Audio Guide to Spring: Native gardening
IPR's Red Pine Radio brings you nature spotting tips and wildlife news from northern Michigan.
This is the time to plant flowers, and when you do, why not go wild?
Right now, eye-popping flowers like lilacs and peonies get lots of attention. But native wildflowers are far more important.
You might think of wildflowers as charming things you spot on a hike through the woods or over the dunes, not as plants in home gardens. But Cheryl Gross with Plant it Wild, a northern Michigan nonprofit that promotes native plant use and protection, has gardens thriving with indigenous plants.
Native gardens don't just look nice, they feed insects and birds much more effectively than non-native species.
“Our insects, our critters, our birds all evolved with native plants. And they have this long-standing relationship," she says.
Where there is less native flora, there is less food, meaning there are fewer animals and insects.
Gross also says some popular non-native species can actually directly harm the ecosystem, too. These species can change the chemistry of the soil and sometimes poison it for indigenous species. Breaks in the food chain like these can even contribute to drops in songbird numbers.
One invasive shrub that’s blooming now is the autumn olive. It was actually introduced by conservation districts to control erosion and attract birds with its red berries. But the berries don’t give migrating birds the kind of nutrition they need for their long flights.
“You might as well have one of those popsicles with sugar and food coloring. And so the seeds go through them really quickly. They poop them right out. And we now have autumn olives everywhere!” Gross says.
Native plants may not be as showy as a lot of non-natives, but they have plenty of advantages. Because they are already suited to the local climate and soil, they need little, if any, extra fertilizer or watering. They’re often longer lasting than non-native plants. And of course they attract those delightful birds, bees and butterflies.
They’re also becoming easier to find.
“In northwest Lower Michigan we have tremendous plant producers, and we did not fifteen years ago. Many of our natives across the state are sold in what I call pop-up sales. Conservation districts do them, clubs do them, all sorts of things,” Gross says.
When buying, Gross says to be careful of native plant cultivars, which can also be harmful. An example of this is ninebark. There is a variety that’s been genetically modified to produce red leaves rather than green.
“The chewing insect that lives on ninebark can’t live on the red leaf. If you’re thinking, ‘Well, I’ll do a good thing for the environment and I’ll get my red color,’ and you put in a red ninebark, you won’t," Gross says.
And when you go wild, don’t limit yourself to flowers. Plant grasses, vines and shrubs too to get the whole structure of the native landscape.
If you’re out and about birding, Doug Cook, one of our local birding experts, says it’s a good time to learn bird songs using an app called Merlin.
“It allows you to record the birds that are around in the area. And through artificial intelligence, it will start matching up that with calls on its database and tell you what you're hearing,” Cook says.
But Cook says it’s not 100% accurate, and that if you rely on it completely, you won't learn the bird songs yourself.
“Just go out and practice. If you can know the songs of the birds, or at least most of them, you'll see a lot more. You always hear more than you see,” Cook says.
Let us know what you’re seeing! Send your photos of northern Michigan flora and fauna to firstname.lastname@example.org. Put "Audio Guide to Spring" in the subject line.
Special thanks to Leslie Hamp, who also reported for this episode, and to the National Audubon Society for birdsongs.
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