Wildlife in the garden

by Caroline Brown

For too many people, wildlife in the garden conjures up images of aphids, snails, crows, deer, or other so-called destructive pests. But these and many other pests are part of the native and natural food chain–they must simply be balanced with beneficial native species. (Although there are still certain invasive pests that you never want in your garden.)

For example, if you have ladybugs, it’s probably OK if you have aphids–the ladybugs will take care of them and there’s no need for you to spray your garden with loads of pesticide. Similarly, frogs and birds will keep many of your insect problems in check.

Plus, by making your little patch of the Earth a wildlife haven, you’ll be giving a hand to local wildlife such as birds, butterflies, and toads, which are being squeezed out of their natural habitats by increasing suburban sprawl. A side benefit if you have kids–you’ll be giving them a valuable first-hand education in nature and ecology.

I think wildlife gardening has two levels. What I would call the basic level is pretty simple–you make your backyard hospitable to wildlife by providing them with places to eat, drink, and raise their young. Create a steady supply of food and water by installing bird feeders and bird baths. Create shelters where wildlife can hide from predators, take refuge in bad weather, and raise their young. Examples include hanging bird houses and strategically placing brush piles, logs, and rocks.

A more advanced level of wildlife gardening involves more time and effort (of course), but it’s well worth the rewards. The concept is the same–you need to provide food, water, and shelter–but the implementation involves developing a planting strategy.

A lot of people won’t want to hear it, but getting rid of your lawn is one of the best ways to attract wildlife–or at least reduce its size. Replace it with native species that provide berries and fruit that appeal to wildlife. Plant shrubs, trees, and groundcovers that can be used as hiding places. Certain flowers attract birds and butterflies–ask a reputable nursery to help you choose species that will be too tasty for native wildlife in your area to pass by.

Take it one step further by planting species such as tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), Maximilian sunflower (Helianthis maximilianii), fennel (Foeniculm vulgare), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and many, many others that attract beneficial insects such as ladybugs, hoverflies, parasitic wasps, and lacewings. This sort of wildlife is highly undervalued–not much to look at unless you’re a bug lover, and frankly their habits can be somewhat gruesome–but beneficial insects will allow you to keep many voracious and disease-causing pests under control without the use of pesticides.

Building a pond or water garden is more complicated than installing a birdbath, but they’re beautiful to look at and useful for a variety of plants, birds, insects, amphibians, and fish. The Natural Resources Conservation Center (NRCS) has some excellent advice on how to build a pond or water garden.

The BBC has a great article with specific tips on how to attract wildlife. And the National Wildlife Federation’s Backyard Wildlife Habitat program“certifies” homeowners who follow certain steps to make their backyard attractive to wildlife.

What I’ve described isn’t your typical suburban lawn with large expanses of grass and perennial borders. But what you’ll get in return is a garden paradise that supports native plants, trees, and flowers and a variety of beneficial birds, butterflies, and insects.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.


11 Comments to “Wildlife in the garden”

  1. Great article! It’s intersting…when I read the words “wildlife in the garden,” the first things I thought of were ladybugs, butterflies, and birds….happily, we see a lot of those in my yard in Oregon, especially butterflies. Here in CA, we see lots of birds. I’d much rather have the wildlife visit than have just a typical yard with no activity.

    And, actually, we had a deer in the back yard in OR once…it hopped over the five-foot fence, and surprised the heck out of me! It was pretty cool actually, but all I could think of was: how will it get out without hurting itself?! Happy to say it did, and all was well. 🙂

  2. Speaking of manicured gardens….here is a Zen story I think you will like…feel free to delete it, though, if it’s too lengthy for the comment section.

    Something Missing

    A priest was in charge of the garden within a famous Zen temple. He had been given the job because he loved the flowers, shrubs, and trees. Next to the temple there was another, smaller temple where there lived a very old Zen master. One day, when the priest was expecting some special guests, he took extra care in tending to the garden. He pulled the weeds, trimmed the shrubs, combed the moss, and spent a long time meticulously raking up and carefully arranging all the dry autumn leaves. As he worked, the old master watched him with interest from across the wall that separated the temples.

    When he had finished, the priest stood back to admire his work. “Isn’t it beautiful,” he called out to the old master. “Yes,” replied the old man, “but there is something missing. Help me over this wall and I’ll put it right for you.”

    After hesitating, the priest lifted the old fellow over and set him down. Slowly, the master walked to the tree near the center of the garden, grabbed it by the trunk, and shook it. Leaves showered down all over the garden. “There,” said the old man, “you can put me back now.”

  3. I am all in support of anything which advocates getting rid of the lawn…

    But apart from that sentiment, I love that you’re writing about this topic. So many people tell me of their distaste for deer and other wildlife… all I can think to respond with is, “Hey! They were here first!”

    In fact, who cares who was here first – they’re here NOW. It seems only natural that in cultivating a garden space, we become stewards of those who use that space too.

  4. PS – Michelle, THANK YOU for sharing that story – I absolutely LOVE it!!! 😀

  5. Hi JLB…I agree, if there wasn’t sprawl, there wouldn’t be a deer “problem.” WE are the problem, don’t get me started.

    Hi Michelle, I decided to keep the fallen leaves on the flower beds and lawn this year….only raked the walks. I LOVE that story—I’m not deletin’ it!

  6. I’m Delighted that you both liked the story! Whenever I read that story, I see an impish grin on the old priest’s face, and hear a raspy laugh that sounds like dry autumn leaves rubbing together. hee hee hee 🙂

    I’m sure he would invite a few deer and rabbits into the garden if they were around….much to the consternation of the meticulous priest, I daresay!!

  7. I totally agree with this post, but.

    What I’d like to hear about is personal experiences in creating wildlife gardens, if you have such. Not so much “what to do” but “here’s what happened when I did it.”

    There just aren’t many blogs out there documenting what it’s like when you get into it, especially not in the north (I can think of a couple in the south, but I lost bookmarks when my old computer died). Is it a really new trend, or are those gardeners not blogging, or what?

    I started my blog as an attempt to create what I couldn’t find (that old, old story!) but of course since I just planted everything there isn’t much to tell yet. (And besides that, I already know what I’ve gone through 😉

    Anybody know of actual wildlife or habitat garden blogs? I’d really appreciate some hands-in-the-dirt links.

  8. I’d like to hear more about balancing the deer population with beneficial plant species. How will that help? More food, more deer. The over population of deer in the Northeast is a serious problem. To say that they were here first is simply not a solution and also not true. In the past twenty years deer populations have increased dramatically resulting in destruction of both native and non native plants in the landscape not to mention the cost to motorists on the highway. Their only predator now is man and not enough people like the taste of venison which is a really lean meat. What are some of the suggestions of what to do to address this problem? I would really like to hear what you all propose. I do hope that this will generate a positive discussion of this problem.

  9. Hi Firefly. I’m in the same boat as you are. It will be a few years before I see the fruits of my labors. Also, I haven’t the money to install ponds, or even to plant everything I want all at once. It’s very much an ongoing process! I will say that I have lots of bird species where only had house wrens before. And I can tell that the work we’ve done so far has improved the soil…I see lots of worm castings. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for a blog from a wildlife gardener.

    Hi Ginger….It’s kind of a “which came first the chicken or the egg” thing. But the main thing is that suburban sprawl means that humans are encroaching onto habitat that deer used to have to themselves. Deer like what’s called “edge habitats,” where the woods meets fields. (Translation: your back yard, esp if you live in a new subdivision.) The “edge” is better than mature forests, because the food is easier to reach. It’s better than fields, because there is no “cover” to hide in. Suburban sprawl creates more and more edge habitat and it’s perfect for deer. (Incidentally suburban sprawl means that people have to drive farther and farther to get to work…and the morning and evening rush hours are peak activity time for deer. It’s the ecological equivalent of a “perfect storm.”)

    As for what to do about them, that’s a different story. It’s easiest for people who have the ability to develop a planting strategy. Thorny shrubs are the best answer if you can keep the deer at bay long enough to get the shrubs established while keeping your yard from being demolished. They don’t seem to like spruce, barberry , Russian olive, paper birch. If I had the money and ability to build a perimeter of thorny shrubs and other things deer don’t like, I would do it.

    It sounds like you have a big deer problem! I don’t know if this helps.

  10. Caroline:

    All good suggestions for the urban areas in the state with ‘sprawl’. However, the deer population in the northwestern, rural corner of the state has increased dramatically and urban sprawl is not a factor with five acre zoning. One could argue that the surrounding areas have changed and pushed the deer but there really are just more deer. You’re right that they just don’t seem to eat spruce and they do not eat boxwood but Russian olive and barberry are very invasive plants and should be considered with caution. Paper birch sounds like a good idea. I know that if I had the $$$ I would fence the property with a ten foot fence. I am using liquid fence which does work but needs reapplication on a monthly basis. I also like to watch the deer but not when they are munching the rhododendrons which are limbed up to six feet now! The stems are nice to look at though! Thanks for the reply!

  11. I also influence the population of certain animals and bugs around my property by using repellents. For example, I use Havahart’s Deer Off to keep deer and rabbits from destroying my property. It’s really effective and better than putting up fences.

    Here’s the repellent I’m talking about:

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