The Chickadee’s Guide to Gardening

by Barbara Walvoord

It takes 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to raise one nest full of chickadees. Almost all caterpillars eat only native plants, not aliens.*

Plants don’t want to be eaten, so they evolve to make themselves poisonous, distasteful, or inaccessible to insect mouthparts. But, aha! each native insect has co-evolved to overcome the defenses of one or several native plants. Thus the monarch butterfly lays eggs only on milkweed–the only thing its caterpillars can eat. Facing a 90% decline in monarchs due in part of disappearance of milkweed, the National Wildlife Federation and others are mounting a national effort to increase milkweed plantings.

Butterflies, bees, and birds–that’s why we need native plants on Lathrop land, including our gardens. Natives can be as beautiful, orderly, and well-designed as aliens.**

Stores may advertise “native” plants, but beware: natives from the Midwest may not be as good for our insects as natives from our own geographic region. So-called natives may actually be “nativars” that have been altered to fit human preferences and have been propagated by cuttings, thereby eliminating the genetic diversity that comes with seeds. Also, be sure the pot soil has no added neonicotinoids–an insecticide that infuses the plant’s system and poisons insects who eat it.

You can trust all plants that come from Project Native in Housatonic (projectnative.org). Nasami Farm in Whately, operated by the New England Wild Flower Society, has many native wild flowers (http://www.newfs.org/visit/nasami-farm).

*Douglas Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home (in east campus library) and his March 11 New York Times op-ed piece, from which I stole this title.

**Guidelines for native plant gardens, with gorgeous photos, are in Darke and Tallamy’s new The Living Landscape. Contact me to borrow it.

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