Suddenly, the sun is back and it’s March. Bright, snow sparkling days are sweetened with maple sugaring, songs of migrating birds and spring skiing. March’s stormier side brings grayer but equally suggestive days that soon it will be gardening season. As porch furniture gets dusted off, visions for new planting and landscaping projects come to mind. According to the Vermont Lake Wise Program, homeowners and gardeners could enhance their property with native plantings while protecting water quality, wildlife habitat and property values.
The landscaping choices homeowners and gardeners make have the greatest impact on biodiversity and Vermont’s 800 lakes and ponds and their watersheds, as well as one’s own health. Minimizing lawn and restoring native plants in the yard is the best solution for managing stormwater runoff and protecting surface waters because native plants reduce, filter and purify stormwater while a lawn doesn’t. Native plants, like dogwoods, viburnums and blueberries, create year-round color, host hundreds of butterfly and moth larva, produce lively flowers and berries, clean the air and water as well as protect property from erosion during storms. Native plants also benefit one’s own health and well-being. Studies show that humans have a 15 percent higher level of well-being, are 6 percent more productive and are 15 percent more creative overall when spending time in natural landscapes. Lawns simply don’t provide these benefits.
While many of us are familiar with the specialized relationship between the monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, and the milkweed plant, Asclepias syriaca, fewer know that 90 percent of the rest of the plant eating insects are also specialized to feed on one or only a few types of native plants. Here are a few examples:
If you spot a bright, green luna moth, Actias luna, then chances are there is a native shagbark hickory tree nearby. Just as the monarch relies on milkweed, the luna moth’s larva depend on the leaves of the shagbark hickory to survive.
The native plant, eastern red cedar, Juniperus virginiana, provides the only food source for the larval stage of the olive hairstrike butterfly, Callophrys gryneasu. While cedar waxwing birds are named after the eastern red cedar because of their feeding habits on the berries, the olive hairstrike larva provide essential protein to cedar waxwings and other birds when they rear their broods.
Song birds depend on native plants, too. More than 96 percent of birds rear their young on insect protein from mostly caterpillars. Each pair of nesting chickadees needs to find baby bird food, which is about 6,000 butterfly and moth larva over a three-week period to rear their young, as baby birds can’t eat seeds yet. A native black cherry tree, Prunus serotina, hosts more than 450 species of butterfly and moth insects that birds depend on to feed their brood and provides fruit for more than 40 species of birds and many mammals, arguably making it the most important native tree for wildlife survival in Vermont. Oak, willow, birch, poplar, maple, pine, hickory and blueberry native plants all host over 200 butterfly and moth larva, while lawn is sterile and hosts zero butterfly larva. Reducing lawn by planting a single native plant can make the difference of survival for nesting song birds.
Doug Tallamy, Professor and Chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware is renowned for his science of plant-insect interactions. He has been called the Jacques Cousteau of the terrestrial world. Dr. Tallamay points to the home gardener as the solution to protecting clean water, air, wildlife and human well-being. If homeowners restored half their lawn with native plants, then most species could survive forever. Tallamy says, “You don’t have to save biodiversity for a living, but please consider saving biodiversity where you live.”
This season, challenge yourself to reduce your lawn by half and restore it with native plantings. Homeowners of condominiums to rural properties can help stop and solve threats to Vermont’s clean water simply by restoring native plants to their surroundings. The colorful rewards from homeowner landscaping actions could enhance the glow of any day in March and thereafter.
To learn more about the assistance the Vermont Lake Wise Program offers, visit bit.ly/0322Lakeshore
Amy Picotte is a scientist with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation where she works as the Vermont Lakewise Coordinator and Lakeshore Manager.