Standing Out in the Field with Phil Torres
This winter, I was visiting Oxford, England, when I went into a home goods store and saw my dream watering can. It was classic green with brass. Just holding it made me feel like my backyard could belong in a dream garden magazine spread. I was tempted to empty out all the clothes from my luggage just to bring it back to the US with me, but as I still had a few more weeks on the road, I snapped a quick photo and said goodbye. As serendipity would have it, just two weeks later, I got an email from Goodee saying they were working with a brand called Haws to distribute their gardening supplies in the US. They wanted to see if I’d be interested in writing about what I do in my own green space at home. I clicked the link, and there it was: my dream watering can. What’s more, it could be delivered right to my door. Here’s how I put it and other Haws beauties into action in my little forest yard.
As a child exploring my suburban backyard, I would flip rocks and logs, looking for worms and snakes, while admiring butterflies visiting the flowers. I dreamed of doing conservation work in the Amazon Rainforest, which led me to become a biologist, fulfilling that childhood dream. And yet, after years of working in the Amazon Rainforest (still to this day, flipping rocks and logs looking for worms, snakes, and chasing butterflies) I now dream of doing conservation work in my own backyard. In the spring, that means helping the environment, one little plant at a time.
Why the backyard? I’ve realized the best way to make a significant, daily impact on rewilding our environment and helping native species is often right outside our door. Let’s imagine our typical yard: a monoculture crop of short grass, typically non-native ornamental flowers, and often non-native trees. For so long, I had trained my eyes just to look for green and flowers and assumed that meant a lush and meaningful environment. But to our native birds, bees, and butterflies, it’s all about the details of what’s in there. Want to help save the bees? Don’t get a beehive in your yard, simply plant one heck of a garden.
The most compelling study I’ve seen was simple— it looked at chickadee (a native bird) nests in backyards in the US, and how successful these birds were at raising their young. In some yards, very few of their young survived long enough to fledge and fly off on their own, and in others they had a much higher survival rate. The only difference between the yards wasn’t how many total plants or how much green space they had, but what percentage of native plants they had. The magic number for having the highest success rate in a backyard? Yards with 70% native species. Yards that swapped the Norway maple for the North American sugar maple. Swapped European blackberries for native trailing blackberries. But the surprise here is that these birds don’t eat the plants, or the fruits on the plants. They eat the things that eat these plants!
These birds eat caterpillars, and our caterpillars can’t just eat any old leaf, they are often specific in their dietary needs and the caterpillar species that are from your region rely on the plants from that region.
"So oddly enough, a healthy backyard is a backyard that is showing signs that it is getting eaten, you want to see holes in your leaves from leafcutter bees and bare stems stripped away by moth caterpillars."
So every spring, I take this information to heart and visit my local nursery to ask for native plants, and find community or county-led native plant sales (these resources can be trickier to find but often have much better options). Beware “pollinator plant” bundles of seeds you may see— almost everyone I have come across contains a majority non-native flowers.
"Beyond just supporting your local ecosystem, you’re also benefiting by planting species that need little to no maintenance beyond the first spring and summer because they evolved to live in your local environment."
"With the Haws Brass Spray Lance, I get a consistent, rain-like stream of water that is delicate on the tender young plants, but quenches the thirst of the soil below."
I make this yard maintenance a bit of a morning ceremony. After my coffee, I fill up that dreamy Haws Warley Fall 2 gallon and walk around my yard, checking on everything I planted that year and making sure I keep the soil moist down to their roots. For the plants closer to home, I can use a hose—and with the Haws Spray Lance, I get a consistent, rain-like stream of water that is delicate on the tender young plants, but quenches the thirst of the soil below. Let’s see who comes a-crawling.