Backyard nature on Martha’s Vineyard


Regular readers of this column will know that while I enjoy every aspect of nature, I reserve a special enthusiasm for nature that turns up where you don’t expect it. And as much as I enjoy the high points of watching the natural world — rarities, species of particular beauty, spectacles of abundance — I also find great satisfaction in the careful observation of thoroughly ordinary things. Making a similar point about the value of what is accessible, Thoreau wrote that he had “travelled extensively in Concord.” I’d go a step further and say I’ve enjoyed some pretty fair journeys in my front yard.

You can, too. The point is that vibrant communities of wildlife flourish nearly everywhere on the Vineyard, yours for the viewing if you pay attention. Whether you mean isolated yards in the woods of Chilmark and Aquinnah or the quasi-suburban sprawl outside Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven, settled areas will hardly be taken for prime wildlife habitat. But they support or at least help out an amazing diversity of plants and animals. And with a little effort on the part of property-owners, these areas could support a lot more.

Flowers, of course, attract a wide range of insects while also appealing to the human aesthetic sense: Every yard should have some. Late summer and fall offer an opportunity to enhance both the beauty and the value of your yard to wildlife by taking advantage of plant sales and good transplanting weather. If you’re a bit more ambitious, seed from many wildflowers is available now for judicious collecting. (Generally speaking, native seeds should be planted outdoors in fall, since many species need a cold cycle to prompt germination.)

Starting in April, continuing into December, the active season for insects runs long here, and an interesting gardening challenge is to arrange to have blooms available for as much of that time as possible, offering nectar and pollen to bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, and beetles. Among the early-season blooms that appeal to insects are the flowers of blueberries, and either high- or low-bush varieties are a great addition to a Vineyard yard. Another worthy addition to a yard is bearberry, a native, creeping woody plant that can be purchased or started from cuttings. Its flowers resemble those of blueberries (they’re related) and are a favorite of early-season flies.

Milkweeds are insect magnets from late spring to late summer, depending on species; butterfly-weed and swamp milkweed seeds are available from commercial suppliers as well as in the wild. Non-native but irresistible to insects is Buddleia, or butterfly-bush, the name of which says it all. Everything from the tiniest skipper to the largest swallowtail will nectar on this plant, and if you only put in one species to benefit insects, this should be it. Highly popular with small insects are the flowers of herbs: Sage and rosemary bloom early, giving way to mint of all kinds, thyme, and marjoram later in the season. Most of these plants flourish under Vineyard growing conditions, and of course growing them provides a resource for you, as well as the bugs.

Goldenrods and then asters bring up the rear of the flower parade, and both provide visual punch while also attracting insects. Native stiff aster, which grows widely in dry areas of the Vineyard, is a drought-proof plant that also shrugs off damage from grazing bunnies (a bit of nibbling just makes an aster produce more flowers). Likewise bulletproof is seaside goldenrod, which despite its name is quite adaptable. As you’d imagine from a plant that grows on sand dunes, this plant tolerates heat and drought, and its September blooms are large and showy. Many commercially available goldenrods appear to me to be cultivars of this species. Goldenrods are famously known as a food source for migrating monarch butterflies, but keep a close eye on their blossoms: They also attract a wide range of pollen-eating beetles, as well as the spiders that prey on them.

Our garden includes some annuals every year, including alyssum, which flowers until it’s stopped by a hard frost. Its tiny flowers appeal strongly and widely to insects. The latest-blooming garden plants, though, are actually weeds: several non-native members of the radish family flower in sheltered spots until Christmas. While their flowers are unimpressive, by December they’re the only game in town: most years, the final few butterflies I see are nectaring on wild mustard or wild radish. I can’t see my way to growing these deliberately — they’re aggressive plants, and frankly not very attractive. But I leave a few in place in my yard simply to oblige any late-season insects.

The Wild Side surrounds you on the Vineyard, and you can help support wild populations by inviting birds and insects into your yard. You won’t get everything: Many species have special requirements that a yard doesn’t meet. But it’s easy to attract enough to make next summer more interesting.