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…

Fall Clean-Up–What NOT to Do

Fall Clean up–What not to do.

It’s pretty late to be talking about fall clean up, but today it’s still sunny, and pretty cold for coastal BC (-1 right now), and it’s Sunday. So there might be a feeling that it’s now or never to clean up the garden.

Make it “never”–or at least make it “minimal” until late winter (andI’ll get to that in late winter).

When you look outside, you see fallen leaves, dead flower stalks, faded (or rotting) flowers,  and all manner of “unattractiveness”. You want to clear it all away. Have a fresh canvas for spring growth. You want it tidy. Neat.

Octavia Hall Rose looking the worse for wear

Octavia Hall Rose looking the worse for wear

But nature is never tidy, never neat, so I’m going to try to relieve you of the need to make it “nice”.

Dead flower stalks.

There are a few reasons to leave them where they are:

1. If they have seed heads on them, they are food for our local over-wintering birds. Chickadees, juncos, sparrows, towhees, bushtits, house finches… The more you can provide them the better they’ll survive the season. Coneflowers (Echinacea), Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia), Shasta Daisies (Leucothemum), even sunflowers (Helianthus)–leave them all.

Rudbeckia seed head

Rudbeckia seed head

Crocosmia seeds. Beautiful to look at, but I wonder what bird has a big enough beak to crush these. They're probably 3-4 mm diameter.

Crocosmia seeds. Beautiful to look at, but I wonder what bird has a big enough beak to crush these. They’re probably ~3 mm diameter.

2. They are a reminder of what you have planted so that in spring, when you HAVE to get back out again, and nothing is sprouting yet, you’ll know NOT to dig in that bare spot that Oh, has a flower stalk in the middle of it. You may think you’ll remember where your beloved plants are, but trust me, you won’t!

Daylily (Hemerocallis) flower stalk reminding me when it's all bare and inviting that something is really there.

Daylily (Hemerocallis) flower stalk reminding me when it’s all bare and inviting that something is really there.

3. Hollow stemmed flower stalks provide a nesting place for cavity-nesting native bees like Mason bees. That’s a very good thing in our bee-challenged but bee-dependent environment.

Leaves:

Mostly let them lie where they fall.

Leaves will not only compost-in-place, they also provide habitat for a lot of beneficial critters in the meantime.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis) leaves will stay there until they compost. Besides, they're a vivid rich brown, quite pretty close-up.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis) leaves will stay there until they compost. Besides, they’re a vivid rich brown, quite pretty close-up.

There are a few exceptions to this however. If the leaves had any disease–powdery mildew, black spot, rust, etc– get rid of them. I’ll be cleaning up all the rose leaves today because they are full of black spot. The disease will overwinter because it’s not cold enough here to kill it. And will still be there next year to re-infect. Now having said that, these disease-causing organisms are all around anyway, and if a plant is susceptible, will be affected to some degree, given the right conditions. So is there really any benefit in clearing away the disease-bearing leaves now? Maybe I’ll do a barely-controlled experiment in my “research lab”–aka garden…

Rose leaves kind of indistinguishable  from surrounding wood chip mulch. maybe I'll leave then there after all...

Rose leaves kind of indistinguishable from surrounding wood chip mulch. Maybe I’ll leave then there after all…

Another exception is large leaves. Especially the larger maple leaves. They can create an almost impenetrable mat over the ground potentially causing damage to turf grass, and hindering water movement. But an easy solution is to rake them onto the lawn, and mow over them with your mulching mower. The small leaf bits will provide nutrition to the lawn just like the grass clippings have done (and I know you leave your grass clippings on the grass).

Habitat:

All that decaying matter is habitat for beneficial insects, birds, bees, all the things you want to encourage in your garden. It’s true, you are also providing habitat for some things you’d rather not support–like slugs– but the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. And if the odd toad or frog turns up, it’ll deal with your slugs anyway. Win-Win.

If you  feel the need to tidy things up despite all this, maybe just neaten the edges a bit. Take off those rotting rose blooms, the daylily and hosta leaves that are turning to mush, and of course weeds–getting them now will save some work in March. But keep it simple, and remember, there’s always Spring cleaning soon enough.