Creating a Wildlife Garden
What could be more idyllic than spending a perfect spring or summer day relaxing in a well-tended garden? Having a garden is one of the underrated joys of owning a home in the countryside or suburbs.
It’s calming just to think about it: enjoying the sun (or shade), surrounded by beautiful flowers and plants, listening to the wind gently blowing, thinking idle thoughts – or thinking about nothing at all.
But for true nature lovers, there’s something missing from this picture. Where are the sounds of birds chirping, the adorable bunnies or hedgehogs rustling through and foraging in the underbrush, the bees and butterflies buzzing and flitting about?
A garden is wonderful. A wildlife garden, however, is complete. It’s an entire natural habitat right on your own property, just a few steps away and available at any time. And if it’s built and cared-for properly, it will provide a lifetime of unparalleled enjoyment.
If you don’t have a lot of property, or even if you live in the middle of a city and only have an apartment balcony to work with, you’re not out of luck. You can still follow the same general guidelines to make your small garden wildlife-friendly.
We hope you’ll view this site as your in-depth guide to planning, building and tending to your very own wildlife garden. But before you explore the site further, let’s take a look at the key things you need to consider in the planning process.
Type Of Wildlife Garden
Everyone has their own mental picture of the perfect garden. Some want a small space where they can relax as songbirds serenade them, others visualize fields of beautiful flowers with butterflies filling the air, still others would like to watch squirrels, rabbits or other small animals as they read their newspaper – and some would love all of those ingredients. It’s important to first decide the type of garden you want to construct, before thinking about what will go in it or where it should go.
Wildlife Garden Location
Unless you’re buying new property with a wildlife garden specifically in mind, you probably won’t find the perfect location for all of the wildlife you’re hoping to attract. Nevertheless, most people find that with some compromises, they can build a gorgeous garden that’s a wonderful natural habitat. Here are some of the key considerations:
• Exposure: If possible, find a location that gets sunshine for at least half of the day; southern exposure is preferable, but a space that opens to the east or west can work well too.
• Soil: Choose land that has loamy soil, and is well-drained. You can certainly bring in soil if need be, but installing proper drainage is complicated and expensive.
• Placement: It’s probably obvious, but you should avoid areas where kids, gardeners or others might intrude; also try to choose an area where their kick balls or weed whackers won’t disturb the wildlife.
• Existing Features: It is often easier to work with what you have than to start from scratch. You may already have some of the features of a terrific garden on your property, so take them into consideration. For example, a mixture of flowers, trees and plants in an area of your backyard may already be attractive to insects or birds, or a spot with nearby lawn (where birds can search for grubs) or long grass (ideal for egg-laying) could be an important ingredient for your habitat. If you happen to have a small pond or other area of water, that of course would be an ideal spot to include in your planning.
Wildlife Garden Size
This will probably be determined by a combination of how much “usable” space you have available, and the vision you have for your wildlife garden. However, give some thought to how much time you want to spend caring for your garden. A huge habitat might seem like a terrific idea – until you find yourself spending most of your available time watering, feeding and trimming instead of relaxing. Be realistic; sometimes, smaller is better.
Wildlife Plants and Flowers
Whether you’re using an existing area or starting from scratch, you’ll want to give a lot of thought to what you’d like to plant in your garden. There are two basic areas on which you should focus:
• Types: The primary decision to make is whether you want to plant annuals or perennials. (Naturally, you can decide to plant some of each, but the “foundation” of your garden will usually be one or the other.) Perennials, while a great choice because they’ll flourish for years, will initially be more expensive; it’s very difficult to grow them directly from seed, so you’ll probably be buying them from a nursery or garden shop. Annuals can either be grown from seed or purchased as plants, but you can save money by buying seeds and starting them indoors if necessary in your area. Of course, if you’re going to be planting shrubs or trees, you’re not going to be messing around with seeds.
• Varieties: A good way to narrow down your list of “what to plant” is first to decide what sort of birds or butterflies you’d like to attract, then find out what types of flowers or plants will attract them, and finally narrow down the list by checking the varieties which will flourish in your climate. For example, delphinium, catnip and fuschia will attract hummingbirds, while songbirds like black-eyed susans and grape vines, and butterflies are attracted to rhododendron and impatiens. (Some will attract more than just one species; hummingbirds also like impatiens and rhododendron, as one example.) However, not all of those shrubs, plants or flowers will thrive in every climate.
Whether you’re focusing on providing a welcoming habitat for songbirds, hummingbirds, or both, there are certain necessities of life you’ll need to provide for them. Your flowers or plants may attract birds initially, but you must ensure that they’ll want to make your wildlife garden their permanent home – or at least a spot they visit regularly.
• Food: This is one reason why the type of flowers and shrubs you decide to plant can be crucial, since as mentioned earlier, hummingbirds and songbirds feed quite differently. Hummingbirds will be seeking nectar from your flowers (although you can attract them with commercially-produced nectar available at most garden or pet stores, or even make your own at home from sugar and water, placed into attractive feeders). Hummingbirds are important to most gardens because many flowers depend on them for pollination. And a large amount of nectar will be necessary to keep them coming back, because they have a high metabolism and eat as many as 20 times per hour.
Songbirds, on the other hand, eat a seasonally-based diet of nuts and seeds, fruit and insects. They will be more likely to visit in spring if a variety of insects is available, and during the summer and fall if seeds and berries are being produced by your trees, bushes and shrubs. Plants like flowering ivy can fill this role as well. A few types of birds prefer to search for grubs or worms in short grass, which can be another important habitat to provide.
• Shelter and breeding spots: It’s quite possible that birds will just visit your wildlife garden to feed. If you want them to make your paradise their home, you’ll need to provide the correct habitats for nesting and laying eggs. Shade trees or climbing vines (if you have a wall along at least one side of your garden) are ideal spots for most types of birds, although some will gladly nest in a bird house or bird box. There are also varieties which prefer to settle in piles of straw or the trimmings from long-stemmed plants or bamboo.
• Water: A shortage of clean water can send birds searching for a new home quickly – they need it not only for drinking, but also for bathing and preening. If you don’t have a natural water source available for them, it’s always possible to provide water for your avian residents on a daily basis. That’s best done with a shallow birdbath that’s close to the ground and in a shady area (so the water doesn’t get too hot during the summer). Be sure to clean the birdbath regularly with a stiff brush or abrasive pad to remove all the algae which accumulates, and it helps to have a water hose nearby. Water heaters for the winter are also commercially available, if your birds are going to be sticking around throughout the year.
The best solution, although it’s usually not feasible, is to either situate your garden near an existing water source (such as a stream or pond), or to install a water feature such as a large reservoir basin. These will be more expensive than a simple birdbath, particularly since they’ll require a filter and a pump to recirculate the water. Additional options which can drop water into the basin, or occasionally mist the area, make this choice even more costly but will do quite a bit to make the garden a welcoming spot for birds (and also will prevent mosquitoes from reproducing).
“Ick! I don’t want insects in my beautiful garden!” is many people’s first reaction when the subject is introduced. Actually, insects are critical inhabitants of any natural habitat, and your wildlife garden is no exception. In fact, there’s little you can do to prevent them from making their home in your new paradise – and that’s a good thing. Only about three percent of all species of insects are pests, while most are either harmless or important to a garden; after all, flowers depend on insects for pollination. They’re also a major food source for many types of birds, and also keep soil healthy by eating waste material. You just need to learn which types you want to encourage (or introduce), and which you want to banish.
• Harmful insects: The best-known of this group are the aphids, which are quite common in gardens and can cause terrible damage to healthy plants. There are many other garden villains, however, such as mealybugs, mites, thrips, slugs, cutworms, and whiteflies. There are also insects like mosquitoes, which don’t harm plants but are certainly a nuisance to humans. Thankfully, these harmful species don’t have to be eradicated by drastic measures like the use of pesticides. Most are easily controlled by attracting or introducing…
• Beneficial insects: Nature has created a wonderful balance in the insect world. Most of the enemies of your wildlife garden have their own enemies: the species which feed on them. Most people know that ladybugs are welcome visitors to gardens because they feed on aphids as well as mealy bugs, mites and insect eggs. Ground beetles (often found under logs), parasitic wasps (which don’t sting, but live inside small insects or eggs and eat from within) and hover flies are other species which prey on pests. Of course, honey bees are very important for pollinating flowers, and welcome in any garden. And dragonflies, even though they sometimes will eat butterflies or bees, are usually beneficial because they also love to eat mosquitoes and their larvae.
Many people try to introduce some of these beneficial insects (particularly ladybugs) by purchasing them and then releasing them into their garden. Unfortunately, they will often just “dine and dash,” due to their migratory nature. Others, such as praying mantises, are likely to eat beneficial insects as well as pests. The best approach is to provide a welcoming environment for the insects you want to attract. Plants placed closely together will give them the shady, moist area they prefer; fallen leaves left on the ground to mulch will create a habitat for many species; a small water dish (with stones on which they can land) will encourage them to stay; and composting will keep your soil healthy for the insects which thrive there. And needless to say – no pesticides. Even organic ones will be dangerous to plants or flowers and deadly to beneficial insects.
What could be more a prettier sight than colorful butterflies flitting about your outdoor haven? Luckily, they’re fairly easy to attract if you follow some simple steps when planning your wildlife garden.
• Include flowering plants which are native to your area: over centuries, butterflies and flowering plants have developed a co-dependency. Planting a large number of those native plants will likely attract a wide array of local butterfly species.
• Choose the right types of plants: butterflies are attracted to specific colors and shapes of flowers. They prefer bright blossoms like pink, orange, yellow, purple and red, growing either in clusters or with flat tops.
• Plant for all seasons and in the sun: butterflies have a relatively short adult life, and will need nectar throughout it. If your garden blooms throughout the year, there will be a continuous food source for the adults. They also feed only in the sun, so some of your flowers should be planted with that in mind.
• Plan for areas where butterflies can rest and “puddle”: these beautiful creatures rest in the sun in order to keep their wings warm, and in mud or wet sand so they can drink and take in minerals. A few strategically placed stones, and a pan or tub of wet sand, will make them feel at home.
• Don’t forget the caterpillars: before they become adult butterflies, caterpillars need to eat, and they don’t drink nectar. Different species prefer different plants, but milkweed, clover and spices are common choices.
There’s a delicate balance when it comes to the presence of small mammals in a wildlife garden. It can be a delight to see rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, hedgehogs or other animals running around the outskirts of your garden habitat or climbing the trees. However, they’re often dirty, unfriendly, skittish around humans or even diseased. The best way to attract these small animals to your habitat is to provide a comfortable space for them – at a distance from your lounge chair or favorite patch of grass.
• Ground Cover: One of the things which will make small mammals comfortable in your garden is cover from bad weather and the animals which prey on them. An area with a wide variety of trees, bushes and ground cover will give animals a space where they can feel safe and protected. Heights should also vary, since different species prefer different types of “home bases.”
• Food: Your garden may already have available food sources for some small animals, such as berries, fruits or nuts growing on your shrubs or trees. However, laying out nuts and berries in a low-hanging or ground-based feeder can help attract mammals throughout the year. It’s probably a good idea to avoid the urge to feed them from your hand; it could be an invitation for illness, or even dangerous.
• Water: You probably don’t want squirrels crowding around your birdbath; it’s probably close to your relaxation area, and they would likely scare the birds away. A separate birdbath or tray of water (refilled regularly) at a distance from the central portion of your garden will provide the water that the mammals need without inviting them to come too close. If you are looking to attract larger mammals, something like a small wading pool (giving them not only drinking water, but space to bathe) with nearby rocks and vegetation will be a spot they’ll visit regularly.
While on the subjects of mammals, some people want to attract bats to their wildlife garden in order to watch them swoop through the air, catching insects. It’s easier said than done. Most bats prefer to roost in houses than in gardens, leaving their homes just to feed in the woods or other rural areas. However, all is not lost; some species, such as brown long-eared bats, can be attracted to certain types of gardens. There should be plenty of mature trees (bats dislike flying through open areas where they’re vulnerable to predators), as well as a fairly large water source like a pond or river. If this describes at least a portion of your garden, you can try hanging a few bat boxes at varying heights and facing in different ways to see if they’ll decide to roost. The good news is that you don’t have to worry about feeding them; if you’ve set up a welcoming home for insects, there will be plenty of bat food on hand.
Wildlife Garden Ideas
We’ve just touched on just the basics of building a wildlife garden, but there are many more features and habitats you may want to add once you’ve discovered the joys of having your very own idyllic space. Here are just a few.
• Log piles: Believe it or not, a huge number of species like to live in dead wood, while others root through it for food. However, there are few places in developed areas where they can find that type of habitat. Placed in a damp, shady area, your log pile will be attractive to larger mammals like hedgehogs, smaller ones like toads, and plenty of birds and insects. Leave the bark on the logs, use different types of wood, and add some dead leaves to the pile.
• Ponds: Assuming you’re not fortunate enough to have a pond on your property, building one is a large-scale project. But if you have the time, energy and money, it will create a complex and delightful haven for an entirely new range of plants and garden wildlife. It doesn’t have to be large enough to swim in, but the larger the better. Once it’s filled and you’ve added native water plants, you’ll find all manner of frogs, newts, turtles and other amphibians, as well as snakes, toads, and aquatic insects will find their way to your pond. You’ll also be providing a terrific water source for some of the birds and animals who call your garden home.
• Wetlands and bogs: if you don’t have the space for a full-fledged pond, this is a great way to attract amphibians to a marshy habitat that gives your garden a different feel and look. All you need to do is dig a hole about a foot deep, put in a plastic liner (with some holes pierced in it for drainage), put the soil back into the hole along with some compost, and water it until it’s saturated. A selection of attractive native marsh plants and a few rocks and logs, along with regular watering, will give you a beautiful “wetlands” of your own, and a welcome home for frogs and other amphibians.
If you’re like most people, the more you work on your wildlife garden the more you’ll want to add. Just be sure to take at least a little time from your building – to relax and enjoy the wonderful habitat you’ve created.