refugia

My last blog described a spring cleanup method that enhances invertebrate habitat while adding free organic matter to your soil.  Just leave herbaceous vegetation standing over winter, and then mow it to a uniform mulch before the ground thaws in spring.  Nature does the rest.  Someone at Wild Ones West Cook pointed out that mowing standing vegetation destroys refugia that is still being used by the invertebrates.  They are correct.

They provided a link to an article from the Xerces society about management practices that benefit native pollinators in natural areas, and also in agricultural land:

http://www.xerces.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/PollinatorsNaturalAreas_June2014_web.pdf

The article explains how pollinator diversity is diminished if all habitat is managed the same way.  One-size-fits-all management favors generalists.  Specialist pollinators prefer special conditions.  The article suggests leaving some areas undisturbed in the spring.  Sounds good.

So if there are places in your landscape where you can get away with it, don’t cut down all of last year’s plant residue in late winter, or even in early spring.  Clean it up later.   If you can do this in different places, different years; that’s even better.  And it seems like mowing everything up to a fine mulch isn’t so smart either.  Some of those plant stems contain hidden insect eggs.  We should be nice to them.  

That said, let’s not confuse naturally landscaped yards with nature preserves.  While both should enhance invertebrate diversity with a variety of management methods; there are other, different, priorities.  Different masters.  Natural areas maintenance requires uncompromising pollinator conservation.  Natural landscapes require such beauty that the Joneses want to keep up with you.

And you say: Why bother?   For starters, please read “The Living Landscape” by Doug Tallamy and Richard Darke.  

A short intro can be found at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z6vX2WfZ7Bo  It’s worth watching.  The book presents the case for how and why to engage in the landscape revolution I am talking about.

Why is partly because we now understand that natural areas must be connected to other natural areas by corridors.  Corridors for the runners, the walkers, the crawlers, and the squirmers.  Corridors from this Forest Preserve site, to that City Park natural area, to the nearest power line easement, and over to someone’s private restoration project.

Doug Tallamy sees a waiting corridor system in the vast green carpets of suburbia.  Our country has twice as much turf acreage as National Park acreage.  Let's convert half of the turf to native plantings.  That’s a lot of interconnected habitat.  Tallamy calls it Backyard National Park.  I look around and see backyards being used for a lot of different things.  Front yards, however, are pretty much just for looks.  The current look is the green carpet, a few shrubs, and a couple trees.  What a waste.  Let’s create the corridors that nature needs while sharing the beauty of native landscapes on the front side of our homes.

Keep in mind that every landscape impacts every person who passes by.  Weed patches and seed-packet wildflower meadows usually impact people negatively. Let’s impact people positively.  Let's design, install and maintain intricately beautiful front yards.  Think of a suburbia with yard after yard of breathtaking beauty.  What is wrong with coming home from work and having your breath taken away?  Don’t your neighbors deserve that?  Are you getting that from the green carpet?  

Natural landscapes are less expensive than the green carpet.  Jack Pizzo has calculated this: http://pizzonursery.com/wp-content/uploads/Turf-Prairie-Cost-Comparison-2.pdf .  Other people  use different data and reach the same conclusion.   And the maintenance is quiet.

Naturally landscaped front yards need a variety of management methods, but coarse dead plant material gets ugly in the spring.  We need to either chop it up or cover it with a very thin herbaceous mulch.  Mowed up leaves work well -- you can collect them the previous fall from your remaining lawn.  Use a mower and bagger.  Don’t use wood based mulches (see previous blog).  

By June the vegetation will hide everything anyway.  Till then let’s not piss off the neighbors any more than we have to.  Because our goal is to build this new National Park, and it helps when the neighbors don’t hate our yards.  We do this with beauty. 

Beauty requires good design, and diligent maintenance the first couple years.  Once the landscape is established, maintenance takes less time than mowing the lawn.  Quite a bit less.  We’ll talk about design and maintenance as the season continues.   Maintenance is a quiet job.

-Ken