Opportunities / Science

Spring Awakening: Become Lake Wise with Native Plantings

By Amy Picotte
Amy Picotte is a scientist with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation where she works as the Vermont Lake Wise Coordinator and Lakeshore Manager.

With the drama of March behind us, soggier but warmer April days deliver opportunities to dust off the porch furniture and prepare for new planting and landscaping projects. According to the Vermont Lake Wise Program, homeowners and gardeners could enhance their property with native plantings while protecting water quality, wildlife habitat, and property values.

The landscaping choices homeowners and gardeners make have the greatest impact on biodiversity and Vermont’s 800 lakes and ponds and their watersheds, as well as one’s own health. Minimizing lawn and restoring native plants in the yard is the best solution for managing stormwater runoff and protecting surface waters because native plants reduce, filter, and purify stormwater while lawn doesn’t. Native plants, like dogwoods, viburnums and blueberries, create year-round color, host hundreds of butterfly and moth larva, produce lively flowers and berries, clean the water and air, protect property from storm damages, like shoreland and driveway erosion, and benefit one’s own health and well-being. Studies show that humans have a 15% higher level of well-being, are 6% more productive, and are 15% more creative overall when spending time in natural landscapes. Lawns simply don’t provide any of these benefits.

While many of us are familiar with the specialized relationship between the monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, and the milkweed plant, Asclepias syriaca, fewer know that 90% of the rest of the plant-eating insects are also specialized to feed on one or only a few types of native plants. Here are a few examples:

  • If you spot a bright, green luna moth, Actias luna, then chances are there is a shagbark hickory tree, Carya ovata, nearby, because like the monarch is to the milkweed, the luna moth’s larva depend on the leaves of this native plant to survive.
  • The native plant eastern red cedar, Juniperus virginiana, provides the only food source for the larval stage of the olive hairstrike butterfly, Callophrys gryneasu. Cedar waxwing birds are named after the eastern red cedar plant because of their feeding habits on the berries, but the olive hairstrike larva provide essential protein to cedar wax wings and other birds when they rear their broods.

The Vermont Lake Wise Program offers technical assistance to shoreland owners for restoring living shorelands and creating lake-friendly properties with native plantings.

LakeWise_Monarch

The monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, depends soley on milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, to lay its egg and feed as a larva. The native milkweed plant is essential to the survival of the monarch.

Song birds depend on native plants too. More than 96% of birds rear their young on insect protein from mostly caterpillars. Each pair of nesting chickadees needs to find baby bird food, which is about 6,000 butterfly and moth larva over a three-week period to rear their young, as baby birds can’t eat seeds yet. A native black cherry tree, Prunus serotina, hosts more than 450 species of butterfly and moth insects that birds depend on to feed their brood and provides fruit for more than 40 species of birds and many mammals, arguably making it the most important native tree for wildlife survival in Vermont. Oak, willow, birch, poplar, maple, pine, hickory, and blueberry native plants all host over 200 butterfly and moth larva, while lawn is sterile and hosts zero butterfly larva. Reducing lawn by planting a single native plant can make the difference of survival for nesting song birds.

Doug Tallamy, Professor and Chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware is renowned for his science of plant-insect interactions. He has been called the Jacques Cousteau of the terrestrial world. Dr. Tallamay’s research points to the home gardener as the solution to protecting clean water, air, wildlife and human well-being. If homeowners restored half their lawn with native plants, then most species could survive forever. Tallamy says, “You don’t have to save biodiversity for a living, but please consider saving biodiversity where you live.”

Harvard University Biology Professor, E.O. Wilson, considered the world’s authority on ants, has called for a movement to conserve half of the planet for wildlife. The Half-Earth Project is the solution for safeguarding biodiversity, including ourselves. The Half-Earth Project aims to “conserve half the Earth’s lands and seas in order to reverse the species extinction crisis and ensure the long-term health of the planet.”

This season, challenge yourself to reduce your lawn by half and restore it with native plantings. Homeowners of condominiums to rural properties can help stop and solve threats to Vermont’s clean water simply by restoring native plants to their surroundings. Enhance April with landscaping actions that turn showers into native wildflowers.

To learn more about the assistance the Vermont Lake Wise Program offers shoreland homeowners to restoring living shorelands and creating lake-friendly properties with native plantings, visit https://dec.vermont.gov/watershed/lakes-ponds/lakeshores-lake-wise.