A Swallowtail butterfly feeds on Mexican honeysuckle.
Photo by Susan Hanson
Society garlic sprouts new growth amid freeze-damaged leaves.
Photo by Cynthia Gonzales
Fallen leaves are natural mulch for planting bed.
Photo by Wizzie Brown, TAMU extension
Spring Lake Garden Club gives tips for sustainable yards and healthy landscapes
February yards in San Marcos may look bleak and brown after freezing weather, yet many silently support wildlife, especially insect pollinators such as bees and butterflies. Spring Lake Garden Club’s first meeting of the new year featured an overview of how plants and insects depend on each other, especially in winter.
Garden club members learned about plant and insect partnerships in a presentation by Melani Howard, manager of San Marcos’ habitat conservation plan until her retirement last year. Howard’s wake-up call is that without insects, most plants would disappear, leaving no flowers and fruits for humans (or birds).
Howard noted that popular home landscapes are part of our problem, with a third of residential landscaping devoted to lawns, according to ecologist Douglas W. Tallamy. Most lawns produce no food for wildlife, although grubs and insect pests may feed on turf grass. Treating non-native lawns with pesticides affects beneficial insects as well, and herbicides which control non-grass growth threaten other plants in the landscape. Chemicals and fertilizer for grass are costly, and a third of residential water is regularly used for lawns, depending on season and location (and availability of water). But anyone with a lawn can help re-balance an urban environment by reducing total grass coverage and dedicating areas to plants which support pollinators and need little watering once established.
A “picture perfect” yard may be attractive but also deceiving, especially if killing insects is seen as helping plants.
Such shortcuts actually sabotage a sustainable landscape that provides food for insects, which birds need to feed their young. Most gardeners choose non-native plants for a particular trait such as fruit or flowers, but native varieties offer the same benefits while supporting local ecology. For example, a nandina shrub produces red berries which birds avoid, whereas beauty berry, a similar native shrub, is a food source for birds and other wildlife, as are the red berries of yaupon and possumhaw hollies. Planting native coral honeysuckle also expands natural food sources, unlike Japanese honeysuckle or star jasmine. Native plants attract many more birds and pollinators than popular plants introduced from other environments.
San Marcos residents already deal with a fickle climate, so supporting plant and wildlife partnerships is just one more step toward landscapes both beautiful and resilient. Growing specific plants that welcome insects, such as milkweed for monarch butterflies, is one way to attract pollinators. Another strategy that supports beneficial insects is letting natural leaf litter remain in place to protect overwintering species. Many insects lay eggs or take refuge in browned stems of plants damaged by winter cold. Pruning these plants before spring not only encourages premature new growth but also destroys insect partners for a new growing season.
Here are a few ideas for balancing beauty and practicality in our yards:
• Aim for an attractively “neat” yard as opposed to one that’s artificially “clean.” Beneficial insects need protection in leaf litter and weathered plant remains to survive winter cold.
• Replace part of lawn turf with planting areas that offer food and shelter to insects and birds, focusing on native and adapted plants. Locate beds in a sheltered area, such as near trees, that temper wind and sun.
• Mulch bare soil in beds to retain moisture, or consider a “reverse mulch” system, insulating plant roots with leaf litter and using mulch for paths to deter unwanted weeds but allow water to percolate into soil.
• Mow lawn grass but manage growth in open areas with a string trimmer, leaving growing space for wildflowers and other desirable volunteers. Nature’s nursery brings unplanted guests to our yards, and not all visitors are “weeds.”
• Adopt patience as part of a landscape plan. Successful plants and pollinators adapt their life cycles to the seasons, and low-maintenance gardening follows this model.
“Treating non-native lawns with pesticides affects beneficial insects ...and herbicides which control non-grass growth threaten other plants in the landscape.”
– Douglas W. Tallamy, ecologist