Warm weather means spring cleaning. BUT before you start on your yard and garden here are some things to ponder to make life easier for you, and better for the wild things.

In essence, we all have the ability (which I equate with responsibility) to do our fair share to make sure Nature can operate as it should. Even a few native plants can make the world of difference to pollinators and birds.

In the March of 1987, I took pictures of a 9-acre parcel of land covered in wildflowers; it was in downtown Kerrville, Texas, and for sale, zoned commerical. A developer* bought the land. But those pictures of a heritage landscape changed my life and inspired others; together we formed the Riverside Nature Center. Undaunted, our fledgling organization bought a 3-acre non-native weedy property a mile away, and spent 3 decades transforming it into a native botanical garden. The first site was 90% native and worthy of protection, but the reality is, the new site was a better demonstration on how to rewild land. In an urban setting it will never be perfect but it matters. Essentially, by planting 70 species of native trees and shrubs, and every wildflower and grass species we could, we created an oasis that serves as a seed-bank of native plants and a diner for wild things. Plant it and they will come. By 2013 our bird list included 162 species (many were migrating through) and 90 species of butterflies. And better yet, it continues to inspire and educate others to do their own rewilding. (*About that developer: he later hired me to do native landscaping for that first site of medical offices, his yard, and a condo project, proving that wins for nature can take many forms.)

Little spaces matter. In Texas, I planted over 200 natives species in my 1/3-acre city yard; the last 2 years a rare hummingbird showed up in the spring. Basically, I hate to mow, so last year I turned my front lawn in Walworth County into a mini-prairie/pollinator garden/rain garden. It’s been a good way to meet neighbors who were curious about my plans and plants. In December, goldfinches picked through sunflower heads and the dead seed stalks of common evening primrose to get the tiny seeds. Note to self: plant more. This is the first spring and I can’t wait for the show.

Black eyed susans on fenceline

Because I’ve seen how small native gardens matter, I became a member of the Homegrown National Park (HNP). The truth is there is not enough protected land to serve all the needs of wild things. Our yards can be like pearls in the bigger strand. My yard might not have natural nesting options but it can be a diner for the insects and birds. Walworth County, WI has 69 acres in HNP, and McHenry County, IL has 40 acres. Even urban patches provide benefits. Learn more at https://homegrownnationalpark.org/about. They have plants lists by zip codes.

So, this March resist the urge to do a deep spring cleaning of your garden. Bumblebee queens and other insects overwinter in pithy stalks of shrubs and won’t emerge until mid-April. IF you must, gather the woodier stuff into an area but don’t BURN, allowing the insects to emerge. Birds also like easy twigs for nest building. Ditto on dead leaves – not only is that safe harbor for the next generation of moth pupae and insect eggs but also food for many birds. Last spring, early robins ruffled through dead leaves for food. Leave the leaves is a good motto. Besides as leaves break down, they enrich the soil and feed the trees for free. Plus, you won’t have to pay to have them hauled away.

Doing your homework improves your results. When you plant for pollinators, you feed birds (they feed their young LOTS of insects so don’t use pesticides). McHenry County Conservation District has information about what grows here naturally.


bee on liatris, monarch on milkweedTwo garden flowers that are easy to grow in Northern IL & Southern WI: Blazing Star (Liatris) and Swamp Milkweed. Note that the milkweed does not actually need a swamp, though it prefers wet feet, and will grow in ordinary soil.

Support local nurseries that sell native plants. Keep in mind that many hybrids might not produce nectar or pollen (so that reduces their value for wildlife). You can check the range of native plants through https://grownative.org/native-plant-database/. And read labels to make sure the plants are free of neonicotinoids pesticides (which are poisonous to pollinators).

Your yard could be the universe to wild things.

On my bookshelf:

Wildflowers of Wisconsin and the Great Lakes Region: A comprehensive field guide. Merel R. Black and Emmet J. Judziewicz

Native Plant Gardening for Birds, Bees & Butterflies: Upper Midwest by Jaret C Daniels

Planting Native to Attract Birds to Your Yard by Sharon Sorenson.


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