Go Native in Your Backyard

By ecoRI News staff

KINGSTON, R.I. — While the local food movement continues to gain momentum, that same sense of sustainability is absent from Rhode Islanders’ yards.

“There’s been a paradigm shift in what we view as beautiful,” said Kate Venturini, coastal landscapes program manager for the University of Rhode Island’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences. “There’s this perception that neat is best.”

That perception has been reality for the past several decades. Lawn-care professionals and amateur green thumbs have dumped pesticides and fertilizers on lawns and soaked them with water in hopes of creating lush, green carpets of neighborhood envy.

Green lawns coated in chemicals, however, are not sustainable, contribute to the state’s stormwater management problem and are expensive to maintain. They also don’t attract wildlife.

A hawk, for example, wouldn’t regularly visit Venturini’s backyard in Edgewood if her landlord had simply covered his property in green. Instead, he created a diverse and layered habitat in the midst of an urban jungle — an ecosystem that a bird of prey feels protected enough to frequently visit.

“When I went to check out the apartment, I was wondering why the backyard was filled with feathers,” Venturini said. “He told me that’s because a hawk had just finished dinner."

A backyard and/or front yard featuring a diverse mixture of native trees, shrubs and plants is cheaper to maintain, easier to take care of, environmentally beneficial and more interesting.

“Native plants serve a purpose,” said Venturini, who often gives presentations about creating native habitat to conservation commissions and garden clubs. “They support native wildlife, which prefers to eat native plants. They’re also accustomed to the weather and soil, so you won’t need to fertilize and water them. When you introduce species that aren’t native to the area, they require lots of inputs. Native plants save time and money.”

Native plants also make good natural buffers, which capture rainfall and filter surface runoff, and are pest resistant.

To create this type of easy-to-maintain, environmentally friendly habitat, Venturini recommends buying native trees, shrubs and plants from local nurseries that grow their own stock. She also said it is important to layer the different species, cluster the same ones together — it creates shelter for wildlife — choose plants that produce pollen and nectar and have an equal percentage of evergreen and deciduous species.

Ground cover also is important. “A healthy duff layer (decaying leaves and branches) — the type that crinkles under your feet when you go hiking in the woods — is one of the most productive elements in a natural system,” Venturini said. “Bacteria and insects continually break down the material.”

Native plants attract the insects needed to do that work. Nonnative or invasive species introduced from, say Europe, may host hundreds of insects in the backyard of a Spaniard, but may only be suitable for a handful of insects in a Westerly garden.

For information about native trees, shrubs and plants, check out the Rhode Island Coastal Plant Guide, which Venturini recently created for the Coastal Resources Management Council. It features a detailed list of 230 native plants that thrive in Rhode Island.