“Intelligent Tinkering” – How to Boost Biodiversity at Home (Leopold’s Wise Words Part 2)

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Thanks to Deborah Perkins of First Light Wildlife Habitats for permission to repost!

“To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

— Aldo Leopold, 1949

In my last blog post, I wrote about Aldo Leopold (the father of wildlife ecology),  carnivore coexistence, and his “thinking like a mountain” quote. This follow-up post springs from another one of his well-known quotes, and explores the importance of biodiversity and how you can promote biodiversity on your own patch of ground, no matter the size.

Why Biodiversity Matters

Biodiversity is a bit of a buzz word and can be an abstract concept, often thought of on more of a global scale, or in association with rainforests or coral reefs.

So, let’s get really clear on what biodiversity actually means and how we can apply it to the scale of our gardens, yards, and larger properties here in northern New England.

In plain terms, biological diversity is the variety of living things — the variety of plants, animals, and natural communities.

Biodiversity also includes things like genetic diversity, and more genetic diversity makes extinction of species less likely because species have a larger pool of genes and can better respond to changes in their environment.

Biodiversity is key to ecosystem function and resilience because diversity in nature allows for more flexibility, adaptation, and stability.

Variety in nature supports key ecological processes, such as pollination for example. We have ate least 270 species of native bees in Maine alone (the honeybee that gets so much attention is not native to North America). In Maine, this highly diverse group of insects includes the sweat bees, plasterer bees, mining bees, mellitids, bumble bees, leafcutters, and mason bees. Collectively they pollinate countless wild and cultivated plants across our region. Without their critically important services, those plants could not reproduce, or provide us with valuable food. Scientists estimate that one out of every three mouthfuls of the food and drink we consume is brought to us by pollinators.

As ‘keystone species’ bees play a critical role in upholding the integrity, productivity, and sustainability of a forest understory, pasture, field, meadow, farm, orchard, or backyard garden.

According to The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, fruits and seeds derived from insect pollination are a major source of food for many species of birds and mammals.

To learn more about native bees and other pollinators I welcome you to attend one of my upcoming talks.

As I explained in my last blog post, in relation to carnivores, keystone species are critically important to the balance of an ecosystem.

A mining bee (Andrenid) collected on goldenrod in Maine. Note the abundance of pollen over the hairy body of the entire bee (photo: USGS bee inventory on Flickr).

Ecosystems can better handle stress when all the parts are functioning together. As the World Wildlife Fund explains biodiversity, try thinking of each species as a single thread, and the more threads that link together, the stronger the safety net will be.

All the inter-connected parts, their relationship to each other and their unique functions, create a more stable and resilient system.

Overall, biodiversity forms our life support system – and is responsible for our very existence.

“Intelligent Tinkering”: Habitat Design

Biodiverse landscapes are more resilient in the face of climate change, disease, extreme weather events, alien species invasions, and other stressors. Aldo Leopold said it well, when he wrote that “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Since the industrial revolution we have heavy-handedly “tinkered” with the natural world in the most unconscious, haphazard way.

As a result, our wildlife communities are struggling and their habitats increasingly degraded and fragmented.

On the whole, wild ecosystems have checks and balances built in for stability, but because of all the human-related threats and stressors acting on them, they are in need of our help.

We must actively manage our landscapes to counteract and mitigate these often-devastating effects.

As landowners, how do we enhance habitat and help put the pieces back together? Well, the good news is that you can conserve nature right where you are, at any scale.

Whether you have a small garden or yard, a field or farm, a forest, or a business or college campus: there are practical things you can do right now that can boost biodiversity and support struggling wildlife populations, like native bees and songbirds.

Every shrub, plant, and micro-habitat can make a difference.

Armed with the right tools and knowledge, we can intelligently tinker to restore the health of our ecosystems and secure a more stable future for wildlife – from bees to bears, and everything in between.

I call my work “habitat design” because it is designed to benefit wildlife. The work is highly intentional with the primary objective being to enhance habitat for birds, pollinators, mammals – whatever focal species the client is interested in attracting and benefitting.

The Common Yellowthroat is found in a wide range of habitats including thickets, wet marshy areas, and edges (see #3, below). The population has declined 38% since the mid-60s (photo: Doug Gimler www.nekwildlifephoto.com).

How to Boost Biodiversity at Home

1) Plant a diversity of native flowering plants. Plants are the basis for habitat because they support insect populations, which in turn support all other forms of life in our backyards and wooded properties. Most insects can only use plants that they co-evolved with (i.e. native plants). If your goal is to support wildlife – native plants are the way to go. For more about this, as well as tips for sourcing plants, see Plan Your Habitat Garden.

2) Remove and regularly monitor your land for invasive plants. Non-native, invasive plants can take over natural areas, are aliens on the landscape, and don’t function in the ecosystem like native plants do (for example, they don’t support insect life). They are a major threat to biodiversity. For more information see my blog post Invasive Plants: A Top Threat to Biodiversity.

3) Promote and enhance edge habitats. Field-forest edges are valuable wildlife habitats. These transitional zones are generally beneficial to wildlife, but “hard” or abrupt edges are not natural – they are a construct of human land management. Hard edges don’t provide good escape cover for prey, and predators can exploit these unnaturally abrupt edges. High quality edges are those that gradually transition from grasses to shrubs to vines, to small trees, and then to large trees in a large border of vegetation around a field. These are known as “soft” or “feathered” edges. Helping landowners create and enhance edge habitat is one of my specialties. Work with me to get customized recommendations (on-site consultation) and/or a detailed habitat design package for your specific situation.

There are many other ways you can boost biodiversity on your home landscape.

I would be delighted to partner with you to build a beautifully biodiverse place that reflects your values and provides wildlife with the special places they need to nourish themselves, stay safe, and raise young.

You can provide all of this to wildlife, right where you are, and at any scale. You can begin right now. It’s easier than you think.


Did you know? The economic value of the pollination services of native bees in the U.S. alone is estimated at $3 billion.

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Lemon Queen Sunflowers - Helianthus annuus

Annual

 

Short Description

Beautiful butter yellow flowers blossom mid-summer to frost! Typically grow to more than 5 ft. tall. Expect 70 days to flower.

Growing Guidelines

  1. Around the last frost date, sow seeds directly into the soil.
  2. Plant seeds 1" deep and 6" apart.
  3. Water well after planting.
  4. Apply a 3"-4" layer of mulch to conserve water and keep down weeds.
  5. Thin seedlings to 1 ft. apart to allow 2 to 3 ft. between plants.

Care and Feeding
Plant in full sun. Sunflowers are drought-resistant, but they'll grow better if you water regularly from the time the flowers begin to develop until they're mature. Thriving in most soils, these flowers will become massive if given ample fertility, space and water. Harvest blossoms for continued flowering.

Need more information or gardening supplies? Contact your local independent garden center.

Calendula Mix-Calendula officinalis

 

Short Description

Fruition has hand-selected this variety to have a brilliant diversity of colors with dozens of gorgeous, petals on each blossom.

Growing Guidelines

Direct sow (recommended)

  1. After the last frost, sow directly outside in the garden.
  2. Plant seed 24 to 36 inches apart in all directions.

Transplant method

  1. A cool-season plant, calendula can be started indoors in flats, under grow lights 6-8 weeks before the last frost for early season flowering.
  2. Seeds germinate in 5-15 days.

Care and Feeding
Plant in full sun to partial shade. Easy to grow and remarkably drought tolerant, calendula also thrives in containers and will readily naturalize when let go to seed.

Transplanting Tips

  1. Purchase a good seed starting soil like Espoma Organic seed starting mix or Coast of Maine.
  2. Use a small greenhouse tray(tray with a clear plastic dome) to germinate your seeds.
  3. When it's time to transplant into the garden, use a fertilizer like Espoma Flower-tone or Espoma Plant-tone.

Need more information or gardening supplies? Contact your local independent garden center.

Purple Queen Anne's Lace

"Dara" Daucus carota

 

Short Description

Gorgeously laced 3-5" umbels in shades of burgundy, lilac, mauve & white on long, strong stems perfect for cutting, adored by pollinators. Related to our native carrot, Queen Anne's Lace.

Growing Guidelines

Direct sow (recommended)

  1. In early spring, after late frost, sow seeds directly in soil.
  2. Plant 1 seed 1/8" deep and 2" apart.
  3. Expect 2 weeks for germination.
  4. When seedlings are 2-3" tall, thin to 1 plant every 9-12".
  5. Support may be needed if fertility is high or if your garden is windy.

Transplant method

  1. Chill seed at 40 F 1-2 weeks prior to sowing 1/8" deep, 2 seeds per cell 4-5 weeks before planting out.
  2. Expect germination in 1-2 weeks.
  3. When first leaves appear, transplant into larger containers.
  4. Harden off & transplant with 9-12" between plants after last frost.

Care and Feeding
Plant in full sun. Expect 65-75 days to maturity. Dara has an exceptionally long vase life; harvest when 80% of an umbel's flowers are open & no pollen has shed. Enjoy 7-15 heads per plant on swaying 35-50" stalks.

Transplanting Tips

  1. Purchase a good seed starting soil like Espoma Organic seed starting mix or Coast of Maine.
  2. Use a small greenhouse tray(tray with a clear plastic dome) to germinate your seeds.
  3. When it's time to transplant into the garden, use a fertilizer like Espoma Flower-tone or Espoma Plant-tone.
Need more information or gardening supplies? Contact your local independent garden center.

Marigolds

Annual

Care and Feeding

Transplant Only: Sow 4 weeks before last frost shallowly, 2 seeds per cell and thin to 1, keeping soil surface moist until emergence. Transplant to larger containers when true leaves appear. Harden off and transplant outside when the danger of frost has passed with 12" between plants. Deadhead for blossoms all season.

  • Sowing Date: Indoors before last frost
  • Seed Depth: 1/4 inch
  • Days to Germination: 4-7 days at 75-80°F
  • Days to Maturity: 60
  • Plant spacing after thinning: 12 inches
  • Height: 12 inches

Need more information or gardening supplies? Contact your local independent garden center.

Organic Mexican Sunflower (Torch Tithonia)

Annual

Care and Feeding
Direct Seed (recommended): After final frost, sow every 8" and thin to one every ~2'. Light required to germ, so barely cover seed. Full sun is best. Any (even poor) soil is suitable. Harvest flowers when 90% open for bouquets.

Transplant: Sow indoors 2-3 weeks before last frost, transplanting after frost with spacing below.
 
  • Sowing Date: After frost; Late May- early June
  • Seed Depth: 1/2 inch
  • Days to Germination: 7-14 days
  • Days to Maturity: 85
  • Plant spacing after thinning: 2 feet
  • Height: 5-7 feet

Need more information or gardening supplies? Contact your local independent garden center.

Cosmos

Annual

Care and Feeding

Direct Seed (recommended): After last frost, shallowly sow 4 seeds/foot & thin to 1/foot when first true leaves appear. Wider spacing = thicker stronger stems.

Bouquets: harvest when petals first open. Deadhead for blooms all season.

Transplant: Shallowly sow 4 weeks before transplanting after last frost at below spacing. Transplant your cosmos for earlier blooms and more full-size plants per pack; direct sow for blooms throughout the season and simplicity of sowing.

  • Sowing Date: After frost, late May to early June 
  • Seed Depth: 1/4 inch
  • Days to Germination: 7-10
  • Days to Maturity: 65-70
  • Plant spacing after thinning: 18-24 inches
  • Height: 3-4 feet

Need more information or gardening supplies? Contact your local independent garden center.