started taking a flashlight out at night hoping to see the adult moth. Sure enough — if you plant it, they will come!
What a happy find! I also found my first Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar this summer after having planted two Spicebushes (Lindera benzoin) last fall:
More about this little cutie in my next post.
For Further Reading:
- Bringing Nature Home: Gardening for Wildlife
- Endangered by Sprawl: How Runaway Development Threatens America’s Wildlife (PDF)
- The Tragedy of the Commons: A classic must-read for anyone interested in ecology.