Creating Living Landscapes: Why They Matter and What You Can Do to Help

By Lynette Anderson, Belwin Conservancy Interpretive Naturalist
Photo by Lori Moilanen.

As you drive down any street in any town, city, or even the countryside, what you most likely see are squares of mowed green grass, maybe a flower garden and a few shrubs. These are dead landscapes as far as insects, reptiles, amphibians and birds are concerned. There may not be cover for a bird to get from a nesting site to a food source without being harassed or eaten by some predator, there may be no brush pile for a skink to crawl into to escape the claws of a neighborhood cat. Insects that lay eggs in the oak leaves have no chance to hatch and become an important pollinator if the leaves have been raked up, bagged, and taken to a landfill.

Nature is not neat and tidy, and to help wildlife, we should follow her lead where we can.

Prior to European settlement, the landscape in the St. Croix River valley was mostly prairie and oak openings or oak savannas. As development and agriculture gained ground, the plants and animals that called this place home had to fly, crawl or trot to other places. If they couldn’t, they were doomed to die. Prairies once covered 18 million acres in Minnesota, now we have less than 100,000 acres left.

Monarch butterflies are one of a handful of species that have a long tongue ideally suited to the tube-shaped nectaries of Liatris aspera, or Blazing Star. Photo by Joshua Mayer via Flickr.

Many of the insects and plants have specific relationships because of the shape of their bloom, like Liatris aspera or Blazing Star. Our imperiled monarch butterflies are one of the many insects that are drawn to this plant because of the tube-shaped nectaries which only accommodate the long tongues of critters like monarchs, hummingbirds, miner bees, painted lady butterflies, swallowtail butterflies and more! The presence of Liatris aspara ensures that these and other species have the best and most appropriate food available to them to thrive and reproduce. These relationships create strands in the web of life in the prairie habitat. This is what Belwin Conservancy is working to recreate.

When we begin our efforts to restore an area of land, we first walk the site. We pay attention to the lay of the land and visualize how we will get big machinery in to do the heavy work. We look for any native plants that are present, note the established trees, observe wildlife movements by noticing tracks and scat, and listen for the songs of birds and the drone of insects. And, of course, we look at the populations of inappropriate and undesirable plants, otherwise known as invasives. All of these things inform the decisions we will make when we begin our restoration efforts.

Back in the office, we pull out the maps and start to lay out our strategy for bringing the degraded landscape closer to its native state.

When we get to work, we are cognizant of the fact that for a while, the area we are working on will look like a demolition zone. We understand that time is needed for the land to recover and for desirable, native species to begin to thrive. For a while, there will be a bit more silence. For a while there will be empty space.

Part of restoring Belwin’s Stagecoach Prairie involved removing hundreds of red pine trees in 2011. After large-scale restoration efforts are complete, plants that have been suffocated by an overabundance of invasives now have space to breathe, collect sunlight, and draw nourishment from the soil.

But underneath, and after our large-scale efforts are complete, the magic that is nature is breathing a collective sigh and preparing to re-establish itself. Those plants, like Liatris aspara, that have been suffocated by an overabundance of buckthorn now have space to breath, collect sunlight, and draw nourishment from the soil. Seeds that have laid dormant, sometimes for years, or our own freshly sown seed can now germinate and grow into plants that feed insects that in turn feed birds and other critters. And, in late summer, monarchs may find the new patch of flowers and get the essential boost of energy they need to start flying south for the winter. This is the moment we wait for. This is why our work matters. The natural cycle of life in a native habitat has been renewed.

Is our work done then? Not a chance! The commitment to a restored site requires years of monitoring and addressing the issues that come up. We pull tenacious invasives when we can, we carefully use chemicals, depending on how plentiful the undesirable populations are, and we mow where we need to — but only after most nesting birds have fledged their young. Bringing back native habitats is not for the faint of heart!

Loss of habitat that provides food, water and cover is one of the biggest threats to native creatures, be it the rusty-patched bumblebee, the little brown bat, Karner blue butterfly or Blanding’s turtle.

Belwin Conservancy works on large-scale landscapes that cover dozens or hundreds of acres, but critters of all kinds also need your support in your own backyard.

To improve your property’s wildlife habitat potential, begin by walking your site — be it a small square of yard or five acres. Take your time and get the lay of your land. Look for animal signs and listen for the sounds. Draw a map and mark where activity is happening.

Think about where you could put a small garden in a dry, sunny spot and plant with native flowers like Liatris aspara. You can help a few more monarchs make their migration. Maybe you have a corner that could host a trio of fragrant native flowering shrubs, like Chokecherry, which birds will love. Is there a place for a small brush pile? Can you add a water feature closer to the ground so amphibians can take advantage of the moist environment?

We don’t have to give up all of our tidiness, but if we can soften the edges and create pathways that have cover and food available, we can go a long way toward creating a living landscape that supports native plants and critters and enriches our lives as well.

Watch Blazing Star & Butterflies.

Resources

Backyard Landscape Best Practices for Pollinators

“Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants” by Douglas Tallamy

Minnesota Wildflowers

Organic Site Preparation for Wildflower Establishment

Out Back Nursery

Prairie Nursery