Rethinking Our Landscapes and Gardens to Include Wildlife
It is pouring down rain this morning as I sit and write. I moved to the Carolinas from an area of Texas that has experienced extreme drought, so the rain is a welcome blessing. It is a reminder of the power of nature to shape our lives. It is a reminder of the complexity of this earth system that we share with all other earthlings…from the very smallest organisms to humans.
The holidays have ended and it is now time to settle into winter. January and February are favorite months of mine, not because of the temperatures, but because the cold winter weather forces us to slow down. Most garden activities halt for a short time giving me the chance to catch up on indoor projects, reading, and planning. This is the perfect time to plan for your garden and any changes you would like to make to your landscape in order to hit the ground running in the spring.
My plans for this year will include a kitchen garden and additions to the hedgerow (more here) and butterfly gardens (more here) I started in the fall…all of which I will share in future posts.
Question mark butterfly Photo: Valerie Bugh
As I plan for spring planting, I will include as many native plants as I can possibly squeeze in. I am a long time advocate of using native plants for many reasons–less water, maintenance, fertilizer (more here)–but also because I believe that as stewards of this earth we have the responsibility to replace habitat that we destroyed. It isn’t just because I am an outdoor freak and want to invite wildlife into my garden, it is because this great big earth that provides for us is a very complex system that needs our cooperation. I can’t solve all of Earth’s woes, but I can do my part by changing the way I see the role of our landscapes and gardens and encouraging you to do the same.
A New Role for Urban and Suburban Gardens and Landscapes
Consider the lands that Lewis and Clark encountered on their expeditions across North America. These lands, untouched by the heavy hand of modern development, were rich in resources, plant communities, and wildlife. Contrast this to the North America of today and you will see that development of our urban areas and mass farming have not done the natural systems that provide for us any great service. In fact, this development has broken up the habitat of our North American species and left pockets, or islands, that cannot possibly sustain wildlife that is vital to us all.
We live in a time in which we are removed from the workings of the natural systems that sustain life on this planet. Food comes from grocery stores, water comes out of the tap, and garbage is placed on the curb and miraculously disappears. What we are forgetting is that all of the resources we use are provided by the complex systems of this earth in which all life plays a role.
A quick definition of wildlife may be needed at this time. Most of us think of birds, bears, deer, squirrels, and so on as wildlife. That is entirely correct; however, it is so much larger than that. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines wildlife as “living things and especially mammals, birds, and fishes that are neither human nor domesticated.” I would argue that it is even larger than this…it includes insects, bacteria, viruses, mold, fungi, plants, and on and on. Simply put, wildlife can be thought of as all life outside of humans. And all life is vital for our lives whether you understand or not how or where a species fits into this intricate web.
What does all of this have to do with our landscapes and gardens? Our modern landscapes are broken up into small patches of land surrounded by concrete and are full of plants that did not evolve here and therefore, support very little wildlife. We must rely on chemical fertilizers to maintain the large, unproductive lawns of non-native grass that dominate our “gardens” and requires the use of gasoline-powered lawn mowers and copious amounts of water and our time. All of which is slowly but surely choking the life out of the earth…and us.
As we think for our gardens and landscapes this winter, we can plan to make some changes that will actually make a difference. As homeowners and gardeners, we have the power to contribute and even reverse the damage that development has done. Our landscapes and gardens can once again become healthy ecosystems teeming with a wide variety of wildlife. Collectively, across neighborhoods and cities, we can actually make a real difference.
Gradually. There is no need to rip out all of your lawn or non-native plants. It is not necessary to go to any extremes. By taking a few steps in the right direction, we can all start to play a positive role. Compound those few steps every year and we will see real change happen.
- Establish some goals. It is no secret that I love butterflies and birds. My goals include creating a garden that attracts and provides for butterflies and birds. This means I will continue to reduce the lawn space of my home and increase garden space that will include both nectar and larval plants for butterflies and plants that will attract the insects that birds love to eat.
Start by choosing a species that you would like to attract. Maybe you love the sound of frogs. Consider a water feature that would attract frogs to your garden. Or perhaps you would like to add some perennials that attract hummingbirds.
- Educate yourself and be aware. What practices do you have in place that are not beneficial or do harm? Be aware of practices such as your use of chemicals as fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. All of these do extreme harm to you and all other life. I owned and operated a nature center and butterfly farm for several years. I did not use any chemicals, and guess what? I had beautiful gardens teeming with wildlife.
Start a compost pile to build your own source for great fertilizer. Use leaves for mulch and collect some rainwater to use in your beds and containers. Healthy practices are tremendously satisfying.
- Be conscience of what you plant. While I will always advocate that a native plant takes precedence, I am not a purist. I am a plant nerd through and through. I will have a few non-native species around for the pure pleasure of growing them. However, the ones I select will have proven themselves to be non-invasive and adaptive to the growing conditions. Any plant that I would like to have that is not well-suited for the growing conditions will go in containers on the patio. What I will not advocate are plants that are non-native and invasive.
Start by adding some native plants to your garden. Then as the non-natives die or need replacing use native species only.
- Get outdoors and learn to be more observant. Oh the glories of being outdoors! Just by being outside more and observing a little closer, you will develop a sense of reverence for the life in your garden. (and consequently elsewhere) I find that snapping some pictures outdoors helps me to be more observant. Share your observations with others and most importantly…teach your children!
- Seek advice and help. There mountains of helpful books available to get you started. (more here) Seek out lectures and organizations in your community that will further your quest for information. Hire a designer or garden coach who is knowledgeable of native plants and wildlife gardening to give you advice and help you plan your garden or changes to your landscape.
The rewards for your efforts are many. From playing a vital role in the restoration of our environment to decreasing your own stress, creating a garden for wildlife–all fellow earthlings–is a call to action for all of us.
Need more help or advice? Add your comment below or send me an email!