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Mt Cuba Center
Back to News Updates – February 20, 2020


The Humane Gardener

Bees, foxes, squirrels—our natural neighbors use our gardens for food, and shelter. Why do we call some insects “beneficial” while others are “pests”? Why are some plants “desirable” while others are “weeds”? Why are some larger animals welcome in our gardens, and others are “nuisances”? On Saturday, March 14th, discover how misperceptions and common gardening methods perpetuate the divide between people and other species and how to put humane gardening philosophies into action during The Humane Gardener: Nurturing Habitats for Wildlife from author Nancy Lawson.

A bumblebee dives deep into Clematis glaucophylla, or white‐leaf leather‐flower.

Below is a Q+A with Nancy about the importance of wildlife and how home gardeners can practice animal-friendly gardening with native plants.

Q+A with Nancy Lawson

Mt. Cuba Center: What are some of the major misperceptions about the wild species living among us?

Nancy Lawson: So, we’re not just talking about mammals here. There are so many. Often when people see a fox, an opossum, a skunk, they have this idea that they’re going to start multiplying exponentially, eating all the tomatoes or what have you. Most of these animals are itinerant, just passing through, and they have natural limitations that control their population. And they live here with us! Whether gardening or not, many species thrive in suburban environments, the place where lawns meet the forest. Another misconception is that these animals are pests—that their presence is going to make our planting or gardening difficult. If you take a long-term view and have some patience over time, you’ll see that these creatures are habitat creators, garden helpers. For example, I like to talk about moles. Everyone thinks a mole comes and tears up the yard. But they have very helpful roles in tilling the soil and eating a lot of earthworms, most of which are invasive in our area. The molehills are interesting and make a different topography on the land and they collect seeds! I have so many interesting plants growing on those mole hills, including mosses—an ancient plant that brings other animals, like Carolina wrens that collect the mosses for their nests. Squirrels are another notorious creature, and people don’t like that they steal birdseed. I recommend planting native plants, which are the better way to feed birds, and it reduces competition anyway. And thinking of squirrels as garden helpers—they plant oak trees for us! And an oak tree is a natural bird feeder. One of the most persistent myths is that bees live in hives and you need hives to save bees. The presence of honeybees can create a lot of competition for native bees, but doing things like leaving violets in the lawn can really help. Skunks have a natural balance in the landscape. There’s a history of farmers lobbying for protections for skunks because they eat beetle larvae and they were helpful to farmers because they were balancing out the insect population. What usually happens is a dog will get into trouble with a skunk, and people will trap the skunk. Skunks live under the potting shed or wander under the deck early in the morning or in the evening, then the dogs will find them. Dogs seem to be the only animals that don’t understand warning signs, so they think they’ve found a really fun animal. It’s unintentional, but it creates these situations where we paint animals as aggressive, or as coming after us. Oftentimes they’re scared—they’re way more scared of us than we are of them. They usually see us before we see them, and they have their defenses up and are often protecting their young—they’re doing anything they can to do that.

Mt. Cuba Center: What’s the role of home gardeners in sustaining wildlife habitats?

Nancy Lawson: Of course you can plant native plants, you will help, but you don’t have to convert your whole yard. If you’re new to gardening or planting natives, you might not be aware of what you already have. This happened recently happened when I gave a talk—you don’t have to pull out your violets or weed other plants like that. They’re so helpful, and it’s one less thing to weed. Plants like jewelweed, fleabane and pokeweed come up on their own and are great plants to leave up for our specialist bees and butterflies, but also for deer—they love these native herbaceous plants.  I’ll leave up a sumac at the clothesline because I know the deer will come and eat it. I don’t think that any plant is particularly precious, but things that are prolific like sassafras will grow more vigorously if the deer eat them, which means they’re fine for the deer to eat. Having an openness to the idea that your landscape is a shared landscape, a feeding landscape, and a dynamic landscape is a lot easier, and you’ll make all kinds of wonderful new discoveries if you let things evolve. People want to attract certain kinds of wildlife or only have certain kinds of plants, which really limits the kind of wildlife interactions you’re going to see.

Eutrochium, or Joe-pye weed, in Mt. Cuba’s meadow.

Mt. Cuba Center: What’s something that home gardeners can do to support wildlife?

Nancy Lawson: There are design elements you can incorporate in your garden that have lots of impacts. I like to incorporate deadwood, which attracts salamanders and other creatures. I use them to mark the beginning of a pathway and let fungi grow over it. I’ve seen wooly bears nest in there, and eventually the pileated woodpeckers come and make a happy hour of the deadwood to get the insect larvae out of it. Deadwood is helpful for protecting plants, so if I have tender Joe-pye weed that is at risk to be eaten by the deer before the butterflies can get to it, it’s usually just enough of a deterrent for them that they’ll go elsewhere. Leaving the stalks up is a great way to help native bees if you cut them in early spring for nesting bees. If you leave the stalks up, it can protect other plants from herbivore nibbling, and the birds and squirrels will eat the seeds in the winter.

A Pileated Woodpecker in Mt. Cuba’s gardens

Mt. Cuba Center: So, why native plants, and what benefits do they provide for wildlife?

Nancy Lawson: There are connections between native plants and insects—that’s something we can never say enough. Even foxes have a quarter of their diet come from insects. Toads and snakes and other wildlife, too, feed on insects. Last year I saw a fox that didn’t see me, and I got to watch her for several minutes and I got to see her nibbling on the plants – I couldn’t tell if she was nibbling on insects, but she certainly wasn’t pouncing on mice. I wanted to mention too, other than animals as habitat creators, a lot of people get upset at squirrels and the presence of mice, but bumblebees use abandoned squirrel and mice nests, so people who use rodenticides are unintentionally harming bees. You asked why people should attract wildlife at all, and beyond the global declines in insect population – it’s truly dire, but one of the things I think doesn’t get talked about enough is that when you start paying attention to wildlife you realize you’re never alone. E. O. Wilson prefers to call the Anthropocene the Eremocene, or the age of loneliness, because we’re creating a habitat for just ourselves. When you’re gardening for wildlife, you have these constant companions. In the winter, instead of having a dead zone of turf, you have these waves and waves of wildlife and plants—from the smells of decay to the smell of spring coming. I don’t get that when I pass through the turfgrass lawns of my turf communities, I get that from wild gardens and the woods. It’s not that hard, either! I keep the weeds at bay, but it’s amazing to be surprised by a connection with a small wood frog while pulling Japanese stilt grass. Native plants benefit humans, too. One study found that kids growing up around yards with native plants had fewer allergies and more protective bacteria on their hands. They think it makes kids have more effective immune systems, correlating it with growing up around native plants. As far as human benefits, that a big health one!

On March 14th, journey into the beneficial and beautiful side of native plants that attract the eye and support local wildlife. Register for The Humane Gardener: Nurturing Habitats for Wildlife here. Lecture takes place on Saturday, March 14th from 11 AM to 12:15 PM.