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by Fran Palmeri and Laurel Schiller

Early explorers in America were awestruck by the abundance of wildlife and forests. But over the years rampant development has diminished the planet’s seemingly endless resources. It’s not just polar bears we are losing because of melting ice floes. Huge numbers of species are disappearing—about 20 every hour according to Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson (as cited by the World Resources Institute). This runaway extinction is mainly due to shrinking or degraded habitat. To rebuild we must start thinking preservation, conservation, and restoration in small spaces.

Think of your yard as part of nature’s amazing web of life of which we and everything around us are a part. Lawns are a monoculture. They’re costly and wasteful. But if you allow plants native to your region to flourish in your yard, you’ll be providing habitat for the “locals” and migrants passing through.

Begin with trees; often the rest fills in underneath. It doesn’t have to be all “weeds.” You can specialize. A butterfly garden is great for swallowtails, zebra longwings and sulphurs to browse. Invite the plants back —the animals will follow. The birds and the bees will move back in because they thrive in bio diversity—another word for the complexity of Nature.

Create a migrant friendly yard! Think of it as an ice floe in rising seas welcoming that exhausted “polar bear”--in your case, a hummingbird or a monarch butterfly. Both migrate long distances each year. Ruby throated hummingbirds gorge to double their weight and then fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico. When they get to the coast they’re exhausted. They look for food and shelter along the coast. Lawns don’t have it. Native habitat does. Small urban parks and yes-- even your yard if it has a diversity of trees and shrubs-- are vital to their survival.

You can be a stop on the flyway. Plant coral bean and let coral honeysuckle twince through a fence or up a tree and you’ll play host to ruby- throated hummingbirds. Other migrants pass through our area--Oscar Scherer State Park has documented 28 different species of warblers alone. On winter evenings flocks of robins descend on parks and other natural places to roost for the night. They eat the fruit of sabel palms and wild coffee so plant these and you’ll see them in your yard. This is not to forget the “locals” like brown thrashers, mourning doves, possums and lizards who depend on us all year.

In fall millions of monarch butterflies make a miraculous trip of almost two thousand miles from the eastern U.S. to a fifty-acre pine forest in the mountains of southern Mexico. In spring they begin the return journey stopping along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Florida to lay eggs on milkweed. When these hatch, the butterflies continue their migration north through several generations before the cycle starts all over again. You can be part of this miracle. Create a Monarch Waystation by planting milkweed. (You can even certify your site. Go online at for more information)Let the world know what you’re doing. Proselytize shamelessly. Brag to the neighbors how much money you’ve saved by getting rid of the lawn and getting back to nature. Contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and have your yard certified as habitat.

In Bringing Nature Home Douglas W. Tallamy writes, “"Increasing the percentage of natives in suburbia is a grassroots solution to the extinction crisis. To succeed, we do not need to invoke governmental action; we do not need to purchase large tracts of pristine habitat that no longer exist; we do not need to limit ourselves to sending money to national and international conservation organizations and hoping it will be used productively. Our success is up to each one of us. Individually. We can each make a measurable difference almost immediately by planting a native nearby. As gardeners and stewards of our land, we have never been so empowered --and the ecological stakes have never been so high."

Fran Palmeri ( is a nature writer/photographer.
Laurel Schiller is owner of The Florida Native Plants Nursery in Sarasota.

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