One of the most rewarding aspects of gardening for me is the interaction that it provides with wildlife. I am a habitat gardener and I call my style of gardening "Gardening with Nature." By that I mean that I try to make my yard an extension of Nature itself. This kind of gardening is almost guaranteed to bring in the wildlife in droves.
Of course, my primary interest is birds and many of the plantings that I do and the practices that I employ in the garden are for their benefit. For example, I don't use pesticides. Pesticides kill insects indiscriminately - the good guys like ladybugs as well as the bad guys like leaf-footed stink bugs. But they also kill the creatures that eat those bugs, maybe not immediately, but in the long run. These creatures range from lizards, frogs, snakes, to, yes, birds. The pesticides build up over time in the tissues of the animals and can cause them to be unable to procreate successfully or can kill them outright.
In addition, my yard tends to be a bit on the messy side. Now that may partly be because I am a lazy gardener, but also the birds and other animals actually like it that way. The birds, for example, like piles of brush where they can hide from predators or rest during the day. They like overgrown shrubs and hedges for the same reason.
For example, I have a wild area along the back fence of my yard. It is composed of shrubs and vines that have been planted by the birds over the years - things like elderberry, beautyberry, trumpet vine, wild grapes, and Virginia creeper, all plants that are utilized by birds and other native wildlife. I realize that not everyone has the freedom to tolerate such an untidy hedge, but anyone can plant native plants in a well-maintained bed. Plants that are native to our area are well-adapted to survive here and are known and used by the native pollinators and seed dispersers that have evolved in the area alongside them. In addition to working well for the wildlife, native plants also work well for the gardener because they have better survivability, thus provide less disappointment, and they generally require less babying than other plants. Also, they have a beauty of their own and they can easily be worked into a landscape along with other favorite plants.
Native plants provide food for birds and other wildlife but, of course, there are other things that you can do to provide food. Feeding wildlife is one of the prime goals of the habitat garden.
In addition to planting plants that provide seeds, nuts, berries, pollen, nectar and foliage to feed wildlife, you can provide supplemental food through the use of bird feeders, including hummingbird or oriole nectar feeders, and other food sources.
Another basic need of wildlife is water. To have a complete habitat garden, you must supply clean water sources. If you are lucky enough to have a natural water feature in your yard or on your acreage, well, then you are lucky indeed. Most of us are not that lucky and have to plan for other ways to provide water. These can include birdbaths, installed ponds and rain gardens, as well as puddling areas for butterflies.
Many people do not realize that a lot of butterflies, in addition to sipping nectar, also need to sip water and extract minerals from damp puddles. You can provide this very easily by putting coarse sand in a shallow pan or bowl and inserting the vessel into the soil of your habitat. Make sure that the sand is kept moist at all times.
The importance of providing a place of cover for birds, particularly, but other wildlife as well, cannot be overemphasized. Birds are prey to many animals, both native and introduced, in the landscape and they need hidey-holes where they can quickly escape. In my yard, for example, I have a Cooper's Hawk that is always on the prowl and yet I still provide bird feeders and baths where birds gather which might make them easy prey for the hawk. But all of those feeding and watering stations are near shrubs, trees, or vines to which the birds can quickly escape, and although I regularly see the hawk chasing birds in my yard, I've yet to actually witness him catching one, even though I know he sometimes does.
One caveat about the placement of feeders or baths: If cats are a problem in your yard, make sure that you do not place your feeder or birdbath near a place where it would be easy for a cat to conceal itself and pounce on an unwary bird.
Another way you can welcome wildlife to your yard is to provide a sheltered place for them to raise their young. Many of our native birds, including the bluebirds that are among the most desirable backyard birds, nest in holes in Nature and they will accept boxes that humans provide as a substitute for those holes. But other birds, of course, utilize the shrubs and trees that we plant to build their nests, and butterflies and other useful insects will use wildflower meadows and specific host plants that we can provide for the butterflies' caterpillars - such as butterfly weed for Monarch butterflies or passionvine for Gulf Fritillaries. Remember: If you want butterflies and moths, you have to have caterpillars, so think before you squish.
To summarize then, here are the basic rules for habitat gardening:
1. Go green. Do not use pesticides of any kind and reduce other chemical use to a bare minimum. Organic is the best way for your health as well as for the wildlife.
2. Provide cover for wildlife. Everybody needs a place of safety where they can hide from predators, people and the weather. Providing such places will win you kudos from wildlife.
3. Provide food for wildlife. The best way to do this is through planting plants that they will utilize and the best of those are native plants. An excellent source of information about such plants is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center. If you choose to do supplemental feeding as well, make sure that you provide high quality food in a safe place for the birds or other wildlife.
4. Supply water for wildlife. Every living thing needs some water and a clean source of water is never more important than during our long, hot, dry summers.
5. Provide safe places for wildlife to raise their young. A good portion of a bird's or any kind of wildlife's time is spent finding and preparing a place for the next generation of its kind. Any help you can provide will draw them to your yard.
Happy habitat gardening! And remember, the size of the habitat garden is not the important thing. Even a patio garden can provide all the essentials to make wildlife happy.
For more information about habitat gardening and native plants, visit these sites:
National Wildlife Federation - Garden for Wildlife
Slate - Habitat for Harmony