Dealing with Climate Change in Your Landscape

Co-sponsored by Untermyer Gardens and the Westchester Community College Native Plant Center

Wondering what you can do to help support wild birds, wildlife, and beneficial insects at home, despite the impacts of climate change? On Thursday, April 6th, over 25 attendees braved the torrential rain and thunder to continue the discussion started at our Birds, Bugs, and Bushes event to learn about even more steps they can take in their own backyards.

Dealing With Climate Change in Your Landscape

Background

Kim Eierman of EcoBeneficial started off with a bit of background about climate change (click here for video from the event).

Unfortunately, much of the news about the current state of wildlife and the impacts of climate change was sobering:

  • Although it’s well known that monarch butterflies are threatened, there are also many other butterflies that are at risk of extinction but are not extensively studied because of a lack of grant money. Here’s a list from the Xerces Society with around 50 species that could be in danger.
  • In addition to butterflies, native bee species may also be threatened (did you know that honeybees aren’t native?). In New York, there are around 450 native bee species, but there isn’t a lot of historical data available to compare current numbers with. For reference though, in the Midwest, around 50% of their native bees have disappeared.
  • Piling onto all this, climate change will alter the cyclical relationships (also known as “phenology”) between different species, and it’s uncertain if they will be able to adapt. There are certain temperatures, hours of sunlight, and amounts of precipitation that trigger flowering or migration. As the growing season starts earlier and ends later, these triggers will change, creating “phenology mismatches.” For instance, if birds miss the period when insects emerge, it may become difficult for landscapes to support them as there will be insufficient sources of food available in regions where they previously thrived.
  • According to Kim, there is also research that suggests that higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may be more beneficial to invasive plant species than to native ones (here’s a paper with more on the phenomenon). Although it may seem like a good thing to have more plant growth, invasives are “not ecologically equivalent to natives.” For example, Japanese Honeysuckle thicket does not protect Northern Cardinals from predators as well as that of native species, and its fruit is “like junk food for migrating birds” (read more here about the differences between native and invasive fruits for migrating birds).
  • Unfortunately, current gardening practices are resource intensive and dominated by “monocultures” (like turf grass, which Kim calls the “green desert”), typically using around 15% or more of the average household’s total water usage. Kim cited a stat by NASA showing that turf is the “single largest irrigated crop in the US” (more info available here).

What you can do

Although it may not be possible for us to single-handedly help all birds, “we can help the ones in our backyard.” Kim offered some ideas of what we can do:

“If you plant it, they will come.”

On a 1/5 acre plot of land, less than 20 miles from midtown Manhattan, Kim found that by planting host plants like Serviceberries (aka Juneberries/Shadbush) shrubs, she was able to attract many species of wild birds back to her landscape. Her talk focused on creating landscapes that are wildlife-friendly and on how to use resources more sustainably.

Rethink traditional gardening practices – instead, think like a bee!

Kim recommended that instead of thinking simply about how plants look, prioritize a plant’s function.

Instead of creating homogenous landscapes with a single variety, she recommended that we “think about mixed hedging.” Birds, bees, and other species need a variety of different services from yards, including food and shelter. Monocultures can’t meet all of these needs.

By planting a diverse group of species, and by planting enough of them, it’s easier to ensure that species are getting more of what they need out of a landscape. In addition, turn to native plant species, which have evolved along with local wildlife. The berries produced by native species are better able to provide adequate nutrition and energy  for migrating birds. Kim pointed out that some native plants – like Spicebush, Winterberry, Sassafras, and American Holly – require both male and female plants in order to produce berries. Plant the males and females close together, making it easier for bees to visit all the plants at once. Only one male is needed to pollinate multiple female plants.

Kim also called for rethinking our philosophy towards gardening. She recommended the work of Dr. Doug Tallamy, who says that “we’ve been unwilling to tolerate messiness, imperfection, and damage” in our landscapes, but need to start allowing for it. Even if a plant isn’t visually appealing, it can still serve a number of ecosystem services as a source of food or shelter. For example, we often think of leaf “damage” as something to “fix” – when, in fact, our native caterpillars must consume leaves to survive. In addition, adding layers of plants that are at different heights into a garden makes it have a better resemblance to natural landscapes.

Some of her suggestions included doing less. Instead of neatly clearing out all remnants of trees, she recommended leaving dead trees or stumps standing (“snags”) or leaving fallen logs in a landscape, which can serve as habitat or sources of nutrition. For instance, she encouraged leaving perennials standing through the winter, which can serve as shelter for ladybugs, which gather in the stems.

“We aren’t perfect and our landscapes don’t have to be either.” – Kim Eierman, EcoBeneficial

Reducing carbon emissions

Kim recommended not just planting more trees to mitigate climate change, but also “keeping trees safe” by protecting their extensive root zones that may be 2 to 3 times the width of their canopy. If there’s construction occurring at home, keep heavy machinery away from trees, which can compact the soil. She also asked us to reconsider our “tree-fear” (which prompts many Westchester residents to prophylactically take down trees that think might fall during future storms) – and to only remove trees when truly necessary – pointing out the variety of benefits that trees can provide. For instance, it “takes 1/2 acre of trees 1 year to absorb CO2 from driving car 13,000 miles.”

In addition to reducing the carbon dioxide in the air through planting trees, she suggested that we “minimize carbon inputs” by using human power or electric equipment instead of gas. Some towns and villages in Westchester have their own gas blower bans; here’s some information about the County’s law.

Not just plants…

In addition to the plant life in our landscapes, there are also other features that Kim mentioned we should pay attention to:

  • Water: By substituting impervious surfaces (like pavement) with permeable ones (like gravel), we can keep stormwater within the landscape. Other ideas include rain gardens. In addition to sustainable stormwater management, bodies of water can be kept clean by creating “riparian buffers” instead of having lawn growing up to the edge of a water source (bonus: fewer geese!)  Even native plants need watering (especially when they are first planted, before they have fully established. However, try to use as little water as possible by watering in the morning, with soakers, and fewer times a week (but for longer periods of time) so that the water is absorbed more deeply into the soil.
  • Soil: For healthy soil, avoid synthetic fertilizers and use organic fertilizer only when necessary. To find out if your soil needs fertilizer, do a soil test first (can be done with a home kit – or by sending a sample to the local cooperative extension school). Other natural supplements include compost, compost tea (which can be made at home), and leaves (“nature’s mulch”). Check out the Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em initiative in Westchester for more!

“Don’t treat your soil like dirt.” – Kim Eierman, EcoBeneficial

  • Signage: According to Kim, it’s helpful to “give your neighbors a cue that you’re doing things differently for a reason.” Add signage to your garden to show exactly what you’re doing (visit the National Wildlife Federation website and Grow Organic for ideas).

Tips for buying plants

Here are some tips for buying plants:

  • Try to pick species that can survive in a variety of hardiness levels and have deep roots, which may be able to withstand extremes in precipitation and shifts in our climate.
  • Find plants that have been grown from local seeds and without pesticides (the Native Plant Center’s Annual Plant Sale is a place to start!).
  • Try to find plants that are as close to their “natural” form as possible (“no funky colors or big berries”). In addition, look for ones that have a “long flowering time” and “persistent fruit” which can be an important food source for birds migrating in colder weather (more info here). Steer clear of “double-flowered plants,” which offer less nectar to wildlife and have fewer seeds.
  • “Plant diversely and sufficiently”: In addition to getting a diversity of plants, try to get at least a few plants of each kind; when pollinators venture out, they’re often looking to pollinate a single species at a time. It’s easier for them to spot multiple plants of the same variety that are planted closer together.
  • For “dioecious” plants (plants having the male and female reproductive organs on separate individuals, as opposed to those that are “monoecious”) be sure to buy both male and female varieties of plants; you may only need 1 male for every 4 or 5 females.
  • If your local nursery doesn’t already carry a wide variety of native plants, request it! In addition, try to get plants that flower at different times, ensuring a steady supply for wildlife.
  • If invasive species are an issue in your landscape (Japanese Barberry, Burning Bush, Oriental Bittersweet, Japanese Stiltgrass, Garlic Mustard, etc.) Kim suggests that you replace them thickly and quickly with “competitive natives” that will be able to outgrow invasive species that may already have established seed beds in the soil. It may take a few years to completely remove invasives, but having native plants that are able to compete with them can help.

Kim cautioned against “assisted migration,” which is the planting of species that are adapted to the warmer temperatures we can expect over the coming decades.  These could be the “invasives of the future” – after all, many invasive species originally entered the landscape because of horticulture.

Creating landscapes that are beneficial to wildlife, even with the impacts of climate change, is becoming more important now than ever; after all, our yards may be one of the few remaining places where creatures can still get a “piece of nature.”

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Resources

Want to learn more? Here are some of the resources recommended in Kim’s talk and additional reading:

Ecobeneficial: This is Kim’s website, which includes additional tips, video interviews, and more and here is a link to her Facebook pageHere’s a recent article that she wrote with more tips.

“Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants”: This site by Dr. Doug Tallamy includes resources on native plants and links to his book on the topic.

Native Plant Center: In addition to educational events about native plants, the Native Plant Center also has an annual native plant sale (this year’s will be on April 29, 2017).

Bee and Pollinator Books: This site includes resources by Heather Holm about native bees and other pollinators.

Lost Ladybug Project: This initiative aims to revive local populations of the nine-spotted ladybug. It has information on how you can help by photographing or restoring ladybug populations.

Climate Change Tree Atlas and Bird Atlas: This includes projections for the potential range of local species as a result of climate change.

Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States: This database tracks the distribution of invasives and shows how to identify and report them.

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