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How to build biodiversity in your yard

As the population density of our urban areas increases and spreads outward, natural resources like open space and wildlife habitat continue to diminish. And as author Doug Tallamy explained recently in Portland at this year's Urban and Community Forestry Conference, when we shrink a habitat, we lose niche space. In our increasingly urbanized environment, only tiny populations can exist in these tiny habitats - and tiny populations are vulnerable to extinction.

Almost all North American land birds feed their young with insects. But when non-native plants out-compete native plants, many creepy-crawlies simply can't eat them. Today, says author and University of Delaware Entomology Chair Tallamy, our yards support very little biodiversity.

How can we raise the carrying capacity of our neighborhoods so they can be healthy, functioning ecosystems?

If you're a gardener who appreciates plants, flowers, birds and wildlife and are looking for a way to make a difference in the world - and, observe the results of your efforts, consider the benefits of using native plants to boost the ecosystem services of your neighborhood and community. By using native plants in your landscape you're supplying native birds and other wildlife with shelter and food; native plants also require less watering.

Many native plants to choose from

Even a young, newly planted (1-3 year-old) landscape of natives supports more biodiversity than one comprised primarily of non-native plants. One species you might like to consider is Manzanita (Arcostaphylos), including kinnikinnick, a charming ground cover featuring small white or pink flowers in the spring, followed by red berries.

Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium) is another good choice, as is Oregon boxwood (Paxistime myrsinites). This attractive evergreen shrub features an alluring, tiny red flower display but is not that common, so you'll need to request it by name. It can survive our hot summers with little or no water, just be sure to give Oregon boxwood enough water during its first one to two years of establishment.

Other Oregon natives: Oceanspray, with its foamy white flower clusters, Red flowering currant - a magnet for hummingbirds, Nootka Rose, Oregon Crabapple, Bitter Cherry, Thimbleberry, Yarrow, Showy Milkweed, Oregon Larkspur (Delphinium oregano), Meadow Checkermallow, Goldenrod, a late summer bloomer, and tall Oregon grape, an early blooming sun lover. Note: some of these plants are most easily obtained at nurseries specializing in native plants.

Rosemary (attractive to bees and butterflies), Ceanothus (“Blue Blossom”), and Northwest Penstemons are other nice alternatives. Penstemon flowers attract both hummingbirds and butterflies; give them good drainage and full sun and they should thrive.

Other flowering plants that support nectar and pollen throughout the growing season: California poppy, Dwarf Godetia, Plains Coreopsis, Golden Aster, Blue Flax and Yellow Lupine. A few plants to attract butterflies: Showy Milkweed, Wallflower, Dwarf Godetia, Sweet William Pinks, Purple coneflower, Black-eyed susan. Wet mud areas will provide butterflies with both the moisture and minerals they need to stay healthy.

Native trees

How about native trees? If your yard or garden has ample room for a new tree to grow to maturity - both above, and below ground - here's a few possibilities. For a yard with lots of room, consider Willamette Valley Ponderosa Pine or Bigleaf Maple. Pacific Madrone is a possible native tree choice for a medium-sized yard, and on small, partly-shaded sites you might consider Dogwood.

Oregon white oaks provide favorable habitat for a number of important wildlife types including dark-eyed juncos, nuthatches, pileated woodpeckers, and western grey squirrel. Provide full sun, good drainage, and plenty of room for these eventual "giants" of the landscape.

Other ways to help the local ecosystem: replace lawn with native plants

Other than concrete paving, having a lawn is the least productive thing for the ecosystem we can do with our gardens. Reducing or eliminating the amount of lawn in your yard or garden is another positive step you can take to enhancing the ecosystem services your landscape provides.

Do you regularly put out snail bait in your yard? Try taking a look at snails from a different perspective, as well. Why? They help birds get the calcium they need for laying eggs, so birds seek them out in leaf litter in the spring and early summer.

Lastly, if you're a land owner, remove invasive species (as much as possible), and add native plantings to stream side areas.

Know your Ecoregion

Developed by the US Forest Service, “Baileys Ecoregions of the United States” is a management tool system created to predict responses to land management practices throughout large areas.

You can find out your ecoregion by entering your zip code at: http://www.pollinator.org/guides.htm You will get a native plant guide with species unique to your ecoregion. This guide is cooperatively funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and others.

Cynthia Orlando has a degree in forest management and is a certified arborist with the Oregon Department of Forestry.