Gardening is for the birds

Cedar waxwings feed on native insects, who in turn feed on native trees. Photo credit Lisa Hall

We choose each plant that we place in our garden. But what if birds and insects chose instead? After all, to humans plants are beautiful and fragrant, but to wildlife they are essential food and shelter.

Human health is inextricably bound to the health of wildlife for a healthy environment. Global-scale policies are needed to mitigate the impact of climate change, but individuals, neighborhoods and communities can do what is necessary to make a difference, such as choosing to plant native flora to support native wildlife.

Change can start small. This spring, 20-plus homeowners on Bradford Road are each planting a small patch of native flowers on their tree lawns and front lawns to create a pollinator path. The cumulative effect will be the creation of a quarter acre of native habitat—the Bradford Pollinator Path! Plants include milkweed varieties (Asclepias syriaca, A. incarnata, and A. tuberosa), cardinal flower, blue lobelia, Culver’s root, obedient plant, wild bergamot, and more.

What do spring warblers migrating through Northeast Ohio need to eat? Insects. What do the insects need? Flowers. The first native spring flowers are on trees and shrubs, and that’s where the migrants are seen feeding. Oak trees, according to entomologist Doug Tallamy, support 534 species of caterpillars, aka bird food. A flock of cedar waxwings fed on insects in a blooming Heights maple tree for a week last spring. Native trees support native wildlife.

Native understory shrubs, such as dogwood, spicebush, chokecherry and serviceberry, also flower in May and June. Some create thickets that shelter nesting native birds, as well as providing food. Plant native shrubs, put out a birdbath, keep your cat inside or leashed (it’s the law), and you’ve provided a healthy habitat.                 

The ground layer of the garden is probably the most delightful, because we all love flowers. Horticulturalists “improve” them to make them bigger and better to satisfy our human craving for the newest and best, but sometimes they inject them with pesticides to keep them looking perfect. Insects and birds eat the tainted plants with devastating effect.

Our gardens might contain beautiful plants from all around the world. But non-native flora and fauna wreak havoc on what is native to its eco-region. We can’t change this overnight, but we can begin to appreciate and re-introduce native plants in our own eco-region.

Heights residents can incrementally and collectively build a healthy eco-system. We can change our practice of mowing and blowing our yards. We can demonstrate that native plants are feasible, attractive, enduring, and beneficial. We can go beyond yards and encourage public entities, such as schools and parks, to plant more native trees and plants. We can educate young people about the environment through the magic of butterflies, bring neighbors together through the pleasures of gardening, mitigate stormwater runoff through proper yard management, and sequester more carbon by increasing vegetation.

Consider adding a few native plants to your garden this May. As Tallamy advises, “Garden as if life depends on it.”

A list of Northeast Ohio sources for native plants can be found at FriendsofLowerLake/ (Never dig up plants in the wild!)

In addition, the 17th annual Nature Center at Shaker Lakes plant sale, on May 11, will contain a large selection of hard-to-find native plants. For information about the sale, go to

Peggy Spaeth

Peggy Spaeth volunteers as a Cleveland Metroparks certified watershed steward, is co-chair of Friends of Lower Lake, and a Nature Center at Shaker Lakes plant sale volunteer.

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Volume 12, Issue 5, Posted 12:48 PM, 05.01.2019