Going Native

Karen Lebing first began gardening five years ago at her soundside Waves home, planting mostly crepe myrtle, some hydrangeas, and some other plants. Several years later, Hurricane Arthur rolled into town and wiped out all that she planted. You could say that changed the way she looked at gardening.

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Karen Lebing

“I decided I would take the Master Gardener course before I tried gardening again,” Lebing said. What she found was that the best way to attract birds and wildlife was almost obvious – keep it as natural as possible and plant native species. And with only a little maintenance, Lebing has kept her garden very much as Mother Nature has intended, and it’s working.

“Migrating and year-round birds are best adapted to native plants for food and cover, so a well-planned landscape of native plants can help you attract more birds to your property. It’s best to keep it as native as possible,” she says of attracting local wildlife such as birds, bees, frogs and turtles. “They like messy, native areas. If someone comes in and destroys that, there is nothing to eat. They need that food.”

But Lebing hasn’t planted a thing. Mother Nature has done all the work. Her biggest task in her backyard garden that includes a pond and over an acre of marshland is to control the invading phragmites reeds and filamentous algae. And the wildlife seem to love it. In 2015, Lebing’s yard was ranked the number one yard in North Carolina for the most species of birds by Cornell Lab of Ornithology eBird database. 

Lebing is currently developing a presentation for the N.C. Cooperative Extension focusing on attracting birds with native plants. Along with birds, Lebing has discovered that other wildlife including snakes, lizards, turtles, and bees love her backyard wilderness that is covered with plenty of wildflowers during the spring and summer months.

When there are non-native or exotic species planted, Lebing suggests removing them. “When at all possible, these plants should be removed from the landscape and replaced with native plants,” according to Lebing. Some more common non-native plants along the Outer Banks include mimosa, kudzu, Queen Anne’s Lace, Russian olive, Japanese honeysuckle, and sawtooth oak.

Lebing gives the example of crepe myrtles, which are not native to North America and are not remotely salt tolerant. While the crepe myrtle is used by more than 150 species of wildlife and insects in its native Indian subcontinent, it only is used by a measly five species in North America. 

Tips for Going Native

According to Lebing, planting a single species across a large area can be quite detrimental to wildlife. An integrated native plant landscape is always the most optimal. According to literature provided by the N.C Cooperative Extension Service, native plants generally grow well and require less care than exotic species when grown in proper soils. They also typically require much less water. 

Native plants provide protective cover for most animals as well as seeds, nuts, and fruits for squirrels and other wildlife. They are also a good source of nectar and shelter for hummingbirds and butterflies. The extension service suggests allowing native grasses, brambles, and shrubs to grow in sections of the yard to provide a habitat for birds and butterfly caterpillars.

Garden and sound

Lebing offers four steps for gardeners who are looking to attract local wildlife, the first step being to identify wildlife needs in your yard. This includes the types of food eaten by birds and other wildlife, the cover required for nesting, roosting and protection, and a year-round water source.

The second step is to map the site and vegetation by creating a base map of your yard, mapping and inventorying existing vegetation, keeping records and taking photographs of the changes in the landscape throughout the year, and making wildlife observations. “A written record can be used to identify which areas of the yard are performing well and which need habitat improvement,” Lebing points out in her presentation.

The third step is the design phase, where gardeners should take into consideration the needs of their family’s use of the area and the wildlife needs. 

“Now is the time to choose your target wildlife species and to make sure that your native plant landscape design eventually will meet the specific needs of that target species.” 

The fourth and final step in the process should be implementation. “Remember that creating a native landscape can be done in small steps,” according to Lebing. “Rather than tackle the whole yard at once, you can start with a corner, or the backyard – whatever is doable.”

To do this, she suggests gardeners should collect soil samples from different areas for analyzing. The sample can be tested for nutrient content. The results can provide key information on preparing the soil before any planting occurs. It will also help gardeners determine which native plants will grow best in their yard. Lebing suggests seeking information from the N.C. Cooperative Extension on where to get native plants. There are also links to providers through the N.C. Division of Forest Resources, the N.C. Botanical Garden, and the N.C. Native Plant Society.

What to Plant

Bird-friendly native wildflowers and groundcover include Gaillardia or blanket flower, a wildflower that is abundant on the Outer Banks. Also Pink Muhly Grass, Tickweed, Verbena, Coneflower, Seashore Mallow, Butterfly Weed, Autumn sage, and Seaside Goldenrod are favorites of birds.

Bird-friendly native vines include Coral Honeysuckle, Virginia Creeper, Carolina Jessamine and Muscadine Grape. Native shrubs many local birds prefer include Yaupon Holly, American Beautyberry, Firebush, Yucca, Dwarf Sweet Pepperbush, Winterberry, Inkberry Holly, Brilliant Chokeberry and Pokeweed.

Native trees to plant when attracting local wildlife are Live Oak, Wax Myrtle, Yaupon, Bald Cypress, Southern Magnolia, Eastern Red Cedar, American Holly, River Birch, Water Oak and Persimmon.

If gardeners are looking for butterflies, they can obtain a list of trees, vines, flowers, and grasses that attract them to your garden through the N.C. Cooperative Extension. A butterfly habitat will thrive best in a sunny area as many butterflies are active primarily in the sun and larval and nectar plants require sun. Be sure to put flowering plants with similar blooming periods close together so butterflies can access them easily and remember, taller plants and shrubs provide butterflies with protection from harsh weather.

“Throughout the growing season, leave the dead flower heads and dead foliage on your plants or you may accidentally remove eggs or pupating butterflies,” according to literature from the N.C. Cooperative Extension. “Wildlife habitat, whether for birds or butterflies, is best left untidy. As native grasses and wildflowers grow, bloom, and set seed, they may grow fast, tall and a bit scraggly.”

But, as the literature points out, nature is not always neat and “the most effective butterfly gardens will follow in nature’s footsteps.”

If gardeners would like to add bird feeders, consider what type of birds you’d like to attract before installation. It’s important to clean feeders on a regular basis and hummingbird feeders should be cleaned every five to seven days. According to Lebing, almost all seed-eating birds will eat black-oil sunflower seeds. In addition, birdhouses should be well-constructed and use untreated wood and galvanized screws. The house should also have a sloped roof, recessed floor, and drainage holes. To keep predators out, it should not have perches and include a baffle to discourage predators from getting to the house. Finally, it should have an entrance size that is right for the bird it is looking to attract to keep larger competitors out. 

If gardeners are looking to attract box turtles to their yard, brush piles as well as leaf piles and fallen logs are key. “Landscape with both shady and sunny areas that include un-mowed areas and native food plant favorites like mulberry trees, wild grape, and blackberry,” according to literature provided by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. 

Due to the hot summers experienced on the Outer Banks, keep in mind that fall planting is typically best for most native plants. According to the N.C. Cooperative Extension, it takes up to five years before gardeners may begin to see the payoff and wildlife using the native plants. 

As it quotes in its literature, “The first year a garden sleeps, the second year it creeps, the third year it leaps.” ♦

Michelle Wagner

Michelle Wagner is the editor at Three Dog Ink and has been living and writing on the Outer Banks for more than 15 years. Contact Michelle

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