Backyard practices can save multiple wildlife species

Ray Mueller

OSHKOSH – During the past 40 years, the world's wildlife population has been reduced by about 50 percent. About 1 in 5 or 1,300 of the world's animal and plant species face potential extinction within a few years or decades.

John Mariani believes that one place to start reversing that trend is on residential and commercial property lawns and landscaped sites. He points out that 40 million acres — a land space about equal to that of Wisconsin — in the United States are covered with nothing more than grass that is mowed several times a year and that another 70 million acres are landscaped sites.

For the sake of supporting numerous wildlife species, Mariana would like to see 30 percent of those 40 million lawn acres converted to native species of trees, shrubs, flowers, forbs, ferns, sedges, vines and ground cover plants, depending on the site.

What is typically viewed as “picturesque” today doesn't provide any ecological benefits, Mariani emphasizes. “Human life depends on a functioning ecosystem” for food, water, plant pollination and photosynthesis, the growth of timber, creation of soil, prevention of disease, and decomposition of wastes, he pointed out.

John Mariani

Gardening for life

“Garden as if life depends on it,” Mariani exhorted attendees at the 21st annual conference sponsored by the Fox Valley chapter of Wild Ones. He is a landscape architect who lives in the township of Lyons in Walworth County after leaving his family's nursery and landscaping business in northeast Illinois.

“There is no wildlife without plants,” Mariani stated. But those plants need to be those which are native to the area where hundreds of wildlife species are trying to survive – not exotics or those introduced from other countries and which in effect become invasive species, he stressed.

Despite his efforts to change the practice, Mariani acknowledged that his family's business was among the many that sold the plant species which “displace and destroy” the native species. Among them, he identified burning bush, honeysuckle, English ivy, European cranberry bush, creeping jenny, Japanese barberry, Norway maple, and European or black alder. He also mentioned starlings, which were introduced from Europe in the 1800s and quickly spread across country with a knack for spreading seeds from several of the invasive species.

An opposing mindset

Mariani realizes that what he advocates is opposed by an imbedded social and cultural mindset that is often enforced by local units of government. There's a lack of understanding of ecological value when a mowed lawn, trimmed shrubs and tended flower beds are viewed as the ideal, he remarked.

In 2008, Mariani had a direct encounter with that mindset in the town of Lyons. As a result of the portion of the 60 acres that he purchased in 2003 and on which he established a flower and grass prairie, Mariani received a citation from the town's weed commissioner, ordering him to cut that vegetation in 5 days – an action he countered by offering to become the weed commissioner.

What's happened over several generations is the evolving of a mindset which considers the appearance of a lawn as “a reflection of ourselves,” Mariani observed. The common view is that this is a combination of “neighborliness, hard work and pride,” he said.

Another approach

Anything else is viewed as “messy” or not being neat or orderly, Mariani noted. But, with the proper design, it's not difficult to meet the neat and orderly standard with an array of native plants, he emphasized. “Wildlife needs them desperately.”

What's needed to change the existing mindset is to “create drama by getting people excited about native plants,” Mariani declared. Noting that such excitement won't happen if there aren't any examples of proper design, he hopes his message will be heeded by property owners and managers, gardeners, landscapers, and everyone else dealing with plant materials.

A well-designed site will feature balance, a proper line of sight, good framework, rhythm, proper proportion (no more than 30 percent of any one species), a separation of plant groups, and conformity with the architecture of the adjacent buildings, Mariani pointed out. Proper placement of the species would prevent such messy incidents as leaves or plant debris landing on sidewalks, driveways or vehicles, he added.

Species specifics

“Trees are the most important plant of all,” Mariani stated. He puts oaks at the top of the list because up to 557 wildlife species can be served by its structure, vegetation, leaves, or acorns.

Other native trees on Mariani's list are hawthorn, aspen, white spruce, red cedar, maples, locust, black cherry, basswood, sycamore, yellow birch, hackberry, ironwood, Rock elm, black willow, and evergreens. There are also dozens of shrubs, sumac and black currant as hedges, and numerous smaller plants.

Mariani assures any doubters that all of the features and attractions that buyers sought with exotic and non-native plants are provided by native species. Numerous online and printed sources identify the plants which are native. One source that Mariana cited is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's eco-region breakout, for which approximately the northern half of Wisconsin is listed as 212 while the southern half is 222.

Personal experiences

Mariani recalls growing in rural northeastern Illinois in the 1950s and readily seeing many wildlife species that he rarely notices today. Among them are nighthawks, gray fox, green snakes, wood thrushes, red woodpeckers, meadowlarks, whip-poor-wills, bobolinks and the red trillium flower.

What happened was that home area was overrun by suburban Chicago by the early 1970s, wiping out the habitat on which those and other species depended, Mariani explained. Other human-induced reasons for loss of wildlife population are pollution and the introduction of invasive species, he remarked.

While these things were happening in his home locality, the United States was engaged in passing such major conservation measures such as the Clean Air Act in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act and the banning of DDT in 1973 along with the observance of Earth Day starting in 1970, Mariani pointed out.

The banning of DDT served to spur a great resurgence in the bald eagle population but many other species have continued to suffer despite the legislation, Mariani observed. Instead of expecting things to change from a top down national perspective, he says changes need to start in the front, side and back yards of millions of privately owned properties.

Mariani noted that the presence of wildlife species offers beauty for humans, indicates that the environment is healthy, and providers predators to maintain balance in the natural order.