Anyone who gardens—or even putters in the yard—knows the simple act of gardening provides many benefits, including fresh air, exercise, stress relief and access to fresh foods. But they may not realize those simple acts also can help save the world—especially the wild world.
By using sustainable wildlife-friendly practices, gardeners can positively impact the planet and its interconnected inhabitants, including humankind.
Entomologist and conservationist Doug Tallamy has explored and explained those connections for more than three decades in his job as a University of Delaware professor and researcher. His work includes studying issues such as the impact of native versus nonnative plants on interconnected wildlife species—caterpillars and chickadees, for example—and led Doug to write “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants.”
Since its publication in 2007, this award-winning book that focuses on the whys and hows of gardening for nature has made Doug a guru in the growing movement toward more nature- and wildlife-friendly gardening. That movement is increasingly important.
“We are in a global wildlife extinction crisis,” says naturalist David Mizejewski, author of the how-to book “Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife” and spokesperson for the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife program. “More than a million wildlife species worldwide are endangered. In the U.S. alone, some 12,000 animal species are experiencing rapid population declines, and one-third of all native wildlife species are at an increased risk of extinction in the coming decade.”
Among endangered species are beloved yard and garden visitors such as birds, butterflies and native bee species, which play essential roles in crop pollination. The statistics are disturbing not only because they represent the loss of irreplaceable wildlife populations, but the species’ plight may be a harbinger for the future of humankind, which also relies on healthy ecosystems.
Humans are also connected to nature cognitively, says Michelle Bertelsen, an ecologist with Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center in Texas.
“We have evolved and learned to think by interacting with the natural world forever and ever and ever,” she says. “That doesn’t stop just because we may live in cities.”
It is a connection many humans have come to appreciate during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“People have sought solace in nature during these tough times,” David says, noting many found it in their own yards, especially at the peak of pandemic shutdowns and stay-at-home orders.
But concerns about and connections to nature are a source of frustration.
“Everybody on the planet requires healthy ecosystems,” Doug says, “but most people feel absolutely powerless. The Earth is huge, and what can one person do?”
A lot, the experts agree. They say it begins in the landscapes that surround us.
“How we choose to manage and care for our own piece of the Earth is a powerful way to help out these declining populations,” David says. “Sure, what we do in our backyards is not going to save polar bears, but it can make a huge difference for monarch butterflies and the birds and wild bee species that really need our help.”
While public parks, preserves and wilderness areas provide vital wildlife habitat, Doug says they alone cannot save these species.
“There is a central role that Joe Public can play because Joe Public owns the country,” he notes.
Doug says wildlife-friendly management can have huge impacts on the 78% of U.S. land that is privately owned—from large rural fields to medium-sized suburban yards to tiny urban green spaces.
Studies show putting small strips of pollinator habitat between rows or on the edges of agricultural land can greatly help pollinators, which benefits the crops, Michelle says, adding the same can happen in our yards.
“A little bit really does go a long way,” she says.
When numerous people in the same vicinity and eventually across the globe provide wildlife habitats, such as pollinator gardens, the impact grows exponentially.
Doug says a wildlife-friendly landscape contributes four components to the local ecosystem: It supports a diverse population of pollinators, supports the greater food web, sequesters carbon, and protects and manages watersheds.
David notes many of these functions can be accomplished by providing wildlife with food, cover, water and places to raise young.
“All wildlife, whether they’re in the wilderness or in our gardens, need these things,” David says. “It’s a circle-of-life thing.”
The foundation of any ecosystem is the thing that makes a garden a garden: plants. But not just any plants.
“The most important thing is to pick the right plants,” David says, “and those are going to be plants that are native to your region, plants that have co-evolved with wildlife and that wildlife needs to survive.”
Native plants can provide three of the four basic circle-of-life needs: food, shelter and nesting/birthing sites. Add water, and you have a wildlife-friendly habitat.
Going wild does not mean yards and gardens must look wild.
“It’s a common misperception that a wildlife-friendly or natural garden equals a messy garden,” David says. “You can have a beautiful, magazine photo-worthy garden space that is also extremely beneficial to wildlife. It’s a design choice, and there is a continuum.”
That continuum ranges from a formal, manicured look to an informal natural look, and it can be accomplished one small step at a time. Replacing a portion of lawn—which provides little to no support for wildlife—with a small bed of wildflowers or a single oak tree can make a huge difference and set an example for others.
Doug notes folks living in high-rise apartments and concrete jungles with no access to so much as a postage-stamp-sized patch of land can help by donating to—or volunteering with—conservation groups, public gardens, and national, state or local parks.
City dwellers also can grow native plants on balconies, rooftops, vacant lots and any open strip of land, or help establish wildlife-friendly beds or entire gardens at local schools, community centers or assisted-living facilities.
Simple acts can result in beautiful landscapes that help save at least a little part of the world. n