This is the 4th post in a series on maximizing wildlife value when landscaping with native plants. Let’s recap what we’ve covered so far:
#1 Keystone plants support the broadest diversity of insects and provide the most ecological services, so include as many as possible. See post #1 for the top keystone plants in central Ohio, as well as a link to find the most important plants for other regions.
#2 Plant diversity increases insect diversity, and therefore wildlife diversity. Diversity in an ecosystem builds in checks and balances and becomes self-sustaining over time.
#3 Trophic layers (plants of varying heights grouped in communities) provide cover, food and habitat to a wide variety of wildlife. The plants develop interlocking root systems that stabilize and support one another.
This leads us to principle #4: Building and nurturing a healthy soil-food web. In natural environments, plants and soil microbes form relationships. Plants capture the sun’s energy, and combine it with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, producing carbohydrates to store in their root systems. (This is AKA carbon sequestration.) Soil organisms feed on these stored carbohydrates, and in return, make nutrients in the soil more bio-available to the plants, plus produce substances that help protect plants from harmful microbes.
A critical component in the soil-food web is organic matter. As leaves, twigs, branches, and stalks fall to the ground, microbes in the soil begin breaking them down and making their nutrients available to nearby plants. Meantime, organic matter helps maintain soil moisture and provides food and cover for soil microbes. This is how nutrients in the soil are continuously replenished…unless we bag it and carry it away.
Leaves and other plant material serve another important function…many of our butterflies, moths, salamanders, turtles, toads and numerous other critters rely on leaf litter to survive winter.
If leaving this organic matter feels too messy, that’s where planting understory trees, shrubs and ground layer plants come in. They hide and hold these valuable resources, providing further structural cover and habitat. Meantime, consider a low wattle fence like those pictured here, or moving the “messy” stuff to a designated area of your yard. Or bring them to the nursery. We hijacked several truckloads of bagged gold sitting curbside last year. Leaves are superior for holding moisture in the soil. They’re also a great way to smother grass and start a new planting area that is rich in organic matter.
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