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Conservation Corner: Gardening for wildlife – what, why and a little how

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Backyard habitat

Partially obscured by trees, a sign in the Newark High School courtyard commemorates the area’s status as a Certified Wildlife Habitat.

April is the month to begin working in the garden. It’s also the month we observe Earth Day and Arbor Day. Planning a garden for wildlife habitat is an ideal way to celebrate all three. It’s also an excellent opportunity to explore and consider the ecological benefits of our beautiful native plants.

Habitat gardening or conservation landscaping with native plants has had a presence in Newark since 2013 when the city became a National Wildlife Federation Certified Habitat City. There are more than 100 NWF Habitat yards in Newark, along with several city parks that have that designation. Habitat is defined as providing food, water, shelter and a place to raise young.

Ecology and the interconnectedness of living things informs the concept of habitat gardening. Think back to the that diagram of a food web from middle school science. The native plants at the bottom and the insects that eat them form the basis of wildlife habitat. Many creatures rely on the high protein value of insects for food. Most of what birds need for rearing their young are insects, especially caterpillars. A pair of chickadees will need several thousand caterpillars to raise one brood.

Life on earth depends on insects, and insects rely on the native plants with which they have co-evolved. We are familiar with the monarch caterpillar and its dependence on the milkweed plant. The milkweed flower is also an excellent source of nectar for bees and other pollinators that are critical to food production. There are countless insect-plant specific relationships. Violets, for one, are the larval food for the beautiful Fritillary butterflies. The common blue violet, often regarded as a weed, also makes an excellent ground cover for holding soil in place.

Native trees provide shelter and food for birds and insects. A native oak can support more than 400 different species of moths and butterflies. Along with oaks, native cherry, willows, and birches are just a few tree species that our native insects rely on. Holly and viburnum flowers provide nectar in spring and summer and berries in the fall and winter. Studies show that non-native ornamental plants, such as crepe myrtle and Japanese maple do not provide these essential benefits.

A garden that provides for the greatest diversity of wildlife is layered. A tree, small or large, depending on your space, planted with several types of native shrubs creates a variety of habitats. A layer of perennials, with different bloom times, makes nectar available through the season. Your design ideally includes an unmanaged area with brush and rock piles for reptiles and insects.

A home for wildlife is a year-round operation. In the fall, leaving plant stalks standing provides cover for birds and other creatures. Leaves raked into the beds allow insects to overwinter, ready to emerge in spring. The leaf liter is a cold weather hunting ground for active small mammals and birds. Avoiding pesticides and herbicides protects regional water resources and makes your yard a safer place for every living thing.

Once you get started there is always more to know. An excellent resource for native plant information and conservation gardening can be found at https://www.fws.gov/chesapeakebay/PDF/resources/Native-Plants-for-Wildlife-Habitat-and- Conservation-Landscaping.pdf .

Books by University of Delaware entomologist Douglas Tallamy, “Bringing Nature Home” and “Nature’s Best Hope” are widely regarded as must reads for understanding what we can do and why we should.

The Conservation Advisory Commission was created in 1977 to advise the city of Newark in the development, management and protection of its natural resources, with appropriate consideration of Newark’s human and economic resources. It meets the second Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. in council chambers. The public is invited to attend and provide input. Commission members provide this monthly column to inform area residents on conservation issues.

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