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What’s in Your Garden?

By Kathi Thistlethwaite, Colorado Master Gardener

Plant It and They Will Come

Millions of specialized relationships exist between plants, insects, and animals. These evolved specializations are dwindling or disappearing completely, partially due to industrialization and partially due to the plants that are typically included in urban landscapes. Planting to support wildlife starts at the grassroots level. Selecting plants that support the food web and restoring natural habitats are ideas to incorporate in the home garden to support these intricate relationships.

A great place to start is having a basic understanding of the specialized relationship between host plants and the insects they feed and shelter. For instance, milkweed (Asclepias) is the sole food source for the beautiful monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), now an endangered species. Milkweed is an easy-to-grow plant adding interest, texture and color to the home garden as it feeds the monarch caterpillar.

Monarch butterfly, Photo: wci.colostate.edu

Beetles, butterflies, moths and bees pollinate plants, and these insects in turn, are critical food sources for animals and birds. Birds require thousands of nutrient-rich caterpillars and other insects to raise one brood. Include plants in the garden that support the insects they eat to support the food web. Consider the relationship between the blue jay and the oak tree. Jays will carry acorns up to a mile away from the tree and push them into the ground to store as food. However, the jay only remembers one in four acorns it plants, giving us the possibility of three new oak trees and additional habitat for hundreds of species of animals.

Bumble bee, Photo: Lisa Mason

What about bumble bees that use landscape niches to nest? Nest sizes range from 200-bee hives to solitary dwellers. These bees are mighty pollinators. While they don’t produce honey, the larger species of bumble bees “buzz-pollinate” by vibrating flowers to spread pollen.

Plant an oak tree or milkweed, install a pollinator garden and increase native plants in your garden. Transitioning to an eco-friendly landscape can be easy and rewarding. Check out these links for inspiration and information here, here, and here.

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