Planning now to plant natives this spring sheds an anticipatory pleasant light on these last fitful days of winter and encourages daydreaming about the explosion of life that is about to happen. I am getting `order now’ reminders and assurances of inventory from many of the plant vendors I purchased 150 natives from last year. I appreciate their promptings. They spurred my planning and got me to place my order. This year, I am keeping it simple and planting only 50 river birch instead of 10 different species of shrubs and small trees. Like last year’s plantings, these river birch not only support biodiversity but have a specific design function, as described below.

The selection process was still the same and centered around those truly native species that support the most biodiversity as can be found at: https://www.nwf.org/nativeplantfinder/. On this site, all you have to do is plug in your zip code and you can have listed the top 15 plant genera that support the greatest biodiversity in your area. You can search for flowers and grasses and trees and shrubs. Selecting species truly native to our area that are known to support the most biodiversity – known as “keystone species” – ensures your plantings help birds, bees, and other wildlife as much as possible. (It is reported that these keystone species, representing just 5% of local plant genera, host 70 to 75% of the local lepidoptera species.) Audubon’s Plants for Birds is another great site that will help you with your planning. Visit https://www.audubon.org/plantsforbirds.

Among trees, the common names for our top four best trees supporting biodiversity are Oak, Cherry/plum, Willow, and Birch. Each of these are known to support over 400 species of lepidoptera. As you may recall, it is the caterpillars of these moths and butterflies, the grazers at the bottom of the food web, that helped local biodiversity evolve in the first place and are essential to sustaining it going forward.

The river birch, Betula nigra, that I will plant this spring have been chosen not just for the diversity they support but also because these trees have the strongest root tensile strength of any tree that will grow in wet and sometimes saturated areas. I have not only West Fork stream banks that I’d like to stabilize but also the outlet draining a wetland (see photo above). I need to make sure it does not back cut/erode. If it does, the wetland will dry up, and the frogs, sandhills, geese, other critters, as well as me, will be most unhappy.

Temperate wetlands provide multiple ecosystem services. They are worth protecting. To this end, I sought the counsel of The Wisconsin Wetlands Association last spring. Their suggestion was not to bring in heavy equipment and create a levee, like I was considering doing, but rather to stick willow cuttings in the drainage area. The idea was that these will hold the soil and will eventually build up a natural levee. So, last spring I stuck 160 willow cuttings into the sedges growing in that drainage area. Survival was poor though. This was perhaps because the established sedges outpaced the slow-to-grow willow cuttings and shaded them out. Therefore, this year, I will plant small clusters of 18” tall river birch seedlings into that same area and hope for better results.

I am doing other things to protect and enhance the wetlands on my property…these might be the subjects of my next blog.

Planning is half the fun. Executing and seeing the results is the rewarding other half. Planting just an oak or a few of the other keystone native species really does help nature. Please join the fun. It feels good.