Gardening for Wildlife

I garden for several reasons, but one of the main ones is that I garden for wildlife. There used to be a show on the Discovery channel about this. It was through the National Wildlife Federation and they did a yard makeover in different parts of the country. They would install native plants, a source of water, and sources of shelter. It was a great show, but it has been off the air for a long time. However, their book is still available and I recommend it. It’s also still up on their website, including a place where you can certify your yard as backyard habitat.

Grass yards are ecological wastelands. They don’t support any sort of life. In addition, many people waste water trying to keep them green and they poison the land dumping chemicals on it to kill any “weeds” that take root. As more people become aware of this, the trend has been to replace lawns with something useful, such as thyme, wildflowers, or gardens. We destroy so much native habitat and then it sits unused. If you have kids that play in the yard, then you may make use of it, but the majority of grass lawns just exist as cookie-cutter wastes of space. Instead, make your yard inviting to wildlife, from beneficial insects to mammals and everything in between. I love watching birds in my garden, and I’m delighted to see snakes, butterflies, bees, and anything else that would like to visit. My house in Maryland backed up to the woods, so I had a wide variety of animals visit. Here in South Carolina, I live in a city surrounded by people, but I still get quite a variety of birds and some absolutely adorable lizards.

Most people know the bees are in trouble. Last year another third of US bee colonies was wiped out. It’s unsustainable. Scientists believe one big culprit is a class of insecticide called neonicotinoids. These have been banned in other countries, but unfortunately the US has not yet caught up. There is really no excuse for it, but corporations do horrible things in the name of making money. You can find much more information, studies, and lists of products to avoid online. I can tell you that this year has been almost bereft of honeybees here in my little neck of the woods. Normally I’d have a lot of bees buzzing around my flowers, but not this year. I have been actively searching for honeybees but have only found a few. I’m going to have to hand pollinate my veggies this year. Before you put any sort of chemical in your yard, whether it’s fertilizer, weed killer or bug spray, first look for an organic solution. There are organic ways to do the same thing without poisoning your environment. That is the first basic rule to gardening for wildlife. Don’t poison it.
You should always use native varieties in your landscape. Native varieties are adapted to your climate and will need less care. They evolved in tandem with the native wildlife and so they provide for them as well. You may see a Chinese variety of a certain plant, and think it doesn’t matter, but it does. That Chinese variety might have berries that are inedible to the local population, or that becomes invasive and pushes out the native plants. I had a snowball bush out front. It had big poofy flower balls once a year and then it was useless the rest of the year. We got rid of it, and instead I’m planting native Viburnums that provide flowers, berries and shelter. Whenever you are choosing your plants, ask yourself what it’s use is. Does it provide nectar, pollen, berries or nuts? Is it a host plant for caterpillars or do the birds eat the flower seeds? All these things contribute to a healthy garden.
Next, you need a source of water. You will be amazed at how much wildlife a fountain will attract. I love to watch the birds visit it every night, and the robins like to splash around in it. I’ve seen squirrels drinking from it, and even bees. In addition, the sound of the water is soothing to me and it helps muffle the sounds of traffic and other people. If you can’t do a fountain, then a bird bath will do, you just need to change the water on a regular basis. The fountain is the centerpiece of my garden. If I had a larger garden and the ability to do it, I’d love to have a pond with a waterfall.

If there is a particular kind of native creature you’d like to attract, research and plant accordingly. One thing I grow is passion flower. It’s a gorgeous vine, but can be aggressive. It will send up shoots all over the place, but they are easily pulled or mowed over. Passion flower is the host plant for Gulf Fritillary butterflies, and last year I had oodles of them fluttering about my yard. It was really beautiful. I watched the caterpillars go from tiny little things to big and fat ones ready for metamorphosis. My passionflower had loads of them, which turned into loads of bright orange butterflies. Once they emerged, they loved the flowers I had planted, especially the zinnias. I also have planted some milkweed in the hopes of a Monarch or two finding it, and some hollyhocks for Painted Lady butterflies.

Instead of cutting down the dead flower stalks in the winter, leave them up until early spring. The birds will eat the seedheads and the dead stalks provide shelter to insects. If you have toads, turn up some broken pots in the garden for toad houses. At my old house I had a compost heap which naturally warmed up as it composted. Snakes found this prime nesting and laid eggs there. A word about snakes – most snakes are harmless, and are very useful to have in the garden. They will control the rodent and insect population. In Maryland, it is illegal to harm a native snake. I don’t know about other states, but whether it’s illegal or not, there is no need to harm them. Also, baby snakes are really cute!

One final note. If you don’t have a yard, or if you have a small yard, you can still garden for wildlife using containers. A patio garden is a welcome rest spot for passing birds and butterflies, and you would be surprised at how much you can grow vertically. This is just a primer to get started gardening for wildlife. Check out sources on the internet and please reconsider using chemicals. We have destroyed so much habitat that I feel we are morally obligated to try to restore some of it. Besides that, if you’re reading this blog you must like to garden, and it benefits you as much as it does the local wildlife.

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