For your own health, for a way to take climate action in your own backyard, and for insects and birds, Take the Pollinator Pledge!
Recent news reports can be depressing. Air pollution and particulates are disrupting weather patterns. Migratory birds have declined 30% since 1970. An insect Armageddon—a drop of 70% in insect biomass since 1970—is devastating the underpinnings of the food chain. Most people remember when car windshields used to be full of dead bugs, while now you can drive for hours and your windshield might only have a few spattered bugs, if any.
What can you do?
You can take climate action in your own backyard. Change the way you manage your yard can save energy and water, eliminate chemicals, reduce air pollution, preserve your hearing, let you breathe easier, and save you money and hours of labor. The Evanston Climate Action and Resilience Plan (CARP) even calls out steps you can take: plant more native plants and trees, eliminate pesticides, save water, reduce your lawn, and retire your leaf blower.
Studies show that our suburban and urban oases matter. We can help to bring back bugs and migratory birds with simple steps. In fact, the overwhelming scientific advice is Do Less: less mowing, less leaf mulching, less chemical use (none actually), less irrigation. When you “leave the leaves,” also leave seedheads and plant stalks. In short, less. What to do more of? Replace lawn with native plants, particularly low maintenance shrubs and trees that provide big wildlife value.
Take the Pollinator Pledge:
- Leave the leaves in the fall
- Leave plant stalks and seedheads
- No pesticides or lawn chemicals
- Native plants to provide year-round forage
- Mow less
- Reduce light pollution
Why leave leaves?
Move leaves to flower and shrub beds instead of mulching or discarding them. Leaves are the way trees return nutrients to the soil in Spring. They are natural fertilizer tailored to your particular plants. As leaves decay, they enhance your soil. Discarding leaves is an enormous waste. Leaf blowers damage our hearing, stir up poisons, dust and fumes we breathe, and sandblast wildlife. (See our door-hanger education piece in English and Spanish and Allison Sloan’s article in the Evanston Roundtable on leaf blowers.) The City then treks the leaves miles away, using energy and spewing carbon and fumes.
Leaves protect insects overwintering in the leaves or just below the soil surface. Many insects, such as fireflies and ladybugs overwinter as eggs, larvae or adults in leaf litter. Moths and butterflies hang as cocoons on plants, and in winter drop into and shelter in leaves until adults emerge when temperatures are above 50°F. When we mulch leaves, we are destroying these beneficial insects or removing the shelter they need. Leaving your leaves helps birds too because baby birds rely on insects for about 90% of their food until they are old enough to diversify their diet to include seed.
Why leave plant stalks and seedheads?
Leave your plant stalks and seedheads standing in your garden. If you must tidy up, break off the stalks and pile them in a sheltered, dry area of your garden, such as under trees or shrubs. Try to wait until the low temperature is 50°F in Spring.
Native bees (stingless and critical for pollination) lay eggs in the hollow stems of plants. Other insects burrow into plant stalks to overwinter. Have you ever collected seeds and found your seed tray is full of tiny beetles and spiders? Many insects overwinter in seedheads. Birds also rely on seedheads during the winter – both for seed and for the tiny insects inside.
Why no pesticides or lawn chemicals?
It isn’t habitat if we kill the critters we are trying to preserve. Pesticides kill unintended animals: mosquito spray kills baby bird nestlings, lawn chemicals kill ladybugs and dragonflies, rat poison kills owls, foxes and others. Beneficial insects overwintering underground, like fireflies, can also be poisoned. When you add leaf blowers to your yard, you are kicking up these toxins into the air.
Neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” are the most widely used insecticides in the United States. According to the American Bird Conservancy, “neonics are toxic to birds and invertebrates, even in small quantities. … a single seed treated with neonics is enough to kill a songbird.” https://abcbirds.org/neonics
Glyphosate is a controversial herbicide, antibiotic and active ingredient in Roundup weed killer. Widely used to ripen and harvest ‘Roundup Ready” cereal and soy crops, it is being studied for its effect on human health and whether it targets enzymes in the intestines of bees. “When pollinators come in contact with glyphosate, the chemical reduces this gut bacteria, leaving bees vulnerable to pathogens and premature death,” according to Nancy Moran, a biologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Glyphosate is used in environmental restorations because environmentalists have found it less disruptive to nesting grassland birds and other wildlife than other restoration methods. To minimize the spread of glyphosate, restorations often cut and simply ‘paint’ the stump, and don’t spray.
Instead of toxins:
- Add mulch and leave your leaves instead of adding fertilizers.
- Plant desired plants closer together and pull weeds instead of using herbicides.
- To remove turf, lay cardboard or newspaper over turf and cover with mulch. The cardboard or newspaper will suppress sprouts and deteriorate for you to start your garden bed.
- Dump birdbaths and water containers at least weekly to disrupt mosquito development. (Rates vary by mosquito species, but mosquitoes take about a week for larvae in the water to become adults.)
- If you want to get rid of an infestation of something, soapy water with a little oil added is extremely effective at smothering bugs.
- When caterpillars are in your trees, appreciate all the woodpeckers and chickadees that come to eat them.
- With less lawn, skunks digging for grubs don’t cause as much visible damage.
- If rats are an issue, remove bird feeders, pet food, pet droppings and other food trash, and ensure you compost only plant and vegetable, non-oily refuse. Avoid poisons that may injure pets, or foxes, hawks, skunks, opossum and other predators that keep rodents in check.
Why plant native plants?
An easy way to reduce your lawn is to add a shrub or understory tree, and then add mulch or ground cover instead of grass. If you do that, use native plants. Native plants have evolved over thousands of years and adapted to the geography, hydrology, and climate of that region. They evolved with other plants and native wildlife species such as songbirds and butterflies. Native plants are nurseries for beneficial insects, offering leaves, pollen, nectar, sap, and more to forage By contrast, lawns provide little benefit to insects and birds, especially if they are cut before they are allowed to seed.
Here are plants ranked by the benefit they provide to wildlife (how many caterpillar species each plant feeds). Here are top plants and trees. The full list is here.
Ranked Native Woodies
|Genus||Common Name||Total Caterpillar Species||Non-Native Caterpillar Sp.||Native Caterpillar Sp.|
|Prunus||beach plum, cherry, chokecherry, peach, plum, sweet cherry, wild plum, almond||456||27||429|
|Populus||aspen, cottonwood, poplar||367||9||358|
|Carya||hickory, pecan, pignut, bitternut||235||2||233|
|Rubus||blackberry, dewberry, raspberry, thimbleberry, loganberry||163||12||151|
Ranked Native Herbaceous
|Genus||Common Name||Total Caterpillar Species||Non-Native Caterpillar Sp.||Native Caterpillar Sp.|
|Solanum||horsenettle, nightshade, potato, tomato, eggplant, aubergines||61||8||53|
|Rumex||dock, sheep sorrel, curly dock||54||7||47|
Trees and shrubs not only provide big wildlife values, but they are relatively easy to manage. Take out lawn, such as in a shady or poorly growing area, add trees and mulch around it. The mulch can suppress unwanted plants, and no mowing, chemicals or fertilizers needed. Trees, shrubs and native plantings need watering to get established, but then should fare well; water in the driest periods or drought.
How do I find plants with year-round benefit?
Select a variety of plants: trees, shrubs and flowers that bloom in spring, summer and fall, or carry winter berries. Pinecones provide seeds through winter. Good search engines: prairienursery.com, Audubon, and National Wildlife Federation
Native Plant Suppliers
- Possibility Place, Monee, IL (also online) possibilityplace.com
- Sheffields.com (only seeds)
Seek out host plants. Plant milkweed for the monarch butterfly. But keep other bugs in mind: the spicebush swallowtail needs spicebush, the violet fritillary needs violets and the pearl crescent needs asters. Oak trees feed an amazing 518 native species of caterpillar.
Need information on rain gardens? Native plants absorb and filter water. A well-designed rain gardens absorb 30% more water than turf lawns and will drain completely within a day after an average storm, according to the Illinois nonprofit Prairie Rivers Network. More information:
- Illinois Dept of Natural Resources
- The Illinois nonprofit Prairie Rivers plant list (PDF)
- Prairie Rivers’ Rain Garden Brochure (PDF)
Other Ways to Help Birds
Stop birds hitting my windows. Solutions: https://abcbirds.org/get-involved/bird-smart-glass/
Keep cats indoors. 100 million US domestic cats kill about 2.4 billion birds a year. It is healthier for cats: outdoor cats face disease, parasites, cars, injuries, human abuse, and other causes (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). The Humane Society offers tips on making your outdoor cat happier indoors.
Why mow less?
The first, easy step would be to mow less frequently (generally every-other week is plenty). But the best way to mow less is by reducing the size of your lawn with native shrubs, trees or wildflowers. Lawns need mowing, watering and chemicals. U.S. property owners cultivate about 30 million acres of lawn, making it the biggest U.S. crop, surpassing even corn and soy. “Gas powered garden tools emit 5% of the nation’s air pollution… One gas-powered lawn mower emits 11 times the air pollution of a new car for each hour of operation,” according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Leaf blowers damage our hearing, stir up poisons, dust and fumes we breathe, and sandblast wildlife.
If you can’t give up lawn, consider a drought tolerant, low maintenance lawn mix of native grass or sedges. A no-mow lawn reduces the fuel and exhaust from lawnmowers, reduces water needs and can be allowed to go to seed to feed birds. Pennsylvania or Ivory sedge are two native choices that are low growing. Even a non-native no-mow lawn is better than turf if it grows short, you don’t mow and you let it go to seed.
Why reduce light pollution?
Turn off outdoor lights, put them on a motion sensor, or use amber LED lights that don’t attract bugs. “Artificial light increases environmental pressures faced by insects,” according to a study in Chicago Policy Review (11/20/2018) “and these stresses can contribute to significant and sustained population declines.” Insects are killed by heat, electrocution, force of impact; and get trapped, exhausted and preyed upon. Outdoor lights become feeding arenas for predators, like bats and spiders. “Moreover, the study notes that artificial light can impede communication among insects, diminish their average lifespans, and even change their physiology.” https://chicagopolicyreview.org/2018/11/20/global-insect-decline-linked-to-light-pollution/