Going Native; Planting your Yard to Stop Extinctions

by Pat Garber

There has been much interest in recent years in growing native plants in our yards, and I have been a big believer. Natives require less fertilizer, pesticides and watering and are good for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. It was only recently, however, that I realized the enormous importance of gardening with natives to promote insect diversity.

It was when one of my editors, Peter Vankevich, introduced me to a book he had recently read that I had my WOW moment. The book, “Bringing Nature Home–How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants” was written in 2007 by Douglas W. Tallamy, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. As an entomologist, Dr. Tallamy emphasizes how vital insects are to maintaining healthy ecosystems, and how vital native plants are to insects. “Unless we restore native plants to our suburban ecosystems,” he asserts, “the future of biodiversity in the United States is dim.”

According to Tallamy, insects, which make up 70% of all animal species, are disappearing at an alarming rate. A recently released study found that flying insects had declined by 75% in Germany during the last thirty years, and entomologist Tanya Latty, research and teaching fellow at Sydney University, says that “there is no reason to think this isn’t happening everywhere.”

There are a number of reasons for these alarming declines–climate change, pesticides, pollution. Of major importance is loss of insect habitat. Huge tracts of land have been plowed under for agricultural use, others have been paved and built upon, and others have been converted to lawns.  Nearly forty million acres in North America are covered with lawns, virtual dead zones for most native insects and wildlife. Many of these lawns are dotted with non-native trees, shrubs and flowers which may be quite attractive and bird-friendly, but do not support insects.

A CNN report in October, 2017, stated that 80% of wild plants depend on insects for pollination, and 60% of birds rely on insects for food. All wildlife depend on the ecological food web of which insects are a major part, and humans do as well. Dr. Latty emphasizes that “these are the organisms running the world…Insects are absolutely crucial to our survival.”

The good news is that we can all play a role in preserving and restoring insect populations.  Even the smallest yard can be converted into insect habitat by reducing the lawn and adding and  cultivating well-chosen native species. It doesn’t mean we can’t still grow the exotics we love, and it doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice beauty.

While all insects are important in the food web, the order Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) is a good one to focus on. With nearly 12,000 species in the United States and Canada, it is among the most abundant and most studied. Providing habitat for these most loved of insects will create habitat for others. Various species of Lepidoptera require, as larvae, such diverse plants of oak, dogwood, certain grasses, thistles, violets, and hollyhocks, all native of course.

Here on Ocracoke, our choices of plant species are somewhat limited, especially in areas like my yard, which is vulnerable to wind, salt, and flooding. Red cedar, wax myrtle, yaupon, red bay, groundsel and live oaks are good choices, as are

If enough people plant and cultivate with insect habitat in mind, we can make a big difference while enjoying our wonderful yards.