How to Design a Wildlife Garden

“If You Build It They Will Come”

First of all, why should you bother with a “wildlife garden”? Providing habitat for native critters will not only benefit them, but you as well. The more diversity you have in your garden the more you’ll appreciate it and get out into it. Which as you know from reading my first post of the year, is very good for your mental and physical well-being. Then of course there’s what you learn from co-habiting with lots of different species, and what your children will learn. But for me, it’s the entertainment factor that motivates me to develop the micro-habitats in my small urban yard.

Food Water Shelter.

That’s really all you need to encourage beneficial and entertaining wildlife to consider your home their home. Not talking raccoons or skunks or rats or even squirrels. But birds, bees, butterflies, frogs, toads, even little lizards if you live in the right place.

Bees and butterflies like a little mud. Birds will be happy with some bugs that you didn’t kill. Frogs and toads will be attracted to some fresh water.

It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of work or money, but it does take planning and commitment. Here’s a short article by Doug Green. 

First Things First

In order to have a wildlife-friendly garden, you’ll need to think in terms of balance: everything serves something else. You’ve heard me mention my aquarium before (the only pets in my family); my aquarium is balanced.

My aquarium

My aquarium

I seldom have to do any remedial care except for small water changes: I feed the fish small meals. The fish feed the plants, the plants aerate the water and use up all the nutrients the fish don’t need, and the water quality is nicely balanced.

Basics

In future posts I’ll get more specific, but for now, let’s cover the foundations. To welcome a wide range of native guests, you’ll want to have at least a selection of native plants, varieties of plant heights, minimal added fertilizers, and ZERO pesticides and herbicides, with the exception of organic treatments for food crops. Again, when I get to the different species, I’ll explain in more detail, but at this design stage, I’ll just cover generalities.

Shelter

Plan to have at least a few tall trees, some short trees/tall shrubs, planted quite densely, short shrubs, and a variety of perennials, tall and short. This is called layering, and altho’ in some pictures the layers are often stacked like a grandstand, they don’t have to be, and in my opinion give a lot more interest when they are more “randomly” positioned (ie, designed to be that way). After all, your view of the garden depends on where you are–you’re not always looking at it from the living room window. I was surprised to hear a neighbour comment on how much she loves the look of my garden from her front window.

layering of vegetationThis picture (thanks to NatureScapes BC) shows the tallest at the back (that would indeed be the most logical) and then a variety of tall and short in the mid-background (shaded), finally more varied heights in the foreground. The purpose you can see on the left: different birds and beasts will fly, eat, sleep and nest at different heights.

At the lowest level, i.e. ground level, you’ll want to have an area that is left relatively undisturbed, perhaps some uncut native grasses, a bit of brush cut and left, or a section of lawn that is left to grow taller. It doesn’t have to be a large area, just a few square feet will do, and probably not where your neighbours and passers-by will see and exclaim over the mess. 

Water

Of course, every living thing needs water. You may be afraid of providing a breeding ground for mosquitos if you have standing water, but remember, this is a balanced garden. Some of your invited guests will find mosquito larvae just the thing for breakfast; they’ll never last long enough to actually grow to maturity.

Water provides not only liquid to drink, but a play-space for birds, breeding area for frogs and toads, a place to grow bog-side plants, and of course the delight of sight and sound for you.

Food.

One of the most important elements here is to not KILL the food before it becomes a snack for your critters. Keeping your garden healthy will minimize the number of insects it attracts (unhealthy plants practically scream “come and attack me!”) , but will not eliminate them. The birds on the other hand will be quite grateful for the remainder, as will many beneficial insects. Did you know that parasitic wasps are so small they lay their eggs inside an aphid? So leave a few aphids for the beneficial parasitic wasp. And for the ladybugs, the larval stage of which is a big aphid eater.

Providing a wide variety of tasty morsels will increase the diversity of wildlife that come a-callin’. And again, at least a few of your plants should be native. For those that aren’t native, have some that are as little hybridized as possible. For example, many new cultivars of your favourite flowers are actually sterile–no seeds, no seed eaters. So that beautiful ‘Cherokee Sunset’ Coneflower I bought last fall won’t do anything for the chickadees and juncos. But they’ll love the sunflowers.

It’s early in the year, so you’ve still got lots of time to plan your wildlife garden. Stay tuned for more detailed information about bird, bee, butterfly, beneficials-friendly gardening. in the meantime, ask questions, make comments, and click the follow button.

Until next time…

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3 thoughts on “How to Design a Wildlife Garden

  1. Pingback: Planning Your Wildlife Garden (cont’d.) | Real Life Garden Solutions

  2. Pingback: Design a Wildlife Garden–Instalment Last | Real Life Garden Solutions

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