As the weather gets warmer, we spend more time outdoors enjoying our backyards, gardens, and local trails. Researchers have provided clear evidence that spending time in nature is good for us, physically, mentally, and emotionally, so it’s not surprising that the Georgian Bay area has become such an attractive destination spot. For those of us who are fortunate enough to live here, the natural beauty of this area is a gift and a legacy worth preserving.

One of the significant challenges to maintaining a healthy ecosystem is dealing with the reduction of biodiversity due to native habitat loss and degradation. National and Provincial Parks, the Nature Conservancy, local conservation groups, and municipalities do an amazing job preserving native habitat. Still, as more and more land is lost to development, they could use some support. Birds and pollinators need wildlife corridors to support them, especially when they are raising their young and when they are migrating. The fragmented nature of parks and conservation areas means that there can be huge gaps in the continuity of the natural corridors necessary for migrating wildlife. This is where the rest of us come in. If each of us did our part to restore a bit of pesticide-free native plant habitat in our own yards, we could fill in the gaps in those wildlife corridors and give back to nature in return for all that nature gives to us.

One of the foremost advocates for the native plant movement is Douglas Tallamy, an entomologist at the University of Delaware. Tallamy believes that the solution to the decline of pollinators and birds is to plant more native plants in populated areas to offset the loss of habitat and biodiversity. He outlines his ideas in his books, ‘Bringing Nature Home’ and ‘Nature’s Best Hope.’ Tallamy believes that we can create sanctuaries for birds and pollinators in our own yards. If enough of us did, we could help offset the loss of natural habitat that has contributed to the declining numbers of pollinators, birds, and wildlife.

Tallamy is not alone in his beliefs. Whether it’s the Canadian Wildlife Federation encouraging us to garden with wildlife in mind, the David Suzuki Foundation supporting pollinators through their Butterflyway project, or Ontario Nature, the Farmer’s Almanac or our local Horticultural Society promoting the benefits of gardening with native plants, this is an idea whose time has come.

Tallamy’s grassroots approach to conservation shows us a way to make a difference, one yard at a time. His ‘Homegrown National Park’ project can be done over a period of a few years, and it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing process. Native plants are happy to exist alongside our favourite non-natives.

He has a 10-step program available online, and the first step is to gradually ‘shrink the lawn’ and replace more of it with pesticide-free native trees, shrubs, and plants. Ideally, the remaining lawn would be full of dandelions and other native flowers in early spring to provide food for newly emerging bees.

Native pollinators need native trees, shrubs, and plants. A loss of pollinators such as butterflies and native bees is a real threat to food security. There are several hundred species of native bees in Ontario, and many of them, such as bumblebees, are in serious decline. Before honeybees were imported from Europe, native bees did much of the hard work of pollinating plants in Canada. While we focus on the struggles of non-native honeybee colonies, there has been little focus on the plight of native bees, who still do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of pollination. Honeybees are incredibly important to our food security, but given their struggles in recent years, it’s important to keep native bee populations and other types of pollinators healthy as well, and that means creating habitats and conditions that foster their survival.

Native plants support more than pollinators, though. Most of us know that the declining monarch butterfly population is largely due to habitat loss. Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on plants in the milkweed 

family, and as they disappear, so do the monarchs. What is less well known is that birds, not just pollinators, rely on native plants for survival, either directly or indirectly. When native plants disappear, many insects disappear, creating a real problem for the birds that rely on insects as a food source. Butterflies and moths start as caterpillars that feast on our native trees, shrubs, and plants. Most birds, including seed-eating birds, require caterpillars to feed their young. For instance, a chickadee needs more than 6,000 caterpillars to raise a brood of baby chickadees. A mature native oak tree can be host to hundreds of native caterpillars, including several different species, so it is a goldmine for both pollinators and birds trying to feed their young. A non-native ginkgo tree is beautiful and has its place, but it is not a host tree to native caterpillars and so is of little help to either pollinators or hard-working bird parents. (Unfortunately, the gypsy moth caterpillars that decimated our trees last summer are not on the menu for baby birds. They are not native caterpillars but rather European imports, and the tough bristles on gypsy moth caterpillars do not make for good ‘baby food’ for native birds! )

Many native trees, shrubs, and plants also provide spring blossoms for pollinators and berries or nuts and seeds for both migrating birds and overwintering birds. They also provide nesting sites, and in many cases shelter, from winter storms for overwintering birds. Migratory native birds also need native trees and shrubs to fuel their long journeys to warmer climates in the fall. Native berries are loaded with fats along with sugar, making them valuable fuel for a long journey. Most berries on non-native trees and shrubs have a high sugar content but a very low-fat content. If you’re going to run a marathon, it makes sense to load up on power bars rather than sugar pops, and for the same reason, it makes sense to plant native trees and shrubs for migratory birds whenever possible.

What makes this easy is that native tree species such as sugar maples and native red maples, red or white oaks, white spruce, white pine, native birch and native cedar trees are also beautiful, as are native shrubs and plants. A bit of online searching will find lists of native species and sources where you can find them. Many of your favourite nurseries carry a wealth of native species.

And, you don’t have to do it all at once! Think of it as a five-year plan to gradually shrink your lawn and create a mini wildlife reserve in your yard. Start with a few native plants or a native tree or shrub, add a few more native plants and shrubs the following year, and so on. With every trip to a plant nursery, with every packet of seeds you buy, consider purchasing native species and planting them alongside your existing plants or even create a new native plant garden in your yard.

Most of us have spent happy hours sitting or walking under trees alive with birds or enjoying butterfly-filled gardens planted by past generations. It’s our turn to ‘pass it on’. Although the pandemic has pushed a pause button on everyone’s day-to-day activities, it has also given us time to reflect on future directions as well as the legacy we want to leave for our children, grandchildren, and generations far into the future. Many native trees can live for hundreds of years, and creating gardens of native trees, shrubs, and plants can have long-lasting impacts that can echo down the generations.

Given our pandemic restrictions, I can’t think of a better way to spend a summer than creating tiny wildlife sanctuaries in our yards. Our children and grandchildren will thank us!

SUBMITTED BY LAURA WALTON. Laura is a long-standing resident of Creemore and a valued member of the Tree Society of Creemore. She draws upon decades of extensive reading and research and her equally years of dedication to tree-planting and gardening to put together and share this article with you.

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