Cultivating Reciprocity: Plants and Animals in Your Garden

butterfly, biodiversity, ecology, nature

Cultivate is an active verb. We cultivate our gardens, among other things; it’s human endeavor. As such, it involves not only physical labor, but also planning, strategizing. Specifically, what to plant and how to arrange and design those particular species are among the first decisions that must be made. This decision-making process can be as much of the joy in gardening as smelling the roses after the fact. But in this process, we can get lost; we can fail to see the forest for the trees. While aesthetics play an obvious and central role in gardening, the big picture is important to keep in mind, and understanding nature’s reciprocity can help us focus back on the “forest”.

Microcosms of nature, gardens need balance, and a good place to begin building a sustainable environment is with insects. The smallest of creatures at the bottom of the food chain are those that provide sustenance for others. Often thought of as pests, native bugs not only feed other important members of this web of life, but they also prey on some of the unwanted insects that can damage plants. Ladybugs prey on aphids while praying mantises and spiders prey on a variety of other insects and insect larva, all of which will destroy plants. Worms are decomposers, creating more nutrient rich soil. While caterpillars eat plants, some butterfly species are endangered, therefore perhaps worth the small sacrifice in the long run. And of course, having caterpillars means having butterflies, which brings us to pollinators.

Three quarters of the world’s flowering plants depend on pollinators [1]. These include not only insects such as bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, ants and even mosquitoes, but also birds and bats. In the continental U.S., hummingbirds help pollinate wildflowers. Nectar is essential to these little energy burners, and is far more nutritious than sugar-water. Generally, they are attracted to reds and yellows, and particularly enjoy columbines; trumpet, coral and honeysuckle vines; and bee balm. They also feed on many of the beneficial insects, and undesirable aphids, as do other native bird species.

biodiversity, nature, ecology, butterflies
Clymene Moth (Haploa clymene)

Frogs and toads, like birds, feed on a garden’s destructive insects. Bats are not only beneficial as pollinators, but they also eat mosquitos, which though they can pollinate, can also keep us out of the garden. Snakes, owls, hawks, bobcats and foxes eat moles, voles and chipmunks which dig vast tunnels systems drying out the soil, depleting the plants and causing erosion. Voles also eat the roots of perennials. Rabbits are generally unwanted in a garden, but they do help to fertilize the soil, as do deer and bears.

Native plants provide food and shelter for the beneficial garden animals, that in turn protect the plants. Dead wood and old foliage can be home for insects and smaller animals, as well as fungi and moss. Planting a range of natives for every season will keep them coming, and evergreens like spruce, firs and others, make seasonal homes for the migrators and year-round homes for those that stay.

In contrast, while native plants support native animals, non-native plants provide no nutrition for those same native animals. As food sources diminish, so does the population, from the insects on up the food chain, ultimately including the top—us. We may be at the top, but we are still only a part of the larger whole. We reap what we sow, and what benefits one, benefits all.

Reciprocate is also an active verb, and one thing nature does well. A biodiverse ecosystem is full of reciprocal relationships—exchanges involving mutual benefit. As we cultivate our gardens, it helps to step back, and see the garden not only as a source of human enjoyment, but also a habitat for all the life that will sustain it. A focus on native species will foster a healthy exchange between the fauna and flora, and this will allow us, should we choose, to be just a bit more passive, to sit back and enjoy all that we—and nature—have created.


Image at Top: Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly on Rhododendron maximum

[1] Source: Natural Resources Conservation Service