The One Thing You Can Do

There is one thing that you can do to improve your piece of this Earth to help the flora and fauna that you share it with. What is that one thing? Well, I don’t know because I don’t know what you are currently doing. Perhaps I can help you discover what that one thing is.

You see, there is always one thing you can do. It’s just that easy: one thing. After you do that, you can do another “one thing” later – a week later, a month later or even six months later. Improving your piece of the world can be seen as one step at a time. Do as many as you want or as many as you can. Do them at your own pace either according to your time or ability.

Adding a beautiful aster to your garden brings beauty and supports 115 different insects as host.

Adding a beautiful aster to your garden brings beauty and supports up to 115 different insects as host.

So what are your choices? When I visit someone’s yard for the first time, here is what I look for:

–          Are there invasive non-native plants that are actively fruiting? If so, remove the fruit and safely discard it so that it cannot get back out into the natural environment. Examples might be privet (Ligustrum spp.), oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), burning bush (Euonymus alatus), nandina (Nandina domestica). Cost to do this? Free (unless you need to hire help).


–          Are there invasive non-native plants that are taking up space that could be used to grow native plants? If so, remove these plants and replace with mulch until you can afford to add native plants. A box turtle came and laid eggs in my newly cleared area while I was deciding what to replant this year. Examples of such plants to remove might be English ivy (Hedera helix), Japanese stiltgrass, privet, nandina, mahonia (Mahonia bealei), bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii). Cost to do this? Free.

Caterpillars are just bird food - if you want birds then you'll want caterpillars!

Caterpillars are just bird food – if you want birds then you’ll want caterpillars!

–          Are you using chemicals to spray for pests in your yard? Pesticides often take out beneficial insects while also killing the targeted species. Or you could be spraying for cosmetic reasons. Stop spraying and let the ecosystem learn to balance out the pests. Over time, insectivore birds (those that eat insects) will increase in the area, other insect-eating predators will increase and the whole area will be better off. Cost to do this? Free.

–          Stop throwing away your yard waste (lawn clippings, leaves, cut branches) and use them to mulch your trees and shrubs, create paths, compost or create a brush pile for birds. Also, stop cutting back your perennials in the fall – the seeds on them support birds and the dead stems become winter homes for small insects (which are then sources of food for winter birds); larger stems may even become places for solitary bees to lay their eggs. Cost to do this? Free.

–          Increase the diversity of native plants in your yard. You may already have native plants, but increasing the diversity of species will increase the life that your yard supports. For example, if you don’t have any goldenrod (Solidago) or milkweed (Asclepias) then you are lacking in key support for several critters in their life cycle. Cost to do this? Depends on what you select or whether you get seeds or free divisions from friends or groups. At the Georgia Native Plant Society’s end of year meeting we always have a big seed swap/giveaway – free!

Solidago nemoralis 060a

Clumping goldenrods like Solidago nemoralis are well-behaved and perfect for sunny dry spots.

–          Convince your neighbors. There is no better way to double your impact than by convincing another person to make changes as well. If that person is your immediate neighbor, you have now created a bigger habitat which is more than twice as good as two fragmented habitats. Cost to do this? Free.

So those are the things you can do. Pick one that is applicable for you and do that one thing. If you’ve already removed invasive plants, perhaps the next thing to do is add diversity. Or perhaps you are using pesticides, or throwing away yard waste; whatever it is, pick the change you can do.

Each and every item can make a meaningful difference and you can feel good about the progress you have made. Make a list of the items that apply to you and execute your list over time as you have time and, if applicable, money. Many things can be accomplished just by your own time and effort.

So, what’s the one thing you can do?

© 2013, Ellen Honeycutt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. Cora Howlett says

    Thank you, Ellen, for such a good post. I remember starting with a tiny spicebush sapling…thinking it would never attract a spicebush butterfly. It was too small!!! The following summer I discovered a folded leaf and peaked inside and saw this tiny little dark something ? that vaguely looked like a caterpillar. Well, I’ll be darned it was a caterpillar that kept growing inside that leaf and soon developed false eyespots. I only once saw it eating a leaf outside its folded leaf hideout. Cutest little thing! I was hooked. I never did get to see it leave to form its chrysalis. But they come every summer. And I’m always looking for folded leaves on my (now 3 spicebush) shrubs. I have more butterflies than I have ever seen, bees also. I started with just ONE THING. Build it and they will come.

  2. says


    This is a great post. . .I like your idea about convincing your neighbors. Enough convincing and every community would have wildlife garden corridors.

    I’m not sure how to broach the subject with most people, though. Many seem so set in their yard-care ways and also appear to have a lot invested in the social status that comes with the English manor type lawn and the prim non-native plants as accents.

    For this reason I wonder if trying to get the local newspapers and other media on our side might help. Our local paper recently had an article about the invasive Japanese Knotweed, and why it (and other invasive plants) are bad. That was a small start for them.

    I wonder if the subject can move into the realm of public discussion, then there might be more ways to open it up in personal conversations, i.d. “Did you see that recent article about ______?”

  3. says

    Ruth, the way I broach the subject is to start with something that I know most people like – birds and butterflies. From there I talk about how baby birds need insects and where they come from, usually referencing the Monarch example. I might throw in statistics about how many hundreds of bugs it takes to raise a batch of babies.
    Ellen Honeycutt recently posted..Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge

  4. says

    You are so right, Ellen, there is always One Thing You Can Do to start helping wildlife in your garden. And it doesn’t have to be overwhelming, if you just take one thing at a time. It helps to have friends who you can talk to who can look over your garden with you, and not everyone has those kind of friends. That’s why there is this Team to turn to.. support!
    kathy recently posted..Return of the Hummingbirds

  5. Glenn Parsons says

    Great article Ellen. If I could take another issue one step further. I would like to see irresponsible domesticated cat owners’ stop letting their feline’s out to roam. These animals, along with the uncontrolled population of feral cats in my county are preying on song bird populations. We have a dog leash law. Why not a “Domesticated Cat Control Act?” Sorry if this is a bit off topic. G

  6. Sally Z says

    You suggested to not cut back perennials in the fall. When in the spring should I cut them back to prepare for new growth?

  7. says

    Hi Sally: It depends on what you have, but generally I cut things back as I see the new growth emerging. For me in Georgia, it could be as early as February for some plants. Then, to make sure I don’t harm any critters that might have taken up residence in the stems, I lightly toss the stems onto a brush pile (I have several scattered around the edges of the property, usually behind some shrubs).

    Of course if you were leaving up the stems just for seeds, then you could remove the stems whenever it seemed that the seeds are gone. But I do find that the stems get used in lots of different ways so prefer to leave them if possible.
    Ellen Honeycutt recently posted..The Summer of Rain

  8. Marilyn says

    Love this post! The “one thing” idea cuts across so many areas of our lives and helps us focus when we are overwhelmed and don’t know what to do. Make it a habit to look around yourself every day and ask, “What one thing can I do?” It will surprise you and make the world you live in a better place.


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