As I write this on a bleak, soggy Sunday morning in late February, summer seems like a mighty remote possibility. But as regular readers of this column know, the changes in weather and wildlife that will lead us to summer are already in progress. And most of us have already accumulated a hefty stack of seed and nursery catalogs to whet our appetites.
It’s time, in other words, to plan for the gardening season. And if you’re interested in the ecological health of the Vineyard, I’d urge you to incorporate the needs of wildlife into your planning. Yards and gardens will never replace the Island’s precious conservation lands as resources for wildlife, but here are six principles that will help make your yard more friendly to wild animals, while reducing negative impacts that might spill over from your land onto the rest of the Island.
1. Add structure. Residential areas tend to be dominated by lawns and garden beds, which, almost by definition, tend to be tidy and uniform. But a closely mown sod-grass lawn, with its short, uniform grass blades, offers little to interest wildlife. You can add structure that will offer shelter for a range of wildlife by planting shrubs, creating a mixed-species meadow, or even simply by ceasing to mow portions of your lawn.
2. Add water. One odd characteristic of the Vineyard, especially the south and central “sandplain” portions, is a dearth of surface water. Porous soil in this region simply absorbs water rather than letting it accumulate. Even in the hilly, up-Island moraine, ponds and streams are relatively scarce. But virtually all wildlife requires fresh water at some point in its life cycle. So adding a small pond, or even a bird bath, to you yard can attract a huge range of native species. The process isn’t trivial: your water source needs to be correctly planned and maintained to keep from becoming clogged by algae. But if you like having wildlife around, you’ll find it’s worth the effort.
3. Plant native. Many insect species have evolved to depend on a certain suite of plants for food, and in many cases can’t or won’t eat plants outside that selection. If your yard is filled with grasses and flowers with origins outside of eastern North America (and that includes most lawn grasses and ornamentals), you’re producing a food mix that most native insects can’t use. And while you might think that you don’t want any insects at all in your yard, keep in mind that a healthy, diverse insect population will attract bird and invertebrate predators, including spiders and other insects. These visitors will help control the relatively few insect species that are actually likely to become garden pests. But this system of natural control is based on the presence of plants native to our region.
4. Avoid chemical inputs. There is a place for pesticides and fertilizers; sometimes a problem is bad enough to justify a chemical solution, and some desirable plants (including most of our crop species) require added fertility to grow vigorously. But pesticides almost always have impacts beyond their target. And both pesticides and excess fertilizer wash off or leach into the groundwater, eventually harming our streams and ponds. The fewer chemicals you use on your lawn and garden, the better for wildlife and the better for the entire Island.
5. Control invasives. You’re probably aware that certain non-native plants, with nothing to control them where they’ve been introduced outside of their original range, can be too successful, spreading explosively and displacing native vegetation. Eliminating them in your yard is one way to enhance diversity locally and reduce the chance these species will spread further. Autumn olive, Asiatic bittersweet, Japanese knotweed, and garlic mustard may be the most worrisome invasives on the Vineyard: Google them, learn to recognize them, and yank them out by their miserable roots if you spot them.
6. Pay attention. To my mind, the real reward of eco-conscious landscaping comes from what it brings into a yard. When you shift from a regimented, highly managed yard to a plan that’s more natural, expect to see a higher diversity of plants. With them will come new species of insects, and visiting to feed on those insects will be larger, predatory insects (like dragonflies) and birds. The higher diversity will tend to maintain a stable ecosystem, and as you watch and learn, it will add pleasure and satisfaction to your life.
Landscaping for wildlife isn’t for everyone. It requires a new kind of thinking and a decreased emphasis on lawn and garden choices that we have become conditioned to think of as normal. But a green lawn and beds of non-native ornamentals benefit the lawn and garden product industry more than native wildlife. If you care about nature, consider a new model for caring for your land, one that invites the original Vineyarders in for a visit.