In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
September, 2005
Regional Report

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1874

This lovely swallowtail visits my hyssop daily!

A "Weed" Field Yields Abundant Wildlife

This has been an interesting year for wildlife in our landscape. For the first time since we've lived in this house, the field next to us is not being farmed. It's been left fallow and is now abundant with several types of thistles -- sow thistle (which is actually in the lettuce family and not a thistle at all), lambs' quarters, Queen Anne's lace, and giant ragweed, to name a few. I had no idea some of these weeds could grow to 6 or more feet tall.

New "Neighbors"
In spite of the oncoming problem with ragweed pollen and my family's seasonal allergies, the stand of weeds has made an interesting transition zone that is teeming with wildlife. Not an hour goes by during the day without a handful of yellow swallowtail butterflies visiting my perennial border. I don't have an abundance of larval food plants for these butterflies, like carrots, dill, and fennel, but the field next to us does. The Queen Anne's lace obviously has made quite a hospitable diner for the beautiful caterpillars, and now the adults are visiting our nectar-filled phlox and herb plants. What a nice benefit from having the unmowed field.

Another benefit is the increase in the number of birds. I have a love-hate relationship with the various types of thistles growing adjacent to my vegetable garden. I curse them for blowing seeds into my garden, but they are a wonderful food source for finches of all sorts.

We have bright yellow goldfinches and purple finches constantly swooping and dipping through the yard after grazing on the thistles. I haven't put thistle seed out for them this year because we have a natural source in the field. The grasses, such as yellow foxtail, barnyard grass, and quackgrass, keep the chickadees happy.

This field has also increased the insect population, especially beneficial wasps and bees. I love to walk into the weeds and just stand still, listening to the hum of thousands of tiny wings. I'm sure there are plenty of pests as well, but whether it's only my imagination or not, they seem to have enough to eat in the field to keep them from finding their way into our garden.

We've spent most summer evenings watching the swallows glide over the field snatching flying insects until the sun sets, and then the bats come out for their share.

I'm not sure whether this unmowed strip actually qualifies as an edge or transition in ecological terminology, but there certainly is an abundance of life, much as there would be at the edge of any type of habitat or where one habitat contrasts with another. It has proven to me that having a transition zone is well worth the effort to establish it.

If I knew this area would remain undeveloped, I would help it revert to native plants. I could encourage natural succession by planting gray dogwood, sumac, and cranberry viburnum. This would help with the four necessities for wildlife habitat: food, water, nesting, and protection. However, I know this plot of land will be sold soon and turned into home landscapes. I can, however, move some of the transition area over into my yard to continue encouraging the entourage of wildlife we've been enjoying so much.


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