Growing a backyard grocery for wildlife

by Nan Len

The cardinals who live in our backyard have brightened up many days this winter. In the summer, I am delighted to watch the hummingbirds buzz around our feeder and the bees methodically going from bloom to bloom. From spring to fall, four or five toads hang out on our driveway at night. I have watched a luna moth emerge out of its cocoon and I feel quite clever when I catch sight of a praying mantis. A couple of turtles, some snakes, and a fox have traversed our backyard.

I want more – more birds, more insects, more turtles, more toads and more mammals. This desire led me to read “Bringing nature home” by Douglas W. Tallamy (Timber Press, 2007)

Tallamy, a professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware, brought up a point that I had never considered: insects are the main food for many species of wildlife. The best source of food for many insects is native plants. In order for me to sustain and expand the diversity of wildlife in my backyard, I need to start thinking like a neighborhood grocer.

There is something deceitful about my seemingly benign grocery analogy. It is a ruthless little neighborhood where I am stocking the shelves. Many of my customers are also the daily special.

By making sure I have food and shelter for bees, butterflies, crickets, grasshoppers, and spiders, I am providing a meal for small mammals, toads, and birds, which are themselves a meal for snakes, bigger birds and mammals. These food chains make up the food web.

Most of these distressing events may take place out of my sight, but I fail as a grocer if I neglect the food preferences of anyone in my neighborhood. A test of my success is how diverse my customers are.

When you buy your next plant, reconsider your choice if it is labeled “pest free”. If nothing wants to nibble on that plant, isn’t that like your grocery store manager replacing your favorite apple with plastic fruit? If most of your landscape is pest free, then you have a grocery of beautifully packaged, cellophane wrapped, processed stuff with few interesting customers stopping by.

The statistics on the loss of natural habitats are distressing. I cannot change the years of unintended consequences of humans being humans. But by planting native plants, I can do my part to build a resilient food web. I will get to see more of my wildlife neighbors and they will find a good meal. I’ll settle for that.