Healthy Backyard Options

A healthy yard is not really a “yard” at all. It is your habitat, an extension of your home and part of a larger ecological region. It can be beautiful, a source of peacefulness, and the center of wondrous enjoyment. It can show you the wonders and idiosyncrasies of nature’s creatures. But over the years it can also serve the purpose of expanding one’s appreciation of nature, of seeing relationships in the natural world, of sitting quietly on the patio and watching the chipmunks scoot by your feet, or a humming bird edging its beak into the opening of a trumpet vine. It can be a place to:

  1. Attract birds, bees and butterflies
  2. Emphasis on native plants and conservation
  3. For your kids to play
  4. To relax and read a good book

Attracting Birds, Bees & Butterflies

To attract birds to your backyard, remember that birds need food, water and shelter.

  1. Food: Many backyard birds are insect eaters and the insects love plants, bushes, and tree leaves. So, plant a lot of foliage in a combination, that supplies food year-round. Of course, other birds love nuts, seeds, fruit, or nectar, depending on the species and these items can be supplemented through the use of bird feeders.
  2. Water: Birds need water for drinking and for bathing. Bird baths are a simple, popular way to provide water, with endless designs available at garden centers and wild bird supply stores. Birds are attracted to the sound of running water and a spewing, drip, or misting feature will increase the number of visitors. Water heaters will keep the water free from ice during the winter months. The creation of ponds and water gardens will take some work, but done well, they can attract many species. Ponds for birds should be shallow, with gently sloping shorelines.
  3. Shelter: Birds need places where they can hide from predators and inclement weather. Native trees and shrubs of different densities and heights give birds’ places of retreat and safety. In winter, evergreens (esp. Hemlocks), and yews, can provide dense thicket which will offer critical cover.

Urban Greening from National Wildlife Magazine — Special Thanks to John Levine for sharing this great resource on gardening to attract pollinators such as butterflies and bees.

Native Plants And Conservation

Native plants are those species that were present locally when the first settlers arrived. These plants have evolved over thousands of years to be able to live on rainwater alone, without adding fertilizer. Their deep roots help infiltrate rain where it falls and carry the moisture deep into the ground to replenish our aquifers, cleaning it as it goes. By simply choosing native plants for our yards, we can restore vital habitat for birds, help them adapt and survive. Native landscaping is a key tool in increasing bird diversity and abundance. To survive, native birds need native plants and the insects that have co-evolved with them.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 30 to 60 percent of fresh water in American cities is used for watering lawns. However, native plants have adapted to thrive in their regional landscape, without added water or nutrients. With climate change models predicting increased episodes of extreme drought such as California is experiencing, it’s a good time to shift to water-wise yards and native plants (from American Audubon Society).

Rain barrels are simply large containers that capture storm water from your roof that would otherwise be lost as runoff.  Rain water is a precious fresh water resource and it doesn’t make sense to treat it like a waste product by straining our sewers systems. There is a finite amount of fresh water on earth and we can all take steps to protect it, starting with collecting it where it falls! By catching and keeping the rainwater that falls in your yard, you reduce flooding and keep pollutants out of rivers and streams, you’re left with clean water that is perfect for watering your garden, washing your car, and offsetting household water usage in many other ways.

Why Plant Native Plants at Home?

Native prairie, woodland and wetland plants have evolved to thrive in our natural conditions and, after the first season or two of establishment in your yard, typically require less maintenance than a conventional lawn or garden. Native plants do not require chemical fertilizer or pesticides and can save you money in the long-term, while helping the environment.

Native plants can be quite beautiful and lend your backyard a sense of place rooted in natural history, while providing food and shelter for birds and beneficial insects (e.g. dragonflies that eat mosquitoes).  Native and other deep-rooted plants help direct rainwater into the soil and if planted in a rain garden in conjunction with a disconnected downspout, native plants are especially effective for managing stormwater.

What to Do Before You Plant

There are many varieties of native plants available through Chicago’s local garden centers and nurseries. Much like planning any other type of landscaping, you should take stock of your backyard resources before deciding which plants to buy:

  • How much sun do you get in your backyard?
  • What is the soil like?
  • Are there any low areas that tend to collect water during rains?
  • How much space is available for adding new plants?
  • Can you remove some of your turf grass to make more room?

How to Care for Your Native Plants

Every species and variety of native plant has a different set of needs, so be sure to speak with the experts at your local garden center when you make your purchase. In general, deep-rooted perennials will need some time to establish themselves. You should be ready to provide extra care through watering and weeding during the first season or two, depending on the variety you have selected.

Recommended Native Plants for Chicago

With these things in mind, ask your local garden center experts which kinds of plants will work best for you. Here are a few common situations and the plants that will thrive under those conditions:

Meadowsweet Spiraea alba Shrub White flower clusters bloom in early summer. Wet to moist and well-drained.
Northern Sea Oats Chasmanthium latifolium Grass Beautiful seed heads for cut and dired arrangements. Moist and well-drained to dry.
Switch Grass Panicum virgatum Grass Lacy sprays, grass turns yellow in fall. Wet to moist and well-drained.
Little Bluestem Schizachyrium scoparium Grass Ornamental grass forms very dense mounds. Moist and well-drained to dry.
Nodding Wild Onion Allium cernuum Flower Pink flower clusters nod to ground, bulbs can be used raw, boiled, pickled or as seasoning. Wet to moist and well-drained.
Butterfly Milkweed Asclepias tuberosa Flower Bright orange flowers are loved by butterflies. Moist and well-drained to dry.
New England Aster Aster novae-angliae Flower Showy, bright purple or white flowers have orange centers. Wet to moist and well-drained.
Pale Purple Coneflower Echinacea pallida Flower Pale petals droop from large cone-shaped center. Moist and well-drained to dry.
Purple Coneflower Echinacea purpura Flower Popular native, long-lasting lavendar flowers. Wet to moist and well-drained.
Rattlesnake Master Eryngium yuccifolium Flower Tough stems support balls of white flowers. Wet to moist and well-drained.
Blue Flag Iris Iris virginica shrevii Flower Fragrant blue-violet flowers. Wet to moist and well-drained.
Blazingstar Liatris spp. Flower Striking, long purple flower heads. Tolerant of most soils
Virginia Blue Bells Mertensia virginica Flower Lovely, blue flowers, great for under trees. Moist and well-drained.
Wild Bergamot Monarda fistulosa Flower Flowers of lavender or pink pompoms, plant parts used for tea. Tolerant of most soils
Purple Prairie Clover Petalostemum purpureum Flower Beautiful in bouquets, flowers attract butterflies and bees. Moist and well-drained to dry.
Mayapple Podophyllum peltatum Flower Spring bloom of apple-blossom-like flower. Moist and well-drained.

Symbol Key: Rain Garden Plant Beneficial to birds and butterflies Sunlight Requirements: Full Sun Partial Sun Full Shade

For Your Kids To Play

Think about installing a variety of landscapes, equipment, configurations, and natural resources that encourages exploration, creativity, physical activity, interaction, a connection to the land … or just a place to play “Cops & Robbers.”

To Relax And Read A Good Book

Check out your local library, and after 5 minutes of silence in your backyard, birds and other critters will emerge and start to arrive. It is a wonderful feeling sharing the same space with curious and timid creatures in nature.