Thursday, October 3, 2013

Increase Plant Diversity to Enhance Wildlife

Small flower ground covers like Phlox encourage beneficial insects.
Want to encourage more beneficial insects, songbirds, and other types of wildlife to live in your yard? The answer is simple: Increase plant diversity in your yard! North Carolina is home to 3,068 native plant species, which help to support an even greater diversity of native wildlife. Native plants are ideal for supporting wildlife and are well adapted to North Carolina’s climate.

Plants sustain life and help support a com­plex food system. From pollinating insects to songbirds and small mammals, all wildlife depend on plants to provide food, shelter, and nesting sites. Not all wildlife feed on the same plants at the same time. Having a well-designed landscape composed of a diversity of herbaceous and woody plants will provide food and shelter to sustain wildlife throughout the year.

If you want to increase plant diversity in your yard, the best place to start is with the ground layer. Diverse mixtures of perennial ground cov­ers—such as species of Phlox, Viola, Oxalis, and Geranium—are good choices because they have tiny flowers that only small insects like beneficial parasitic wasps can feed upon. Another choice for a ground cover is clover, which is favored by important pollinators such as honeybees and bumblebees. Clover also improves soil quality and increases nitrogen levels in the soil.

Annual and perennial border plantings in your garden beds will encourage other types of wildlife. For instance, coneflowers (Rudbeckia and Echinacea species) and Coreopsis species are favored by songbirds such as the American goldfinch because their seeds provide a winter food source. Other plants are critical for butterfly reproduction and survival. For example, caterpil­lars of the monarch butterfly can only survive on species of milkweed (Asclepias). Plants such as species of goldenrod (Solidago), ironweed (Verno­nia), and joe-pye weed (Eutrochium) are favored nectar sources for many butterfly species and also provide beautiful flowers.

Plant a mix of evergreen and deciduous shrubs to provide food and refuge for songbirds throughout the year. Deciduous shrubs such as New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) and but­tonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) can be grown throughout North Carolina and provide nectar for insects and hummingbirds in the summer. Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) and doghobble (Leucothoe species) provide shelter for small mam­mals and overwintering birds during the winter months.

Small trees such as flowering dogwood and redbud provide early spring color and also serve as a nectar resource for butterflies, while wax myrtle and American holly are evergreens that can serve as shelter for wildlife during the winter. Larger trees—including oak, elm, and pine— provide wildlife habitat and food throughout the year. Check with your local Extension center or visit for more plant recommendations suited to your area.

— Sam Marshall
From the NC Cooperative Extension Fall 2013 newsletter

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