The Butterfly Effect of a Wildlife Garden

A wildlife garden is designed intentionally to attract birds and butterflies and other pollinators, not just because they’re enjoyable to watch, but because they need help to survive.

Wildlife gardens compensate for habitat destruction, pesticide use, and climate change by adding feeding grounds, nesting sites, and migratory way stations to the larger ecosystem. They shore up, if only on a small scale, bird and pollinator populations that are in decline.

Reports of these declines appear regularly. Three billion North American birds have vanished since 1970, according to a frequently cited 2019 study published in the journal Science. The monarch butterfly population overwintering in Mexico declined 53% compared with the previous year, WWF-Mexico states in its latest survey. Other studies recently released by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimate that 1% to 2% of all insect species are disappearing every year.

At stake from these losses is the survival of flowering plants, including agricultural crops, which rely on bird and insect pollinators for their reproduction.

A wildlife garden is a way to stem the losses, on an individual level. Much of this mitigation is accomplished with native plants, which co-evolved with birds and insects to provide the specialized food—pollen, nectar, berries, and insect larvae—they require. Asters and agastache attract bumble bees, butterfly weed supports new generations of monarch butterflies, and native oaks feed the larvae of hundreds of moth and butterfly species, which parent birds seek out as protein sources for their nestlings.

These plantings result in gardens of unique beauty and often meadow-scale size that combine a kaleidoscope of color with uncommon shapes. Purple coneflower and black-eyed Susans mash up with spiky five-foot tall rattlesnake master, but then there’s the daintiness of wild petunia and the gracefulness of wild indigo. It’s a garden that may appear uncontrolled, but as with any garden, the design can be tamed. What cannot be tamed is the buzzing, fluttering, and humming of a garden alive and working.

Creating a wildlife garden is a way to restore a link in a broken chain.

That’s the reasoning. But before getting started, it might be useful to ask, do I need a meadow? Can my sixth of an acre lot or 6’ x 6’ raised bed really help birds and pollinators survive? If I only have room for a patch of milkweed, am I still contributing to a kind of literal butterfly effect?

When it comes to gardens, says Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home and Nature’s Best Hope, “size may not matter as much as we think. Every plant is valuable.”

He gives the example of migration. “Even one tree. Migrating birds will find it,” and will refuel on the insect larvae it supports, improving their chances for survival as they fly north to their breeding grounds.

There is a caveat. “Plant anything as long as it’s native,” says Tallamy. Butterfly bushes and other nonnative ornamentals may be beautiful and produce a lot of nectar, but these plants don’t support specialist species, the native bees and butterflies that are in decline.

To recreate nature is impossible, but gardeners may have more power than they realize to restore nature, even if on a tiny scale. And if neighbors join together, the links multiply, and “then you really have habitat.”

Small steps add up. Every butterfly counts.

Deborah Ozga
April 17, 2021

Agastache with Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

This post is a reworked version of a previous post, The Wildlife Garden, and was completed while participating in a class at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

To learn how you can support ecosystem health and biodiversity through gardening, and amplify the butterfly effect, visit the Homegrown National Park website.

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