The Brush Pile: Build It for Our Wild Friends

Brush piles provide shelter to many creatures.

THE BRUSH PILE: BUILD IT FOR OUR WILD FRIENDS

A brush pile is an uncomplicated, no-cost structure. It’s basically a large pile of sticks that offers habitat to all sorts of wildlife. Squirrels climb and hide, chipmunks zip under and out and a whole host of birds routinely hop through the network of limbs that occupies our garden. Oh, and yes, I need to mention the mice… But before you decide a brush pile isn’t for you, consider that all carnivorous and omnivorous animals eat mice. Coyotes, foxes, owls, hawks, snakes and raccoons don’t think twice about snatching up a mouse for a meal.
A fox hunts near a homemade brush pile. Brush piles are beneficial to wildlife seeking shelter.
A trap camera photo of a hunting red fox. Brush piles provide sanctuary for potential fox food.

The components of our two small brush piles consist of fallen tree branches gathered on our property and found curbside around the neighborhood and include larger chain-sawed limbs. We don’t have a large lot – it’s less than a ¼ of an acre – but reducing lawn has left us with more room to accommodate critters. Building both habitats was quick and easy, and wearing architect as well as artist hats made the handiwork enjoyable. Constructing a brush pile to support our wild friends is definitely a fun and creative project for families to do together – and to enjoy for many years.

The Three S’s: Sanctuary, Shelter and Snacks

Why should you create a brush pile?  There are three elements a brush pile provides:

1. Sanctuary.  Brush piles create a sanctuary for our wildlife.  Birds, salamanders, snakes, turtles, small mammals (and more!) all need a helping hand, especially in our stripped-down suburban areas.  A properly built brush pile provides a place for our creatures to hide from their many predators.

2. Shelter.  In times of extreme weather a brush pile is the perfect shelter.  In winter it’s particularly vital for protecting our birds.  If your property is void of mature evergreen shrubs and trees that birds need for protective cover, evergreen foliage placed over a brush pile during the winter months will create a dry interior birds can safely roost in.

3. Snacks.  Many insect species are attracted to the decaying wood and will make it their home.  Insects found in brush piles are an additional source of protein-rich food for woodpeckers and other bug eating animals.

Brush Pile Basics

Our two brush piles were placed in the backyard where they are not too highly conspicuous.  They’re at the edge and back of our property near native shrubs, with one purposely positioned to be close to the bird feeder.  Birds that frequent feeders or are exposed in open areas are easy prey for hawks, fox and domestic pets – so having the brush pile a quick hop-and-a-swoop away was a priority.

Size: Build what is practical in your available space.  Brush piles can range from 3 to 8 feet tall and from 6 to 20 feet wide.  A large construct will be used more.

Exposure: A sunny or partially sunny spot, if possible.

Location: In your backyard, near a wood line, at the far edge or back corner of your property and away from buildings (think about combustibility as well as rodents living next to your home’s foundation).  The site should also have good drainage.  If you belong to a Homeowner’s Association, their guidelines should be considered.  And if your neighbors are neatniks, you can let them in on your plans.

A white-throated sparrow perched on a brush piles. Brush piles are beneficial to wildlife seeking shelter.
A white-throated sparrow makes use of our brush pile.

Building Instructions

Begin with the foundation of larger logs or stones.  The Alabama Cooperative Extension System recommends: “When constructing the foundation, use the largest materials. Provide entrance spaces 6 to 12 inches wide for easy access. To make a good foundation, place four logs (6 to 10 inches in diameter) parallel to each other about 1 foot apart. Place four more logs on top, perpendicular to the ones on the ground. You could substitute large, flat rocks for the second layer of logs if you want.

You could also make three or four rock piles about 6 to 12 inches apart. Each rock pile should be about 10 inches high and 12 inches across. Arrange the piles so that they make a triangle if three piles are used or a plus sign if four are used.

Other things can also be used to build foundations. For example, you can lean two or three logs (6 to 10 inches in diameter) against a stump. Use your imagination and the materials you have on hand. The main thing to keep in mind is that the foundation should keep small “tunnels” open under the pile of brush.”

A brush pile that may have too much foliage. It will shelter wildlife, nonetheless.
A little too much zeal went into creating this one but it will still provide shelter for wildlife.
Once the foundation is in place, branches, limbs and twigs can be stacked on the foundation to form the pile. Even discarded Christmas trees can be put to good use. If I cut back perennials that are flopping over onto the walkways, I’ll add them to the pile. Native grasses and other stems with ripened seed heads are simply tucked into the crevasses, adding wildlife food and a bit of character to the structure.

For Large Lots: The Living Shelter

 An option for larger properties is the living shelter.  The Alabama Cooperative Extension System explains: “If constructed of living materials, your brush shelter will last much longer. Living shelters provide not just cover, but food as well.

To make a living brush pile, find several (three to five) small hardwood saplings (2 to 8 inches in diameter) located close together. Cut each tree halfway through the trunk about 12 inches above the ground. Place the cuts on the outside of the tree, away from the other trees in the group. Since the tree is not cut all the way through, there will be enough living material under the bark {cambium layer} to keep the tree alive. Push the tree over towards the other trees in the group so it rests on the ground or on top of the other half-cut trees.

Living brush piles made from hardwoods supply buds, twigs, leaves, and seeds for animals to eat as well as cover and protection.”

The Extension goes on to recommend fertilizing the saplings.  Instead of synthetic fertilizers that can harm the delicate balance of the soil, the better choice is to keep the sapling’s roots covered in 2 – 4 inches of natural leaf compost, leaf mulch or wood chips.

Other Thoughts

If aesthetics are a concern in a small habitat garden, planting a not-so-aggressive flowering native vine to grow over your brush limbs will add color and nectar for pollinators.  In Virginia, options include yellow passionflower (Passiflora lutea), a part shade vine that tolerates wet to dry conditions and trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), a hummingbird attractor that blooms well in full to part sun in moist to dry soil.  Lonicera’s trailing vines can be trimmed back if needed.  Check with your regional Native Plant Society for options for your area.

The materials you select for constructing a brush pile are not limited to tree trunks, branches and natural rock.  But thoughtful choices should be made.  Materials that contain toxic substances such as CCA (arsenic) pressure-treated lumber, lead painted surfaces, tires or other petroleum-based products should not be used.  These products can harm wildlife.  They can also leach into ground water and ultimately affect your drinking water.  Choose the best components to keep your brush pile natural.

To find out more about brush piles, check out:

Virginia “Rabbit Proof” Native Plants

Eastern cottontails can do a lot of damage in a garden. But there are many rabbit-resistant native plants available to the besieged gardener.

VIRGINIA'S RABBIT-PROOF NATIVE PLANTS

Precious pink wiggly nose, slender silken ears, a fuzzy snowball of a tail — all wrapped up in a cuddly but voracious plant-chomping package. Ahhh, our Eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) are undeniably adorable but they can be destructive in gardens, continually reducing a plant of its foliage until it (the plant) runs out of energy and expires.

There aren’t any cottontails foraging in our garden currently — perhaps because we have a fox, a few hawks and a high number of domestic dogs and free-roaming cats in our neighborhood. Rabbits are certainly fair game to all sorts of predators. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries writes, “Cottontails have been referred to as the “protein pill” of the animal kingdom. They are perhaps the most heavily preyed upon game species in Virginia. In most years, 80% or more of adult cottontails are killed.”

Eastern cottontail rabbits can eat a lot of garden plants.

An Eastern cottontail spying your garden plants. Photo by Tom Murray/flickr/CC.

I have seen the damage a few marauding cottontails can do so at the request of a client, who reluctantly surrendered his garden to the bunnies, I did some hopping around on the web and found that there’s very little information out there on native plants that rabbits find unpalatable. Our deer receive all the attention.

I then turned to the people who I could count on to garden with native plants: the Virginia Master Naturalists, Arlington Regional Chapter (or ARMN, my alma mater). “What non-woody plants do your bunnies ignore?” I asked. Their comments and observations were crossed referenced with the information I found online and the following document was generated. A checkmark indicates if the rabbit-rejecting plant info was found through the web, ARMN, or both.

Here are a few examples of beautiful Virginia natives that are on the ‘Rabbit Proof’ list. They could also be native to your state’s region:

Foxglove beardtongue ((Penstemon digitalis) is not preferred by rabbits.
Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis).
This pretty plant attracts bumblebees
and other flower visitors.
Nodding onion (Allium cernuum) is not preferred by rabbits.
Nodding onion (Allium cernuum) growing in a field
in Shenandoah National Park. It also does well
in garden conditions.
Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) is not preferred by rabbits.
Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) grows
in drier woodland settings. This photo was taken
in Turkey Run Park in McLean, VA in early spring.
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) is not preferred by rabbits.
Goldenrods are fantastic pollinator plants.
There are many different species for varying
garden conditions. Photo courtesy Matt Bright.
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is not preferred by rabbits.
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is a good
seed-bearing plant for birds.
Photo courtesy Matt Bright.
Eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is not preferred by rabbits.
Eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis).
This native species is an early nectar source for
our Ruby-throated hummingbirds.
Clustered mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) is not preferred by rabbits.
Clustered mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum)
is a pollinator’s dream. Expect it to spread like
other plants in the mint family.
Golden alexander (Zizia aurea) is not preferred by rabbits.
Golden alexander (Zizia aurea) blooms in early
May and develops attractive seedheads.
Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) is not preferred by rabbits.
Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia). Rabbits may
enjoy the tender flower stalks of this spring-
blooming perennial. Foamflower makes a
good groundcover.
Spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata) is not preferred by rabbits.

Spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata). Monardas
are in the mint family and are not usually browsed
by rabbit or deer. Photo by Bob Mullica/flickr/CC.

Blue mist flower (Conoclinium coelestinum) is allegedly rabbit-resistant.
Blue mist flower (Conoclinium coelestinum) is a perfect
late season flower for monarch butterflies and other
flower visitors.
Blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) is a rabbit resistant native plant.
Wild blue indigo (Baptisia australis) is a wonderful
garden plant. It hosts many butterfly and moth caterpillars.

I understand that nothing is truly “rabbit proof;” if Peter Rabbit is hungry enough, he’ll consume just about anything. So allow the list of rabbit-resistant natives to be your guide for adding new plants to your garden — but also consider offering up some wildflowers, tall grassy areas or veggies for your bunnies to enjoy. Provide them with plants that you’re less vested in. Wildlife can’t go grocery shopping like we can. And even cranky ol’ Mr. McGregor can’t argue with that.

Thank you to the following resources: Penn State Extension: Rabbit Resistance Garden and Landscape Plants and Native Plants Wildlife Gardens: Bunny Bustin’ Natives. Note: as of June 2018, neither article is available online.

The Hummingbirds: A Poem

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the inspiration for wonderful poems.

THE HUMMINGBIRDS: A POEM

Every spring, Robert and Arlene anticipate the arrival of the ruby-throated hummingbirds to their mountain home. They observe in awe as these tiny beings nest and feed and hover and swoop around their wooded land. But with autumn closing in, the ruby-throats recently bid farewell to their Linden, Virginia, residence and have begun their long migration south. This is a poem written by Robert and inspired by his and Arlene’s very favorite guests.

The Hummingbirds

by Robert Foster

It’s amazing to me that they travel so far
Feisty and noisy and small that they are
Emerald and ruby just buzzing about
A pause and a sip with a curious shout

In spring when they come, so tired and wan
In fall when they leave it’s so quiet at dawn
Longing and left, the silence pervading
I’d smile once again at your raucous invading

I’m left here alone at the break of the day
No tweets of good morning to light up my way
Color and humming recede to the last
Departure your sign, that the summer has past

This time of year as the fall will descend
With a hitch in my throat, just to see you again
Saddened and hoping you’re safe on your flight
I pause with a sigh as I’m left without sight

Who would’ve thought such a small little bird
Would cause such a break when no longer it’s heard
Wishing and praying won’t lengthen your stay
But oh how I wish to have just one more day

How can you support our tiny jewels?

The ruby-throated hummingbird is one of the most delightful visitors to our gardens.  They eat tiny insects and draw nectar from a variety of flowers — most of which are red and tubular.  In the Mid-Atlantic, some of the best native choices are eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma), trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) and jewelweed (Impatiens capensis).

Read more about the plants that support our amazing hummingbirds: How to Feed a Hummingbird Part II: Flowers & Nectar

Lisa Bright Shares Her Garden Faves

Lisa Bright of Earth Sangha shares her vast knowledge of native plants.

LISA BRIGHT SHARES HER GARDEN FAVES

CHOOSING THE RIGHT NATIVE PLANTS FOR YOUR GARDEN

Lisa Bright, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Earth Sangha in Springfield, Virginia, shares some of her favorite native plants for gardeners in the DMV. Seeds are collected in the wild, propagated and the plants are returned to natural areas for restoration purposes. We are fortunate that these plants are also offered to the public. Take advantage of this wonderful resource and introduce some life-supporting and uncommon plants to your gardens today.

Chinkapin (Castanea pumila) laden with fruit.
Photo courtesy Earth Sangha.

Alleheny Chinkapin (Castanea pumila): This is the first time we are able to offer this lovely species. It is extremely hard to find Chinkapin with its chestnut-like nuts in our region because of habitat loss, and it won’t be available every year. It is fairly quick growing once established. We decided to distribute it this fall because it’s better that the seedlings be planted in the ground now than to sit in pots at our nursery during the winter.

Common Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis): In moist open areas or at the edge of pond or stream, this multi-stemmed shrub will produce beautiful flowers and abundant fruits for birds. It acts like a salad bar for birds. You can also make jams out of fruits. This shrub would love to stand in water as well but also works well in ordinary soil. You can easily tame/control them by cutting the stems. It won’t hurt them.

Whorled Rosin Weed (Silphium asteriscus var. trifoliatum): If you like Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) which is not native, you will love this plant. It is 4 to 6 feet tall and upright and produces pale yellow flowers in summer. You see them in moist open meadows in Manassas, Centerville, or other power line meadow sites.

Broadleaf Ironweed (Vernonia glauca): It looks a lot like New York Ironweed except that it grows in open meadows. It attracts lots of butterflies and other beneficial insects.

Slender Bush Clover (Lespedeza virginica) & Hairy Bush Clover (Lespedeza hirta): To me, this is a must plant for open meadow. They offer important nectar as well as seed sources for birds and others. Lespedeza is largely overlooked by gardeners.

Tick-trefoil (Desmodium spp.: D. paniculatum, D. ciliare, D. marilandicum): I’m a big fan of all Desmodium species. Their intricate purple flowers attract lots of insects. They fix nitrogen in soil. They grow in open meadows and on sandy or rocky banks.

Downy Blue Lobelia (Lobelia puberula): You will find this elegant Lobelia more in the coastal region. I spotted at least two great habitats. They grow on moist sunny and sandy banks in groups. Their blue flowers begin in mid summer with its peak in September. It attracts lots of butterflies and bees.

Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium): If you cannot find this species in local meadows, it is not quite a fully matured meadow yet. The small white flowers cluster together at top. It attracts lots of pollinators, of course.

Roundleaf Thoroughwort (Eupatorium rotundifolium): Its presence indicates a healthy meadow.

Beaked Panic Grass (Coleataenia anceps): This grass is easy to grow and care for, and it offers abundant seeds. It grows in moist open meadows. If you think Indian Grass is too tall to handle, this grass will do.

Redtop or Dense Panic Grass (Coleataenia rigidula): It looks ornamental with its lovely and generous red plumes. It is about 1 to 3 feet tall and forms a pleasing bunch. It loves wet and looks lovely along pond or stream edges.

Lurid Sedge (Carex lurida): This sedge is very versatile and yet it is woefully underused. It can form nice weeping grassy banks even on dry sites near streams. Once established, it is virtually carefree.

Deertongue Grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum): If you look at any healthy woodland, its moist edges are packed with this grass species. It keeps the soil moist and prevents invasive plants from entering the woodland. It also feeds lots of insects and birds. What more would you ask from a hard-working plant?

Silverrod (Solidago bicolor): It is the only white-flowering Goldenrod! It looks exactly like Erect Goldenrod (Solidago erecta) except that its petals are white! Its habitat is partially shaded woodland.

Crooked-stem Aster (Symphyotrichum prenanthoides): It took me several years to finally locate this species in the wild. It grows right along streams in shade. It also grows in drier and more open areas. It has lovely blue blooms in summer to fall.

Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve): This species of aster blooms quite late in the season. It grows on rocky banks or such rough sites. It has such an easy grace.

Pasture Thistle (Cirsium pumilum): Unlike Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor), the growth habit of this species is less assertive. It grows up to 3 ft. only and attracts all sorts of butterflies. It won’t overwhelm your small garden! It’s biennial.

Hollow-stemmed Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium fistulosum): We want you to plant this lovely species all over the area. It used to be everywhere in wet areas, on shaded banks, and at the edge of the woodland. But we are losing them. We are also losing them to non-native species of Joe Pye Weed.

Maryland Golden Aster (Chrysopsis mariana): If you have sunny, dry, and poor soil conditions and don’t know what to do? Maryland Golden Aster loves that kind of spot. It used to be abundant but we are losing them now. Please use more of this lovely carefree plant.

Grey Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis): Again, this species of Goldenrod (short, 1 to 2 ft only) loves sunny, dry, and poor soil. There should be a lot more of this species along the roads or abandoned areas.

Wild Basil (Clinopodium vulgare): On moist meadows near streams or edge-of-the woodland, you will find this enchanting mound of aromatic plant. It is low growing. A lovely form to behold.

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium): This grass is a healer of ground. If you are making a fresh new meadow from scratch, please you must use this grass first. There are certain basic soil-building native species that would work as healers. This is one of them.

An American goldfinch on hollow-stemmed joe pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum),
a favorite seed source.

We are also offering Eastern Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa) and Wild Stonecrop (Sedum ternatum).

We offer these plants and many, many more. See you at the nursery!

Lisa Bright, Co-founder
www.earthsangha.org 

You can become an Earth Sangha member and also sign up for Lisa’s future newsletters at earthsangha.org.

A Garden Is a Potential Smorgasbord: Native Plants with Real Value

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) is a powerful native plant. It hosts many different species of caterpillars and also specialist bees as well as other flower visitors.

A GARDEN IS A POTENTIAL SMORGASBORD:
NATIVE PLANTS WITH REAL VALUE

Natives rock! They invite all kinds of wildlife into a garden. And because all native plants are not created equal, striving to plant the most beneficial of our natives is an important goal. Here are some beauties that are not only critter approved but are also ‘carefree’ and thriving in my garden in Northern Virginia.

This page is ever-expanding as I discover new plants that do well in a garden setting.

Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) makes a great landscape shrub.

The first native shrubs we planted as little mail order twigs, these now tower at about 8 feet and make an excellent summer screen at the back of our property. Silky dogwood is perfect for streamside planting and erosion control. It is the larval host for the Spring Azure — and wildlife love the small purple fruit.

Note: Find a local source for purchasing native plants. Since this purchase I have learned that mail order plants grown in far away states may not do well in your specific region and can be drenched in pesticides in order to cross state lines. Local ecotypes are the best choices.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is a favorite plant of hummingbirds.
Vivid red flowers adorn tall spikes for most of the summer. Cardinal flower is a favorite source of nectar for our ruby-throated hummingbirds. This riparian beauty demands a consistently moist site, near a pond, or water feature — I plant them next to a birdbath in part sun. Cardinal flower is a short lived perennial however the tiny seeds easily self sow in optimum conditions (nature does all the work). This is one native I will always grow in my garden to energize our resident hummingbirds.
New England asters support many pollinators including specialist bees.
Pretty rose-purple flowers bloom from late summer into early fall. Because this is a late bloomer, the pollinators swarm to it… in droves! New England aster is a great nectar source when there isn’t much else blooming. Robust and showy, pinching back the stems is recommended to obviate the need for staking — however the blooms may be compromised or delayed. Plant in full or part sun. This perennial will thrive with typical garden moisture but is not happy in times of drought. New England aster is the larval host for the pretty Pearl Crescent and checkerspot butterflies.
White wood asters make a great ground cover.
The clouds of tiny white rays and yellow centers illuminate the shady area under our black cherry tree. A tall and airy perennial, it is beautiful when massed. Plant white wood aster for our tiny pollinators and feathered friends who consume the seeds. The dried stems add interest to the winter landscape and birds also use the dried seedheads for nesting material. Low maintenance, once established it does well in dry dappled shade.
Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a wonderful plant for pollinators and is the host plant for the monarch caterpillar. Here you see a monarch butterfly nectaring.
Butterflyweed is a lovely branching and erect plant that attracts our native bumblebees and butterflies. All asclepias species (and there are over 140 of them) are larval host plants for the endangered monarch and queen butterflies. This species is not a preferred host plant for monarchs in my garden, however; the large leaves of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) are definitely more attractive to egg-laying monarchs. But no matter! Tuberosa has neon orange flower clusters that light up the garden. It has a long bloom time and thrives in sunny dry areas. But please don’t let the inevitable aphids and milkweed bugs discourage you from this planting this perennial. The aphids feed beneficial ladybugs and other insects and the orange and black milkweed bugs are just plain fascinating.
American hazelnut (Corylus americana) supports a lot of wildlife from mammals to insects.
Here’s another one of those underused natives. American hazelnut has a pretty habit and long, soft catkins decorate this adaptable shrub from fall through spring. The edible nuts are relished by small mammals, birds and humans and are highly nutritional. This is a versatile shrub that does well in partial sun to shady areas and once established is drought tolerant. Its fall color is fleeting but fabulous.
Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) attracts many pollinators and other flower visitors. This is a common buckeye butterfly.
Imagine every native bee on one flowering perennial. That’s what you get with clustered mountain mint. This powerhouse of a perennial also has a long bloom time. Happy in sun or part sun, clustered mountain mint prefers moderate moisture. Give it lots of room because it quickly spreads by rhizomes; happily divide and share it with your neighbors. In the winter the multiple stems resemble a miniature forest of trees.
Orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida) is a great garden plant. It has a long bloom time and attracts many pollinators.
I had always grown black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) until I discovered orange coneflower. A short-lived perennial, orange coneflower holds its green foliage longer than black-eyed Susan and blooms for a much longer period. I plant it with purple lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis) and low growing wild basil (Clinopodium vulgare) — the combination of yellows and purples is quite lovely. Small butterflies and other pollinators visit frequently and the goldfinches and other birds consume the ripened seeds. Situate in full to part sun in dryish to moist soil. As with all our meadow forbs, if grown with a high density of native grasses, orange coneflower can better handle dry conditions. It propagates freely.
An unusual bumble bee visits wild bergamot (Monarda fistuloa).
Wild Bergamot is a popular plant for gardeners as well as unusual insects. Our native long-tongued bumblebees and hummingbird moths are wildly attracted to the pretty pom-pom blooms. This mint family perennial prefers some moisture but is adaptable to drier soil. Plant in sun or part sun. Staking or support may be required as wild bergamot can grow to five feet tall and in my garden it likes to sprawl.
Blue-stemmed goldenrod (Solidago caesia) growing in a garden.
This beautiful goldenrod is also called wreath goldenrod. Its arching branches bloom in the fall with many of our other native goldenrods but unlike our sun-loving species, Solidago caesia tolerates shady conditions. It is adaptable to moist or dry soil. Small insects find it irresistible. Blue-stemmed goldenrod self-sows but not too aggressively.
New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) is a great shrub for the garden.
Such a handsome shrub this is! Low growing and tolerant of drought, New Jersey tea is both versatile and no maintenance. I’ve seen it growing in open woods in New Jersey where it was about four feet tall. In my garden it’s in full morning and early afternoon sun and has reached a height of about three feet. Although Ceanothus americanus doesn’t have a long flowering period, the tiny insects that attract hungry hummingbirds buzz about non-stop while it is in bloom.

Doug Tallamy: A Man on a Mission

Doug Tallamy, renown entomologist, searches for caterpillars and other insects in the field.

DOUG TALLAMY: A MAN ON A MISSION

Dr. Doug Tallamy: American entomologist and visionary native plant promoter. Our hero. His call to action singlehandedly knocked our gardening socks off and inspired us to get out there and plant natives in our own gardens.

In his lecture to a Green Spring Gardens audience in Alexandria, VA in 2012, Tallamy humorously and enthusiastically made the case for planting native species in our yards, no matter how large or small. In his 2007 book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native PlantsTallamy describes the consequences of “uncontrolled expansion”: the loss and fragmentation of wildlife habitat across America, and how ceaseless land development drives biodiversity loss.

He explains the equally damaging role of the 50,000 non-native plants from all around the globe that now burden our landscape and our environment. Because most of our native insects cannot eat these ubiquitous ornamental invaders, and so many animals rely directly or indirectly on insect protein for food, these alien plants cannot sustain any life but their own.

It’s time for suburban homeowners and gardeners to rise up and transform their impoverished land by planting for the mammals, birds, bees, butterflies and all the other critters we may not find as appealing but which play equally essential roles in continuing human survival.

Tallamy eloquently argues, “Unless we modify the places we live, work, and play to meet not only our own needs but the needs of other species as well, nearly all species of wildlife native to the United States will disappear forever. This is not speculation. It is a prediction backed by decades of research on species-area relationships by ecologists who know of what they speak. And the extinction of our plants and animals is not a scenario lost in the distant future. It is playing out across the country and the planet as I write.

Our preserves and national parks are not adequate to prevent the predicted loss of species, and we have run out of the space required to make them big enough. For conservationists, and indeed for anyone who celebrates life on earth, this is perhaps the direst possible consequence of the human enterprise.”

Doug Tallamy is currently Professor and Chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark. His primary research goal is to better understand the many ways insects interact with plants and how such interactions determine the diversity of animal communities. 

Worth Reading: Dr. Tallamy was recently quoted in a New York Times article about the disappearing Monarch butterfly.

Plant Natives to Feed the Birds

Chickadees and the majority of other birds feed their babies primarily caterpillars. Planting native plants in your garden will host caterpillars and therefore help make more birds.

PLANT NATIVES TO FEED THE BIRDS

If you are troubled about dwindling bird populations and you’d like to help our feathery friends, you need to know a few things like this: It takes more than a bit of bird seed in the winter months. Take chickadees, for example. They don’t eat seeds in the springtime when they are making and raising babies, they eat only caterpillars. So where have all the caterpillars gone?

SUBURBAN LANDSCAPING STARVES THE BIRDS

Unfortunately, our own behavior is causing the loss of habitat for caterpillars, leading to a loss of chickadees, which eat more caterpillars than you might imagine. Think thousands of caterpillars for a single clutch of baby chickadees. But native caterpillars need native species for their own food. And thanks to our habit of landscaping with non-native ornamental plants the caterpillars are in shorter supply and so too become the chickadees.

If you want to attract and support bird populations all year round, start planting native species in your yard. Chickadees won’t be the only beneficiaries. 

Backyard birds at bird feeder. Planting native plants is the best way to feed birds and other wildlife.
We can do more than this.

North American bird populations have nose-dived for a variety of reasons. A big one, experts tell us, is habitat loss. Suburbia has created a huge negative impact by landscaping around our homes with lovely but unproductive non-native ornamentals such as azalea, privet, crepe myrtle, Japanese maple, boxwood, barberry, forsythia, heavenly bamboo, English ivy, pachysandra … plants that are native to other countries, not ours. People don’t realize that most insects cannot feed on these commonly used alien exotics because they do not have an evolutionary tie to the plants. If the insects can’t feed on your plants then the birds can’t feed on the insects. And it’s these insects that provide the food for our indigenous birds.

THE LANDSCAPE-BIRD POPULATION CONNECTION

Dr. Doug Tallamy, at a speaking engagement in Northern Virginia this past February, put it bluntly, “There are millions of people who put out bird food all winter long and during the summer they starve the birds by the way they landscape because they don’t see the connection.”

A tiny green caterpillar walks along a leaf. Caterpillars are baby bird food.
Soft with a juicy center. This is what baby bird food looks like,
cruising along on American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis).

ATTRACT A CATERPILLAR—FEED A CHICKADEE

“We all have chickadees at our feeders so we think they eat seeds.  And they do eat seeds, all winter long. But when they are making babies, they don’t eat seeds, they eat caterpillars. It’s not because caterpillars are the only things around them. They could eat grasshoppers or crickets or mayflies or syrphid flies or snipe flies or Cicadellidae—leafhoppers—or click beetles or caddisflies or sow bugs or centipedes or millipedes or spiders or all the other things that are out there when they’re breeding—but they don’t. They only eat caterpillars. And that means that if you don’t have enough caterpillars in your yard, if you don’t have caterpillars period, you’re certainly not going to have chickadees.”

Tallamy’s research, completed on his own native-laden property in Delaware, found that it takes between 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to make one clutch of chickadees. “Now sometimes they will bring back an adult caterpillar, a moth, but that’s actually fairly rare,” he said. “It’s typically the caterpillar itself.” While showing photographs of momma and poppa chickadees feeding their babies caterpillar after wriggly caterpillar (and sometimes a whole beak full of them), Tallamy explained that caterpillars are soft, easily swallowed and won’t rip the throats of the nestlings.

The tiniest of spiders are food for many birds including hummingbirds.
This fella is also bird food, hanging out on blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum).

ATTRACT A SPIDER—FEED A HUMMINGBIRD

Tallamy then brought up one of everyone’s favorite birds. “Hummingbirds like and need nectar but 80% of their diet is insects and spiders. So that’s something that most people don’t know. If you don’t have those insects and spiders in your yard, it doesn’t matter how many hummingbird feeders you have, you are not going to be able to support hummingbirds. And that is true for 96% of the terrestrial birds in North America.”

LANDSCAPE WITH NATIVES TO FEED THE BIRDS

There are as many reasons to plant native species around your home as there are natives. If you are a person who loves watching birds (and who doesn’t?), adding productive plants to your garden is the ultimate way to help nurture their habitat and natural food source. Landscaping with native plants instead of alien plants will attract our native bugs, and that’s the point. Feed the insects and in turn feed the birds.

Tallamy’s research helps you find native plant “best bets” for attracting moths and butterflies.

Why Cultivars Could Be Problematic

This native plant cultivar of Joe Pye Weed may not be as productive as the straight species.

WHY CULTIVARS COULD BE PROBLEMATIC

The topic of cultivars can be a polarizing one for folks in the native gardening community. It’s true, cultivars can provide food and cover for our wildlife just like our native species do … but … as well behaved and form pleasing as they can be to some, cultivars could prove to be detrimental to our ecosystems.

Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council points out the following in The Eight Essential Elements of Conservation Landscaping:

“Cultivated varieties (cultivars) are available for many native plants. These plants have been nursery grown as “improved” selections to provide plants with certain physical characteristics, such as a different flower color, a particular foliage shape, early bloom time, or compact size. All the plants belonging to a particular cultivar are genetically identical. 

A bumble bee rests on a goldenrod cultivar.
A native bumble bee on a goldenrod (Solidago spp.) cultivar

Although gardening with cultivars may be suitable to meet aesthetic goals, those planning habitat projects to provide food and cover for wildlife should use as many true species (not cultivars) as possible. No one really knows how these cultivars will affect the wildlife that depends on local native plant species for food. If a local native plant’s bloom period, color, fragrance, or flower shape is changed, it could have a serious detrimental effect on the hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and other wildlife that may use that plant. True species are most suited for use by native wildlife, and planting them will increase your chances of attracting these creatures.

In addition, research has shown that some cultivars breed with local native plants and thus decrease a population’s fitness or ability to survive in an area. If the planting site is near designated natural areas, it is best to avoid using cultivars so that these genetically homogenous plants don’t end up cross-breeding with native species and “contaminating” or changing the natural gene pool. Since cultivars often lack the genetic diversity necessary to adapt to local environmental conditions, they may not thrive, and cross-breeding could lead to eventual extinction of existing natives. Since we can’t know the full extent of how this would affect local native plant populations and all life that is interdependent with them, we must work to protect natural biodiversity.”

UNNATURAL CULTIVARS?

I have purchased and planted cultivars just as I have in my other life bought and installed non-native plants. And I notice that the cultivars stand out as unnatural in a landscape of primarily native species — as unnatural as the hulking ornamental Asian camellia I planted against the house. Joe Pye Weed ‘Little Joe’ when massed, for example, grows to one even height and the flowers are an odd fluorescent pink — abnormal features in my wildlife habitat. The Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’ is equally perfect in stature, and inarguably beautiful, but also not quite right among the native grasses and perennial forbs that grow beside it. I will eventually replace these cultivars, striving to be a purist of sorts. But if I had known years ago that I should be planting species sourced from the area I live in, oh the trouble I would have been spared. Huge wildlife benefits aside, choosing native species is less overwhelming than having to select from everything that is offered for sale and I find that natives are easier on my pocketbook. Live and keep learning, I say.

Native Plants for the Penny-Wise

Native plants are typically very affordable. Here you can purchase wild ginger (Asarum canadense) a a native plant sale for $8 a pot.

NATIVE PLANTS FOR THE PENNY-WISE

Sticker shock. That term is usually associated with purchasing a car but it can happen when shopping for plants, too. Plants can be fairly pricey — especially those larger-sized garden center trees and shrubs. The cringe factor is multiplied when landscaping sizable areas. But do you need such a large plant to begin with? I say absolutely no, you don’t.

START SMALL

If you have a little patience it’s a sensible idea to purchase a smaller, younger plant for a fraction of the cost. In short time, that whip of a sapling will be the size of the tempting five-gallon container of greenery you wisely passed over. And it will probably be healthier. Seasoned gardeners know that the joy of tending a garden is in nurturing, observing and in watching life grow. No instant garden is needed.

Native plants for sale with identification tags.
There are lots of choices for the habitat gardener.

WHAT GROWS IN YOUR AREA?

Common garden shops, besides shrinking your wallet, offer very few native species.  When they do have them in stock, these natives aren’t necessarily found naturally growing where you garden — they’ve evolved in other regions of the country. They could also be cultivars.

 The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is no longer a sound tool to measure what to plant. It’s simple: we just plant local-ecotypes — and as many as we possibly can. We know that planting natives local to an area, in the conditions they evolved in, lowers water and chemical inputs and makes for strong, thriving plants. California is the perfect example. Many homeowners are replacing non-local landscaping and lawn with plants that originated there to offset the current multi-year drought’s effects.

People shopping at the Earth Sangha native plant sale.
Shoppers arrive early at one of Earth Sangha’s Spring Open Houses.

FIND A LOCAL SOURCE

I sometimes point and ask an employee at my nearby garden center, “Do you know where this plant came from?” The answer is usually something along the lines of “not from around here.” Their plants could be propagated and trucked in from any number of nurseries, from many miles away (sometimes as far away as Oregon — and I live in Virginia). Another downfall is they’ve been previously doused in pesticides so they can legally cross state lines. With today’s grim environmental outlook, these are good reasons to buy local, don’t you think?

So, where are the best places to shop for well-priced, locally grown native species you ask? I recommend checking with your state’s native plant society, your nearby nature center or even your county. These organizations sponsor native plant sales at varying times of the year — and their prices are wonderfully low. The plants may be small but as we know from experience, size does matter.

EARTH SANGHA:
NURSERY FOR THE FUTURE

Here in Northern Virginia we are particularly fortunate to have a grower of locally sourced and affordable native plants: Earth Sangha. Their Wild Plant Nursery is my very favorite place to volunteer my time and of course, to shop. More than 250 local-ecotype species are available to the public  and many are considered by Lisa Bright, the energetic co-founder of Earth Sangha, as underused in garden settings. She is more than happy to recommend specific species for your growing conditions.

Lisa and her Earth Sangha family are the driving force behind this progressive non-profit. By permission, they collect seeds from natural areas around the metro DC area and lovingly raise them for natural land restoration and for the gardener. It’s the perfect operation. 

I know when I purchase a plant from Earth Sangha, and I site it correctly, it will do well. Extremely well. I know it didn’t travel clear across the country and that it wasn’t indignantly dug from the wild. I know it’s not a manufactured cultivar that could cause problems for natural areas in the future. I further know it wasn’t drenched in harmful pesticides that could last for years in the potting soil and in the plant itself. It’s a no brainer  a win-win situation for all  me, my pocketbook and our Mother Earth.

Pretty women shop at the Earth Sangha native plant sale.
Shoppers arrive early at one of Earth Sangha’s Spring Open Houses.

Natives Are a Girl’s Best Friend (Forever)

By planting native plants like butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), you can attract beautiful insects like the monarch butterfly.

NATIVES ARE A GIRLS BEST FRIEND

Diamonds, emeralds, rubies? No thanks, Dahlink, what I prefer is plants. Native plants, Dahlink. My treasures are not found in any jewelry store or at the nearest mall. No, no. My favorite gems are on display in the rapidly diminishing wild areas here and there across our land. And I keep some in my secret jewelry box: my garden.

Native plant gardens support many interesting animals. A hummingbird clearwing moth, Hemaris thysbe, feeds on the nectar of the pollinator magnet wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).
A garden jewel. A hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe) feeds on the nectar
of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).

Yes, I could be charmed with much more expensive, sparkly — but ultimately useless — stuff. “You know it could be much worse,” I tell my sweetie, my arms cradling freshly purchased perennials. And he agrees. He knows a tiara would rest uneasily on my head. I am no princess. I’m a fierce warrior woman when it comes to conservation.

Native plant gardens attract interesting insects like this damselfly.
More gems. This damselfly rests on a stalk of little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a pretty fall-blooming native grass.

Quite Affordable

Native plants are necessary for our survival. It’s a fact. Science says so. And considering what natives provide, they’re surprisingly affordable. Bank accounts need not be bled dry to add these essentials to any landscape. But wait, there’s more! As a bonus many of our natives give back. They self-sow, sometimes insanely, finding and filling garden space and asking for no more than some time and patience. Sharing the bounty with friends and neighbors is also self-fulfilling.

So go native! Thanks, Dahlink, you’re my BFF.

Planting butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) attracts beautiful insects like the monarch butterfly.
Planting butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) brought monarch butterflies to my garden.