Homegrown Biodiversity: A Quick Guide to Get Growing

Last month, in Homegrown Biodiversity: It’s Time to Get Growing!, we talked about how important native plants are for supporting biodiversity and healthy food webs. By planting or encouraging the growth of native plants to attract local insects and birds, you can help play an important role in maintaining local ecosystems. Choosing native plants that are suitable for local green spaces will beautify the landscape and boost biodiversity!

It might feel overwhelming to start trying to figure out which plants to choose and where they should go. The steps below will help guide you through this process.

1. Sketch your property

The best way to start is tosketch out your property and its natural and human-made features. You can create a plan using an enlarged copy of your legal survey (use a photocopier set to 200%) or simply make a rough illustration. Walk around your property and mark the relative size and location of:

  • Buildings: your home or cottage, garage, bunkie, sheds, etc.
  • Hydro lines, propane tank, well, parking spots, snow piling areas, wood piles
  • Waterfront, steep hills, existing trees and/or forest
  • Open areas
  • Boulders and rock outcroppings
  • Paths (or potential paths) to connect the places you want to walk
  • Direction of your favourite views

2. Decide where to plant and what to leave natural

Now you can begin to outline possible locations for new plantings or area enhancements on your sketch. Beyond the obvious “blank spaces” and room for pathways, you can get creative. Consider:

  • Steep hillsides. Native grasses and perennial flowers are excellent alternatives to labour-intensive mown grass.
  • Existing trees and hedgerows. Native trees and shrubs will provide extra cover for insects and wildlife. 
  • Ditches. Moisture-loving plants that thrive in ditches will help take up water during heavy rainfall events.
  • Shorelines. If you mow your grass down to your shoreline, chances are you have Canada geese clambering onto your property and leaving their poop behind. Opt instead for a minimum 3 m wide (10 ft) strip of low wetland shrubs and flowers which will discourage geese from frequenting your yard while supporting other wildlife.
  • Forest areas. Plant understory shrubs, such as elderberry, buffaloberry, and native viburnum to attract wildlife.

3. Select native plants

When selecting plants, strive for a mix of no less than 70% native species and no more than 30% non-invasive ornamental species. Several smaller plants rather than a single large plant are best for most sites, because smaller plants can more easily adapt to the soil and weather, and do better at establishing roots than one large plant. If your planting beds are prone to drought, larger sized plants may fare better because they have a variety of root sizes which gives them the resilience to survive dry conditions.

Plan for a majority of native plants to be keystone species. See the table at the end of the post for a list of keystone plants that are well suited to the biosphere region and that are particularly important for supporting butterfly and moth caterpillars as well as solitary bees. GBB’s Best for the Biosphere Plant List is another great resource to help you select plants, find it here: www.gbbr.ca/conservation-guides/#b4b.

4. Prepare your soil and planting beds

There’s no need for imported black swamp soil or screened topsoil. Both are too rich for plants native to the biosphere region, which are used to poor or shallow soil conditions. Soils in the region vary considerably. In some areas you will find fine, silty clay loam, in others rocky glacial clay till, and in others sand pockets or bare rock. Clay soils in particular lack organic matter and pores that allow water and air to infiltrate the ground. All they need is mulch to provide living organic matter. The best and cheapest mulch is a mix of leaf litter and homemade kitchen scrap compost.

To prepare your planting areas, turn over the top three inches of soil with a shovel. Drop your seeds or put your plants into this loosened soil, then cover them with three inches of leaf litter or compost.

5. Manage your plants with minimal effort

Regular watering in the first year, especially if a hot dry summer occurs, will help your plants establish strong roots. A quick test to determine whether your plants have enough water is to stick your finger two or three inches into the soil. If it comes out dry, your plants need water. If you can’t be around to water your plants while they are getting established, try to arrange for a neighbour to drop by to water every so often.

Things to consider:

  • During the gardening season, you have the option to chop and drop clippings of dead flowers, stems, and branches. For many species, this promotes additional flowering and growth. Leave them to naturally decompose. Fallen leaves and stems that naturally fall to the ground can also stay where they land.
  • Once autumn arrives, rake excess fallen leaves from your lawn into your planting beds or natural spaces. Leave any fallen leaves where they are in the planting beds. Remember, leaves are good for your lawn too and will quickly turn to mulch under the lawnmower. 
  • During the winter, leave standing dried stems, dead branches, and flower heads in place until spring. These make great winter homes for beneficial wildlife.
  • A couple of times a year, add homemade compost to the leaf litter on your planting beds. There’s no need to dig these organic materials in, they will be incorporated into the soil naturally (optional).

Select keystone plant species native to the Georgian Bay Biosphere region

Based on the work of Cathy Kavassalis, Ontario Master Gardener.

Christopher Clayton is a retired landscape architect and garden designer who lives and kayaks on Manitouwabing Lake.

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