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by David Salman

Diversity of plant types and species.
David's yard showing diversity of plant types and species.

(Bugs Are Not Yucky)

Perhaps you read my blog in March, titled "Creating Living Landscapes: The Importance of Native Plants And The Role Insects Play". The work of Dr. Doug Tallamy has been a tremendous influence on my evolving thoughts about the role plants play in our lives and the lives of wild creatures that share our living spaces. In a nutshell, when it comes to plant selection, what we plant, or don't plant, is pivotal in terms of being "habitat friendly". Including native plants in our yards is a cornerstone in this pursuit.

One of the most important things plants do in nature is provide habitat and food for insects. I know that much horticultural literature and advertising about plant care has to do with instilling the fear of "bugs" and the need to kill them. And, yes, there are many injurious insects that can cause major damage to specific plants, especially woody trees. But it is imperative to separate control of specific insect pests that are a problem in your region from the thousands of others that provide the bottom rung of the food chain for songbirds, reptiles, amphibians, bats and many other creatures.

Purple penstemon pikes with bee.Purple penstemon with bee.

"It's Spring, Honey. Call the Tree Service to Spray the Yard"

Wrong, wrong, wrong! And don't do the same thing to your lawn by allowing your law service to routinely apply preventative insecticides and fungicides to your turf. Indiscriminant insecticide/chemical applications are absolutely the worst thing we can do to nature in our yards. Here are a few of the reasons why:

  • Plants have evolved to be feed upon by insects. It's called the "web of life". A yard with a diverse population of insects is a healthy place.
  • Blanket pesticide applications kill pollinators (bees and butterflies) as well as beneficial insects and spiders that keep injurious ones in check and disrupts the balance of nature. Kill off the good ones and populations of the bad ones can increase to damaging levels. Don't invoke the "nuclear option" as it creates a biological wasteland.
  • It's not safe for humans, our pets and all the resident birds and other creatures to have exposure to synthetic pesticides. Year after year of spraying results in cumulative absorption of these pesticides on a cellular level.
  • You're robbing songbirds of essential food for their chicks. Birds depend on caterpillars, lots of them, to raise their young.
Chilopsis linearis Hope also known as the White Desert WillowThe native White Desert Willow from Los Lunas.

Plant Diversity

It's always best to have less lawn and a wider a diversity of plant types (annuals, perennials, ornamental grasses, shrubs and trees) in your yard. This encourages a more diverse population of insects which supports more species of songbirds and pollinators. And in this increased diversity of plant species, it is essential to mix in as many native species as possible. I'm not advocating a "natives only" approach, just strongly suggesting that when you have a choice of native or Old World (non-native) plants that provide similar attributes, go native.

Plant Selection

Research is showing us that native plants are essential habitat for native insects. What's the answer to the question, "do I plant the Asian native Bradford Pear or a US native Black Cherry tree?" The answer is to go with the native cherry tree. This choice will provide the songbirds in your neighborhood with infinitely more caterpillars for their chicks. (The pear provides almost none!) And you won't even be aware of the fact that your tree has caterpillars (remember the "web of life").

As we move west into the Great Plains, the Intermountain West and other parts of the country where deciduous trees are not the dominant plant type, native shrubs, perennials and ornamental grasses become the primary native insect food plants. (And many of these plants will feed and shelter songbirds and other small animals as well.) Here are some of your best choices for gardeners west of the Mississippi:

Berberis fendleri  or Fender's Barberry with bee.Fendler's Barberry with bee.

Native Trees, Conifers

  • Desert Willow (Chilopsis)
  • Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)
  • Oak (Quercus)
  • Redbud (Cercis)
  • Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum ) and cultivars

Native Shrubs

Native Ornamental Grasses