The concept of ecology deals with relationships between organisms and their environment. Global warming, air pollution, water pollution, and invasive exotic plants are all important and serious ecological issues.
We as individuals may not be able to deal directly with those global issues, but here in Yardener's Helper we believe that each of us can definitely try to understand about the ecology of our own yard and if we identify an ecological problem, maybe we can do something about it. Collectively all the yards in America have enormous impact on the overal ecological health of our country.
So here we look at the players found in a healthy yard ecosystem. In the air are the birds, on land are the bugs and animals, and down in the soil are the earthworms and soil microbes. If all these critters are present and in proper balance with the yard's environment, many of the problems in the yard will disappear or at least be minimized.
It might sound high-faluting or even impossible, but I believe it is reasonable for a yardener to try at a sane level of effort to have a “balanced ecosystem” in his or her home landscape. That means that all the plants in the yard –trees, shrubs, lawn, flowers, and vegetables are appropriate for the horticultural zone found in southeastern Michigan. It means that the soil is not compacted and is rich in organic matter insuring a healthy population of beneficial soil organisms. Finally, a balanced ecosystem will have the full population of beneficial insects, amphibians, and songbirds needed to insure that no pest insect ever becomes a serious problem.
Yes, you will have some grubs, some cutworms, and even a few Japanese beetles on the property, but with all the beneficial critters in place they never build into numbers that cause any visible damage to your property.
Unfortunately the numbers of those beneficial defenders of our property are going down. Global warming and air pollution are the culprits, and there is not much we can do in the short term about those problems. Ten years ago, Nancy and I saw lots of toads, salamanders, and garter snakes on the property, mostly in the gardens. Now we see just one or two toads, an occasional salamander and this year no garter snakes. When those guys were present is good numbers they had enormous impact in controlling slugs, cutworms, flies, mosquitoes, gnats, and many other pests of the home landscape. With their disappearance our ecosystem is becoming unbalanced.
Next on the balancing team are the three most valuable beneficial insects in any home landscape. Would you believe they include 6 or more species of ants, 10 or more species of spiders, and 10 or more species of ground beetles. These insects, when in healthy numbers can control up to half of all the pest insects found anywhere in the yard. To be present however, they must have appropriate habitat, and most home landscapes lack such habitat. These beneficials are found in the lawn only if the grass is dense and is cut above 2 inches tall. These valuable pest controllers will be found in trees, shrubs, and gardens only if those areas have a two to three inch layer of mulch all year long. No mulch means no ants, spiders, and ground beetles in sufficient numbers to make a difference.
The other major source of pest insect control comes from the songbirds. The problem is that for no clear reason, the songbird population in the Midwest is falling, probably caused by environmental stress of some kind. To keep those songbirds that are left prowling your yard for insects is to keep feeding them in feeders in the spring, summer, and fall; just with a reduced amount from the winter feeding program.
Proper plant selection, use of lots of mulch, and feeding the songbirds all year, all contribute to moving toward that elusive balanced ecosystem.