Nurturing our native landscape

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Margaret Plevak | October 9, 2016

TOWN OF TROY — Mariette Nowak believes making a positive impact on the environment is as close as your backyard. The former director of the Wehr Nature Center in Milwaukee County, and recently retired planning commission member in the town of Troy — where she now lives — says by planting native trees, shrubs and plants, people cultivate a biodiversity that affects not just a neighborhood, but the world. Native plants create a healthy ecosystem for birds and bees, which, in turn, create a healthy ecosystem for humans, says Nowak, a naturalist with degrees in botany and zoology. She's also the president of the Kettle Moraine Chapter of Wild Ones, a national native gardening organization.

People wanting to know more about native gardening that attracts birds and butterflies can turn to her book, “Birdscaping,” where they might be surprised by the variety of flora in the state, including the blooming prickly pear, a cactus that is native to Wisconsin.

Admire this Slice of Life from Nowak.


The birds and the bees

My two major interests are birding and plants. When I was 9 years old, I wanted to be a naturalist specializing in ornithology. But I grew up in Milwaukee, and I didn't have many opportunities to get out or people to go birding with. When we were first married, my husband and I loved to go to the national parks, so we were both always interested in nature. A few years after I graduated college in the 1970s was the start of the environmental movement. Rachel Carson, John Muir, I've read their works.


Food for thought — and birds

If you want the birds, you have to have the plants that provide food for the insects. Almost all fledglings are fed insects because they provide more protein. Birds eat fruits and seeds, too, so if you provide all those different plants that provide all those different kinds of food, then you can really enhance the bird population in your yard, and help keep our common birds common. As so many people know now, so many species — birds, butterflies — are declining, so we need to do everything we can to help them.

Invasive plants generally aren't edible by insects, so if you have all invasive plants, you have few of the insects that birds need. Most insects are very specialized, feeding on only one species of plant or one genus of species. So if you don't have that native plant that they co-evolved with, you lose that insect and you lose the bird that needs that insect to feed its young.

The monarch is an example that probably everybody knows about now. Monarchs specialize in milkweeds and if you don't have milkweeds, you don't have monarchs. I have about five different kinds of milkweeds here. Almost all of our plants offer caterpillars, the main food for fledglings. We have a lot of the host plants for insects. We have a lot of grasses that offer seeds for the birds, and trees.


Native gardening

My husband and I retired out here in about 2000. We had a nice, native landscaped quarter-acre in Greendale — that's where we lived. But we wanted to have a little more nature. We loved the South Kettle Moraine. We'd been out here a lot anyway and appreciate all the prairie and savanna restoration that's going on.

I never had a landscaper. We did all our plant work here. In this area, the original native habitats a few hundred years ago were mainly the prairies and the savannas. So we've re-created a lot of that here, as well as the wetlands. We have a kettle (natural depression) on the side of our driveway and a little bit of woodland along the entrance to our property. We have a prairie over our septic field and that is just a great place for a prairie. You don't want trees or shrubs because those roots can ruin a septic system.


Start small

Even if you have a very small yard, you can help in a small way. If everyone had a little nature preserve in their yard, it would go a long way toward helping address all the development going on in our areas.

First, get rid of the invasive plants. Then make a plan for your whole yard. Plan, but start small.


Eco-friendly lawns

Everybody wants a little bit of lawn. If you have children, you might want a little more lawn. But we all have these non-native lawns. And I'm concerned that people put so much herbicide and pesticide on their lawns. You probably heard this before, but statistics show that people are putting more pesticides and fertilizers on their lawns than they do on agricultural crops. So I think we should start at home and make sure that we try to be as ecologically beneficial as much as possible. I always look at people's lawns and if I don't see a weed, I think, oh my gosh, how much herbicide are they putting on those lawns? I like to see weeds. You can always mow them down.

On 80 percent of the land in Canada, they do not allow the domestic use of herbicides and pesticides on lawns. They still allow it on agricultural fields and, I believe, golf courses. I wish we could do that in the States because once you have that established, then people aren't using all that stuff on their lawns, so you don't have to keep up with the Joneses. That's a big problem. If no one fertilized and used pesticides on their lawns, there wouldn't be that pressure. And most people probably would be glad to save the work.


Worrisome declines

Even a few years ago, I remember seeing quite a few monarchs, but they have been decreasing every year. That's partly due to the lack of milkweeds and partly due to farm fields with genetically modified crops. Everything is sprayed and that kills all the other plants that would be available for insects and birds. Also, there are reduced woodland areas down in Mexico where monarchs migrate to spend the winter.

People are becoming more aware of the decline of bees. That's frightening everybody, I should think. It's not just the honeybees, which are not native, but it's actually our wild bees, which are better pollinators than the honeybees in many cases.


Attracting birds

It's always good to leave snags (dead standing trees) as long as they're not dangerous, like in an area where people walk or that has a lot of weak trees. About 50 different species of Midwestern birds depend on snags for part of their life cycle. They often use tree cavities formed naturally or by woodpeckers.

We have about six to eight different nesting birds in our yard — robins, house wrens, chickadees, tree swallows, a blue jay, mourning doves sometimes. We've even had a great crested flycatcher nest once in one of our boxes, which is very unusual. We've had bluebirds every year except this year. I think they're nesting in our wild areas, but I'm a little worried about them.


Bird watching

We've traveled a bit on special birding trips around the country and to Costa Rica, Belize and Ecuador. I'd say Ecuador was one of my favorite birding places because there were so many birds there, like nightjars and beautiful hummingbirds with long, curved tails.

We have some wonderful birds here, too. One of my favorite birds is the scarlet tanager. They don't come to feeders very much, but I'll see one often come to the little stream in our yard and take a bath.


Climbing numbers

Some birds actually are increasing in numbers. Baltimore orioles seem to be doing very well. I had two nests in my yard this year. So are hummingbirds. When I was a young adult and really into birding, cardinals were not all that common. They've come up from the South. So have tufted titmice. If the climate changes, we'll gradually be getting more of those southern species coming up here.

Pelicans are starting to nest here in Wisconsin. And if you want a success story, think of the sandhill cranes. I always remember Aldo Leopold and how he hardly ever saw them because there were only a few pairs in existence in Wisconsin at that time. Now we have them all over, especially in this county.


Wild Ones

Wild Ones: Native Plants, Natural Landscapes is a national organization that started here in Wisconsin but now has chapters in about 30 states. The idea is to plant native plants instead of non-native ones that aren't offering wildlife any benefits. I've had people ask me are day lilies native? They're not. Lilies of the valley? No. People are familiar with a lot of the European plants that you find at most nurseries, but they don't really know our own native plants, which is pretty sad. 

I started a Wild Ones chapter at the Wehr Nature Center when I was there, and I started the Kettle Moraine chapter about five years ago here. We have programs year-round. The summer ones are tours, often of private properties that are native landscapes. From November to April we have indoor programs that are open to everybody. But the tours in the summer are open only to our members because we go to private homes.


Getting started

I would urge everybody to do native landscape to encourage butterflies and bees. The Wild Ones website ( is a great resource. One other book that I really think should be required reading for everyone is Doug Tallamy's “Bringing Nature Home.” It's a wonderful book published a few years ago. He's an entomology professor at the University of Delaware and I think he does an excellent job explaining the important reasons for using native plants.


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