Understanding that our landscaping and gardens can and should serve as habitats is a paradigm shift that Living Classroom has been advocating for years. We can all be involved in restoring our local ecology. Living Classroom has been creating native habitat gardens on school campuses for ecology and ethnobotany lessons and the principles behind the plant selection and design of these school gardens apply to landscapes and gardens everywhere.
Landscaping no longer should be strictly ornamental; rather, think of our gardens as being beautiful and habitat creating. With path-breaking books, research studies and reports on this topic, it’s clear that there is great potential to restore our local ecology through a constellation of biodiverse and native gardens and landscaping within our urban and suburban communities.
School grounds are an important component to this ecological resilience movement as they comprise many acres scattered across our communities. Schools offer an amazing educational benefit for not only students, teachers and parents but also a broader neighborhood base that uses the school grounds on a regular basis.
However, residential front and back yards, commercial and industrial landscaping, public parks and other private landholdings can all be landscaped with habitat providing native plants. These spaces can also provide environmental health benefits such as urban carbon sequestration, capturing stormwater runoff, air quality improvement, and ecological resilience--all important components of green infrastructure in preparation for climate change.
In his books, Douglas Tallamy (Bringing Nature Home, Nature’s Best Hope, and The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden) presents overwhelming scientific evidence of the impact that native vegetation has on helping to increase the species diversity and populations of native wildlife. Planting mostly non-native trees, shrubs, perennial, annuals and groundcovers attracts only a small fraction of the wildlife as compared with native plant species. Large reductions in the insect populations, for example, impact the food chain many layers up the chain including songbirds. In order to save our songbird populations, we must ensure there are ample insects, including caterpillars, for them to feed to their young.
In Bringing Nature Home, Tallamy states that by simply replacing most home lawns, which comprise between 32-40 million acres of land across the country, would collectively restore habitat over more acres than our National Park System. As Tallamy states, we can create our own “Homegrown National Parks” by planting native plants in our yards.
Bonus Benefit: Water Conservation!
If boosting wildlife diversity and populations isn’t enough, native gardens also conserve water. Most Californians live in a Mediterranean climate, meaning that we have a very long stretch of six or more months of warm weather and no rain, then six or less months of cooler, rainier weather (except these last two years—we are now in a drought). Native plants adapted to this Mediterranean climate need very little water during the dry months of the year and, once established, a small fraction of water, as compared with lawns and most non-native plants. Some shade loving native plants require relatively more water as they are adapted to moist environments along creeks and the understory of trees. Native plants also adapt to the soil types in which they evolved, therefore chaparral and coastal sage scrub plants prefer “nutrient poor” soils as do desert plants which thrive in sandy soil.