It’s finally spring, the time of year when the outdoor enthusiast in all of us is just bursting with energy to go, when those heavy winter clothes can at last be shed, and when nature’s call ceases neither night nor day. For many of us, our own gardens are our nearest and dearest sources of contact with the outdoor world. Gardens provide a place to putter and mull, and an accessible and inexpensive source of therapeutic relaxation. We tend to this plant or that bed, trying to pretty things up according to our own aesthetic sense, letting our minds wander to the soil and the leaves, giving ourselves some mental freedom, even for just a precious little while.
But we need not be the only ones to benefit from our little patches of land. In fact, gardening can, on a small scale, be a process of re-creating bits of habitat for wildlife, helping to offset the many losses resulting from unsustainable development practices. It is true that small, isolated patches of nature here and there cannot replace the large-scale habitats that wildlife need for long-term survival. However, lending our yards to wildlife contributes to the development of corridors, allowing these animals to move between intact habitats, and reclaims areas that may have been unusable for wildlife for many years.
Be aware that not all gardens are alike in the eyes of our wild neighbours, and some work may need to be done to make your local landscape more inviting and useable for wildlife. So what makes a good wildlife garden? There are several elements to keep in mind when landscaping for wildlife. The three key needs of wild animals are food, shelter, and water. Planning a successful wildlife garden means ensuring that each of these different aspects is addressed.
Providing food for wildlife means choosing species for the garden not only based on their aesthetic or aromatic appeal. Plants that are native to your particular bioregion are far and away the best choice for wildlife. Local wildlife have adapted in tandem with these plants over millennia, so nothing is better suited to fulfilling their particular dietary needs. The types of food that these plants provide for wildlife vary. Nectar from a flowering shrub, berries from a vine, or nuts from a tree are all great sources of food for various species of wildlife throughout the growing season, and cones and buds provide important winter sustenance for hungry visitors. A good rule of thumb when establishing a wildlife garden is to choose plants such that food is available for wild animals somewhere in your garden throughout the year.
Providing shelter for wildlife adds a new dimension to the garden plan. Rather than considering your garden’s layout only from the plan view, structure in the wildlife garden must be thought of from the ground up. Wildlife live in three dimensions. Vertical structure is important in determining the diversity of wildlife that can make use of your newly emerging habitat. Therefore, design your garden with several vertical layers: a herbaceous layer (wildflowers and grasses), a shrub layer, and a canopy layer (trees), if possible. While not all gardens can accommodate such possibilities, the more closely you can emulate the structural diversity found in natural ecosystems, the more useful your garden will be to wildlife.
Ensuring that wildlife can find shelter in your garden also requires that you try to think in terms of texture and form. Evergreens provide shelter for those birds that stick around throughout the winter months. Shrubs and vines provide useful hiding spots for wildlife during the growing season. Tall grasses in the wildflower patch ensure that ground-dwelling wildlife, such as reptiles and amphibians, can carry-on in their own secretive way. If you’re handy with a saw and hammer, you can add further function to your garden by providing nesting boxes and platforms.
For wildlife, as for all of us, water is the source of life. Too often, particularly in urbanized areas, wild animals are relegated to drinking and bathing in dirty (and often contaminated) water bodies, such as puddles. Providing a clean water source in your garden is a sure way to attract wildlife, and an important part of creating a well-rounded mini-habitat. A pond, waterfall, artificial stream or other large-scale water feature planted with native species will allow for the greatest number and diversity of wild animals to benefit.
However, even a birdbath (at least three feet above ground level, and well away from shrubbery or other structures in which marauding cats could hide) is a welcome addition to the wildlife garden. It is essential, however, that this water source be changed frequently, and that the dish be cleaned on a regular basis to avoid disease spread.
Gardening for wildlife may seem a little daunting at first, especially for those who may not think of themselves as having the greenest of thumbs. But for those of us who love the outdoors, who have a soft spot in our hearts for wildlife, and who have a sense of responsibility to give back to nature, gardening for wildlife is the ideal opportunity to make a real difference — and right in our own backyards!
A few useful sources of information to get you started:
North American Native Plant Society web site
Evergreen web site
Society for Ecological Restoration Ontario chapter web site
Wild Ones web site
Johnson, L. (1998). Grow wild! Low-maintenance, sure-success, distinctive gardening with native plants. Fulcrum Publishing.
Johnson, L. (1999). 100 Easy-to-grow native plants: For American gardens in temperate zones. Firefly Books Ltd.
Johnson, L. (2002). Tending the earth: A gardener’s manifesto. Penguin Books Canada.
Stein, S. (1995). Noah’s garden: Restoring the ecology of our own backyards. Houghton Mifflin.
Stein, S. (1997). Planting Noah’s garden: Further adventures in backyard ecology. Houghton Mifflin.