This is the ninth and final in a series. Dubuque County Master Gardeners from the ISU Extension and Outreach Office share experience and suggestions for growing tri-state native plants.

Adding native plants makes yards healthier for us and for the birds, pollinators and animal life they attract. Small steps make a big improvement in the eco-value of home landscaping.

Reduce the size of the lawn. We invest heavily in our lawns. Fill the lesser used landscape with native perennials, grasses, trees and shrubs. Consider no-mow grass which requires less maintenance. To keep any traditional lawn healthy, mow at the highest level possible.

Choose native plants. Strive for a landscape plant mix at 70% native and 30% non-native. Remove all invasive plants that might have found their way into the landscape. To name a few: garlic mustard, oriental bittersweet, burning bush, Norway maple decorative pear and butterfly bush (not butterfly milkweed). Check invasive lists by state to learn what to remove, then replace with a native.

Choose native plants based on their contribution. Some native plants provide more to the health of the landscape. These “keystone plants” provide food and shelter for insects, birds and animals. Plant keystone trees such as oaks, oak, disease-resistant elm and birch. Be sure to include native varieties of shrubs and plants such as sunflowers, bee balm, goldenrod and asters.

Support the insect population. Insects, birds and small animals have co-evolved for thousands of years in our region’s ecosystem. Native plants and insects will better support them. If we want birds to raise their young in our yards, protein rich caterpillars should be abundant.

Fruit and seeds must be available to feed the adults. Hummingbirds and many other birds utilize spiders and mosquitoes for food and habitat. Trying to kill one species of insect, such as mosquitoes, by spraying, kills all. Deal with nuisance insects through targeted treatment methods, e.g., mosquito dunks instead of spraying.

Focus on specific birds or butterflies. Some plants support the unique needs of a specific butterfly or bird more than others, e.g., to increase Monarch butterflies, plant milkweed, the only plant that Monarch caterpillars will eat.

Group natives together. Prairie plants do well when massed together; they are more stable and look better in drifts of multiple plants. Homeowners can easily redistribute and share seeds with others. Native shrubs can form a hedge to block out neighboring property, or to cover the shaded ground under maturing trees

Reduce outside home lighting. Many birds and insects are confused by all the night lights. Bird scientists ask cities and citizens to turn off lights to reduce confusion during migration season, since many birds fly at night. Nocturnal insects have their entire lives turned upside down due to outdoor lighting.

Reduce outdoor lighting by using downward directed 3000K (warmer) LED lights, motion activated lights or amber light bulbs/gels.

Reduce landscape cleanup. Instead of removing spent stalks and leaves, let them decay. Leaves under trees and dying grasses protect overwintering insects in egg and larva stages. Removing plant debris by raking and mulching destroys them.

Many insects, including solitary native bees or fireflies, use the ground around trees as nesting areas. Not cleaning up saves time, adds needed nutrients back to the soil and provides cover for the native insects and birds.

Use fewer pesticides and fertilizers. The application of chemicals creates a vicious cycle of growing grass followed by cutting lawns. Most of these products are washed away as pollutants into our waterways. Leave grass to compost on the lawn.

If the lawn is really in need of a boost, apply organic compost semi-annually. Spot treat for nuisance insects. Children and pets will have less exposure to chemicals as they play in the yard.

Join with others. A growing number of tri-state residents are adding native plants to their yards and sharing their experience and plants. Contact the Dubuque County Extension office to learn more about adding native diversity to the individual landscape.

Continue to learn. There are books, videos, and organizations ready to assist on this journey. Start with one book or one video by Entomologist Doug Tallamy (University of Delaware) – Natures Best Hope. Learn that simple changes made in the home landscape reap big consequences.

Explore how our decisions and actions impact our community, state and nation. Recognize that each of us can join with others to improve our landscapes and build a stronger ecological platform for our nation.

Have a growing question? Call the Dubuque County ISU Extension Office at 563-583-6496 on weekdays from 8 am to 4:30 pm. Master Gardeners from the Dubuque County ISU Extension and Outreach Office provide County residents with factual, credible growing information.

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