Go Native: Turning a Yard into a Wildlife Haven

More than just the regal frittilary depend on native grasses and wildflowers to survive. Other butterflies, birds, mammals and insects depend on native plants in some way. A program by the Pennsylvania Game Commission helps landowners turn their properties into habitat. As The Allegheny Front's Deborah Weisberg finds out, even her tiny yard can be a haven for wildlife.

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Craig: More than just the regal frittilary depend on native grasses and wildflowers to survive. Other butterflies, birds, mammals and insects, all of Pennsylvania's wildlife depend on native plants in some way. A program by the Pennsylvania Game Commission helps landowners turn their properties into habitat. As The Allegheny Front's Deborah Weisberg finds out, even her tiny yard can be a haven for wildlife.


Weisberg: Here in my city garden with state wildlife biologist Tammy Colt we watch a bumble bee gather nectar from a purple coneflower. Colt is pleased to see both native bees and native plants in my small city yard. Although my perennial beds are crowded with non-natives, too, these days Iím planting more bee balm, blue flag iris, coreopsis and phlox, as well raspberries, blueberries and other native.

Colt: We joked when I first stepped in here that your yard is kind of wild looking and it is and I love that. You provide a lot of cover here. You have trees, shrubs, lots of herbaceous plants, and some vines, so you have a lot of places where wildlife can hide in this tiny plot.

Weisberg: Cover is critical for nesting rabbits, birds, and other creatures. So are water and food sources. But Colt says the cornerstone of a healthy garden, large or small, is a balance of desirable insects, and they depend on host plants.

Colt: Love 'em or hate 'em, the insects are really such a huge component in our ecosystem. It's what a lot of the birds are eating, especially when they're feeding young. They're going to go for insects as a protein source. Even a hummingbird that uses a lot of nectar when theyíre older, they will catch insects for their young. So, they're important for pollination, for the balance and control of other insects, the ones we consider pests. Everyone knows about ladybugs eating aphids.

Weisberg: Colt says if you want the right mix of insects you need to start with a mixed bag of native plants. Certain bugs like certain vegetation, like monarch butterflies and milkweed.

Colt: Some of them are going to feed on leaves of trees. Some of them use pretty common herbaceous or some of the herbs you might have in a garden like this or that you could easily add, like parsley, dill, fennel, the mints.And you do have some mints here already. Those things are host plants for certain butterflies.

Weisberg: Colt knows a lot about the value of biodiversity. She works for the Pennsylvania Game Commission as a specialist in native birds and mammals that are disappearing from the landscape. She runs a program that helps property owners manage their land to attract these non-game species of concern, like the Appalachian cottontail, eastern meadowlark and yellow breasted chat. Each landowner gets a site visit and a customized plan.

Colt: : We definitely would recommend planting native shrubs for food and cover, conifers for winter thermal cover, certain timber management practices, best management for agriculture, grassland restoration with native grasses and wildflowers and buffers for riparian areas along streams and wetlands.

Weisberg: Although Colt usually deals with large tracts of land, 20 acres or more, she agreed to tour my garden to make the point that no parcel is too small to become a wildlife refuge, although it does require a shift in thinking.

Colt: We have to fall out of love with the short, manicured lawn. It's not food. It's not cover. It's a huge investment of our time and money and it's hard on the ecosystem when we use all those herbicides, and pesticides and all these things to keep it looking like the picture everyone has in their mind how it should look.

Weisberg: More garden centers and of course the Internet are making it easier to buy native species. Colt also recommends Douglas Talamy's book Bringing Nature Home: How Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens. Colt says each of us, even with a handful of plants, can have an impact.

Colt: I totally believe in that adage, think globally, act locally. Whether you're benefiting butterflies right here or benefiting something on a much larger scale, you're still doing something that's a plus.

Weisberg: She says one wildlife-friendly garden can plant seeds of positive change.

Colt: You are demonstrating to others.Your neighbors saying "Her yard is messy. Wow. You see how many birds are in her yard!" You're influencing others by your actions.

Weisberg: Colt also recommends the Nature Conservancy's Backyard Habitat Program and, for large properties, her landowner assistance program, a free service of the game commission. For more visit alleghenyfront.org.

For the Allegheny Front, I'm Deborah Weisberg.