Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ June 2012

Gardening Matters

Little Things that Run the Garden (and the World)

By Clare Nielsen Neal

After reading my last article in the Northwood News (“Replanting Paradise in Our Own Backyards”), a neighbor said, “I still don’t get it.  Why isn’t a non-native plant as helpful to wildlife as a native plant?  If it makes berries that the birds eat, isn’t that good?”

Well, it might be good momentarily, while the berries fill that hungry bird’s stomach.  But that non-native plant is not so good for insects.  Yes, what many of us call pests or bugs — eek or ick, get-it-off-of-me!  Insects are fundamental to the answer to my neighbor’s question.

We all know about the “food chain,” how smaller beings are eaten by larger beings, on up to top predators like ourselves.  It turns out that those smallest beings — the insects — are very particular about the plants they eat.  It’s really not like your five-year-old who refuses to eat broccoli.  Our native insects evolved over many, many years with our native plants, and many of them simply don’t have the ability to eat anything else.  If the native plants are gone, then the insects will be gone, too.

Pearl crescent butterfly on coreopsis flower, one of the beautiful scenes you can enjoy when providing native plant habitat.

If you follow the logic, you quickly see the problem.  No insects for the parent birds to feed their babies, no small birds for the big birds to eat, and so on.  Until you have ... no life.

I started planting native plants — species you might see in a walk down in Northwest Branch — on our tiny .20-acre lot probably 10 years ago.  I did this because I wanted to attract birds.  And the birds did come, lots of them!  Another neighbor jokes that I run a bird sanctuary.  But as the garden evolved — with species like arrowwood and redbud, serviceberry and Virginia sweetspire, spiderwort and elderberry — I became aware of something else.

Yes, the insects.  Our yard just buzzes and brims with life with busy insects too numerous to count.  On a warm day, I can sit back in my Adirondack chair and watch the rush as butterflies, bees (most of them harmless, by the way), and beetles busy themselves doing what they do, and in ways mostly invisible to us, supporting the rest of life.

Most of them are not flashy, and many of us despise them, but we need to care about insects if we care about life on Earth.

Restoring tiny backyards like our own is just a small part of the conservation equation.  I doubt any endangered species are being kept from the brink by my efforts.  But if we want to, at least, keep enjoying what we have now — fireflies, maybe an occasional monarch butterfly, robins? — then let’s change the way we think, and the way we garden.  Let’s learn to love bugs!

P.S.  If you’re interested in learning more about native plants and where to buy them, check the Maryland Native Plant Society at  And if you’re on Twitter, I’ve just started to tweet under @dailywildmd, a daily observation of the goings-on in my backyard!

[Clare is a 15-year resident on Belton Road who works for the global NGO Conservation International.  She sends thanks to the folks who contacted her to express interest in Northwood Native Plant Network.  She has been too swamped to schedule a first get-together, but hopes to do so soon!  Clare can be reached at (email redacted).]   ■

   © 2012 NFCCA  [Source:]