No garden is natural or wild, as least not altogether natural or altogether wild. Otherwise, the garden wouldn’t be a garden. It would be woods or a meadow or a weedy lot.
This is not to say that there’s not a place for “wild” in our gardens. Some of the best gardens I know take their cues from Mother Nature as far as soil stewardship and cultivation and selection of the plants therein. And any cultivated bit of ground could be planted and cared for in such a way as to encourage wildlife, which includes plants, animals and other creatures seen and unseen.
The National Wildlife Federation is honoring any and all backyard Edens through its Certified Wildlife Habitat designation program (nwf.org/habitat). So let’s welcome some wildness into our gardens. If, as Thoreau wrote, “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” we had all better start attending to that wildness. Saving the Amazon from destruction is important, but equally important is that our own back yards and gardens serve as havens and habitat for birds, bees and other creatures.
Put together, our back yards and gardens can have a significant impact on the preservation of the world. Recent research has shown that wildlife needs more than pockets of protected areas in which to thrive. It needs connected habitats, sometimes called green corridors, such as from one neighboring backyard and garden to the next. This allows an exchange of individuals between populations, which helps maintain genetic diversity.
Plus, what’s more enjoyable: A back yard lively with flitting birds and buzzing bees? Or one quietly sterile, with little going on except what’s been deliberately planted, and even that perhaps uninviting to touch or smell because it’s been doused with pesticides?
The National Wildlife Federation website offers guidance in creating wildlife friendly habitat in your garden. The basic needs of all creatures (including you and me) are pretty much the same: food, water, shelter, and a place to raise our young. Providing for wildlife need not entail a landscape makeover. Your back yard probably already offers at least some of what these wild things need.
Take food, for instance. If you grow crabapples, high-bush cranberries, winterberries — all fine ornamentals — then you’re also growing wildlife food. Perhaps black cherry, black tupelo, or eastern red-cedar trees grow wild in some far corners of your yard. More wildlife food.
But let’s not encourage only the most obvious wildlife, birds. Butterfly weed, whose screaming orange flowers liven the August flower garden, and milkweed encourage — duh! — butterflies. Nectar- and pollen-producing flowers will tide syrphid flies and bees over between times when syrphid flies are gobbling up insect pests in the garden and bees are pollinating squash, apple and other blossoms so those blossoms can go on to become fruits. Good nectar- and pollen-producing flowers include dill, fennel, daisies of all stripes, goldenrod (actually, in the daisy family), alyssum, anise hyssop, apple, juneberry, chives, holly, roses, and…the list goes on to include many fine ornamentals and edibles. (Pollen of plants that attract insect pollinators is heavy and not windborne, so is not generally a trigger for allergies.)
Man — and wild things — cannot live by bread alone. Everyone also needs water. Water in your wildlife habitat-cum-garden might already be present in the form of a nearby stream, pond, or lake. A birdbath is another possibility, one that can be ornamental in its own right.
Even a tiny yard can accommodate a water garden, which might be something as simple as a water barrel with a recirculating pump, a few fish, and plants such as water lily, lotus, and iris. On a larger scale, create a small pond, perhaps with the euphonious accompaniment of a waterfall.
Next comes cover. Those high-bush cranberry bushes and winterberry bushes that provide you with sprays of white flowers in spring (in the case of the cranberry bush) and birds with red berries from autumn into winter also offer tangles of branches in which birds, rabbits and other creatures can seek respite from their flitting and scampering about. Rock walls, even piles of rocks, and standing or fallen dead trees likewise offer sheltered nooks and crannies in which various wildlife can take a breather.
Much of what supplies cover might also provide suitable homes in which wildlife can raise their young. Supplement these natural habitats with those of your own (or bought) construction, such as nesting boxes or hollowed-out gourds, both of which might also decorate your garden or landscape.
Which reminds me to go out and clean out my bluebird boxes in anticipation of this year’s fledglings. Freshen nesting boxes and gourds by cleaning them out annually.
Oddly, pesticides are not mentioned in the creation of your Certified Wildlife Habitat. Perhaps it goes without saying that anything less than very careful use of pesticides, if that, can wreak havoc with wildlife. Note that the general term pesticide includes insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, and anything else that kills a pest, whether it’s an insect, fungus, bacterium, or weed. There may be times when a pesticide is may be needed, but for the health of the environment and yourself assess whether that’s really the case. If it is, choose one that targets the specific pest problem and causes least damage to non-target organisms, and then use it exactly as specified on the label (for best effectiveness and because to do otherwise is illegal!).
The National Wildlife Federation website leads you step by step in assessing how well you’re already fostering wildlife in your yard, and things you can do to bring your wildlife habitat more up to snuff. Recommendations and suggestions get very specific, taking into account factors such as region of the country and whether you live on a farm, suburban lot, or in an apartment. After going through the short questionnaire that feeds you back suggestions, you pay a modest fee of $20.
Once certified you get, besides an official certificate, a free, one-year subscription to National Wildlife magazine and quarterly mailings of habitat tips. You also receive thanks from the birds and the bees and myriad other wild creatures seen and unseen.
Local writer and gardener Lee Reich, Ph.D. (www.leereich.blogspot.com) is the author, most recently, of Grow Fruit Naturally, The Pruning Book, and Weedless Gardening, all of which are available in the bookstore, on the web, and, signed, from his website.