Native Plants Backyard Challenge would restore natural habitats, attract birds

Nate Ellis
ThisWeek group
Columbus Audubon and the Grange Insurance Audubon Center are seeking participants for the first Native Plants Backyard Challenge, which would provide habitats and food for native insects and birds. Here, native plants like coneflowers, royal catchfly, yarrow and bee balm are shown in Audubon member Bonnie Halchin-Smith's yard.

Be it a backyard, front yard, side yard or even a container garden, planting native species is an effective way to bolster the local ecosystem and attract birds from the Buckeye State.

According to representatives of Columbus Audubon and the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, two central Ohio organizations dedicated to conserving and restoring natural ecosystems to benefit birds and humans, staying true to local roots – and seeds – is key to weeding out invasive plant species and helping flying feathered friends.

That’s why they have launched a Native Plants Backyard Challenge, through which they hope to have 100 central Ohio households transform their gardens or yards into natural habitats.

“We want to show that people can make small change and it’s still a change,” said Allison Clark, education-program manager for the Grange Insurance Audubon Center. “People can still make a difference.”

As of Dec. 7, the Native Plants Backyard Challenge still was looking for about 50 entrants.

Registration is open through Jan. 10 and may be completed at eventbrite.com/e/native-plants-backyard-challenge-registration-tickets-126752442969.

Columbus Audubon members may sign on for $25, and the fee for others is $40, which then pays for memberships to both Columbus Audubon and Grange Insurance Audubon Center.

The registration fee also ensures Challenge participants receive a “tool kit” to get started in a yearlong quest to transform or further develop their gardening spaces into natural habitats, as well as instructions on how to make spaces successful and how to catalog the types of insects and birds they attract.

Columbus Audubon and the Grange Insurance Audubon Center are seeking participants for the first Native Plants Backyard Challenge, which would provide habitats and food for native insects and birds. Here, native plants like coneflowers, royal catchfly, yarrow and bee balm are shown in Audubon member Bonnie Halchin-Smith's yard.

“Part of the Audubon’s, as a whole, current mission statement has to do with expanding native plants for birds,” said Elissa Rand, Columbus Audubon vice president. “This is the first time we’ve done it in this format, but this is a goal of Audubon as a whole to promote native plants for birds.

“Native plants are going to provide primarily either the forage that our native birds species eat ... or they are going to provide forage for the insects that birds that live in our area rely on. If you don’t have insects, a lot of times, you don’t have birds, especially in the spring, when birds are trying to feed their babies.”

The tool kits for the first Native Plants Backyard Challenge will be distributed in January, and in addition to instructions provided therein, Columbus Audubon and Grange Insurance Audubon Center will schedule monthly workshops, either virtually or in person, throughout 2021 to help gardeners develop their spaces.

In addition to providing guidance as to what to plant, the program will seek to educate participants as to invasive plants to avoid or eradicate from yards.

Each registrant also will receive a participation sign to display in their yards to help spread the word about efforts to establish more native outdoor spaces.

“An envelope with your choice of seeds from a seed buffet and four seed plugs to get you started,” Columbus Audubon’s website said. “Additional seeds, plugs and plants may be purchased at the Challenge plant sales in March and May.”

After chronicling what’s happening in terms of plant growth and what types of insects and birds the gardens are attracting, there will be an event between September and early November in which participants will harvest seeds and swap seeds.

At some point prior to January 2022, a reunion event will be held in which participants will share what they learned and, potentially, prepare for a second Challenge in 2022.

“We do want to carry this into a second year if there’s enough interest,” Clark said. “We’re going to be asking people to assess their yards in the beginning and then assess them again at the end.

“We wanted to have a timeline to see the progress that’s been made – the new birds, the new insects that may show up in people’s backyards. So we’d like to keep this going into a multiyear type of a deal where more people can join.”

Clark and Rand said the program is designed for novices. Thus, beginning gardeners and those who would like to involve children are encouraged to take part.

The program also offers sponsorship opportunities for people to purchase registration space for others who want to take part in the program but can’t afford it.

“Studies have shown that any size planting of native plants has been shown to be beneficial in some way,” Rand said. “An added benefit of native plants from an Audubon perspective is that it’s going to promote a habitat for pollinators: bees, butterflies, hummingbirds. It’s going to provide the forage that those types of pollinators need either to eat or host plants where butterflies and moths lay their eggs.

"Our native caterpillars and insects that need to eat leaves and have large population size rely our native trees and shrubs – like oaks, especially. Without a large insect population, we aren’t supporting the feed needs of our bird population.”

Columbus Audubon and the Grange Insurance Audubon Center are seeking participants for the first Native Plants Backyard Challenge, which would provide habitats and food for native insects and birds. Here, native plants like coneflowers, royal catchfly, yarrow and bee balm are shown in Audubon member Bonnie Halchin-Smith's yard.

Clark and Rand said the program not only is designed to bolster local ecosystems but also facilitate healthful activities for people of all ages.

They said the Challenge was set up with the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in mind, providing another outlet for people to enjoy safely and help the natural world.

“Because of COVID, we tried to think of interactive ways to get people to do household, family activities and conservation activities that can be done either virtually or in person,” Clark said. “I know I personally have counted on being outside and in nature during this time.

“I think people are realizing that nature never closes. There’s a whole world we need to support, and this is an easy way for people to take conservation action.”

nellis@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekNate