Plant Your Yard to Help Nature Survive and Thrive

How to attract beneficial insects

By Mary Anne Broshek

A recent book by Doug Tallamy, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Own Yard, takes a close look at what is happening to our natural world and provides specific actions people can take in their own yards to create wildlife habitats.  These are simple steps that anyone can do that when combined creates what Tallamy calls a Home Grown National Park. 

In Tallamy’s words: “What if landowners made it a goal to convert half of his or her lawn to productive native communities?  Even moderate success could collectively restore 20 million acres of what is now an ecological wasteland.”  This improved animal habitat would equal more area than all of the US National Parks combined.

What is Happening to Our Natural World
The book cites many of the studies that show how our everyday practices are destroying the ability of earth to replenish itself. We are running out of fresh water in many areas, including the Southwestern United States. We have already lost 800 species to extinction and, in North America, have 8,500 species of plants and animals that are in danger of extinction. 

We are in danger of losing 40% of our fish, 25% of our mammals, 35% of reptiles, 13% of birds, and 52% of our insects. Lawn irrigation consumes on average more than 8 billion gallons of water a day.

Forty percent of chemicals used by lawn companies are banned in other countries because they are carcinogens. Forty to sixty percent of fertilizer applied to lawns ends up in surface and groundwater where it kills aquatic organisms and contaminates drinking water. According to Cornell College of Agriculture, neonicotinoids are emerging as being more toxic than other pesticides to bees.

Why Insects Are So Important

Because insects are so low on the food chain, they sustain all that is above them. According to Tallamy, “Insects … sustain the earth’s ecosystems by sustaining the plants and animals that run those ecosystems.  Ecosystems with many interacting species are more productive, and better able to support huge human populations.”  

In addition to pollination, they keep the food web in balance, rapidly decompose dead plants, release nutrients for new plant life, and by keeping the planet well vegetated, they keep our water clean and minimize flooding.

Caterpillars are the mainstay of most bird diets when birds are rearing their young. Tallamy states,  “We have to use these (native) plants in our landscapes in ways that enable the caterpillars they support to complete their life cycles: egg, larva, pupa, and adult.”  

One pair of chickadees needs 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to feed their offspring in one nest until they fledge (about 16 days), and they continue to feed them for a few weeks after they leave the nest.  No caterpillars means no birds.

What You Can Do

The goal is less lawn and more native plants. With spring approaching, there are a few steps you can take right now.

Don’t rake up leaves until temperatures hit 50 degrees for four days in a row.  And when fall comes around, no raking. Ninety-four percent of insect larvae drop to the ground over the winter.  Leave the leaves in place so there are sufficient caterpillars to feed the birds next spring. 

Insects, and especially moths, love outdoor lights.  Replace outdoor lights with motion lights.  This  prevents unnecessary death for many species so they live long enough to mate and lay eggs that then turn into caterpillars.

When purchasing spring plants, go with natives.  You can find good lists for this area at UNH Cooperative Extension at or the National Wild Life Federation  Some good ones to start with are goldenrod, asters, blueberries, and milkweed.

When buying plants, especially at big box stores, ask if they have been sprayed with neonicotinoids.  

Start getting rid of invasives. The smaller they are, the easier it is to get them out by the roots.  The UNH Cooperative Extension has an online handbook with good closeup photos of leaves, flowers, and berries of New Hampshire plant invasives at Remember that invasive species love disturbed soil, so if you have cleared an area, plant with native species as soon as possible.

Note: The Andover Conservation Commission purchased a Puller Bear Pro that makes root pulling easier.  You can sign it out at the Andover Public Library.

Start planning to replace part of your lawn with a pocket meadow (just leave it alone and don’t mow the grass), or add a raised bed where you can grow flowers or vegetables.  Set your mower no lower than three inches; four is better.  Grass will be healthier and need less water, plus you are less likely to hurt critters who live there. Try not to mow in the evening, as many nocturnal species move to the grass and are vulnerable.

If you don’t already have oak trees, plant one or more. They are one of the most attractive hosts to a variety of caterpillars.  By planting three or more trees together, the trees interweave their roots, so there is less chance of them falling over.

Put out a water feature, especially one that bubbles, for birds.  For insects, bees, and butterflies, you can set out a shallow pan and put a layer of gravel or marbles on the bottom.  Fill the pan part way so they can stand on a stone to drink. 

Learn More

Watch the webinar by Doug Tallamy where he discusses his book with folks from the National Wildlife Federation at

Go to the Home Grown National Park website at to learn more, find additional resources, and register your lawn as a participant.

The Andover Libraries will soon have a copy of the book.