When it comes to gardening for nature, big changes come in small packages and work best through baby steps.
That’s the message emphasized by ecologist Michelle Bertelsen, naturalist David Mizejewski and entomologist/conservationist Doug Tallamy when they share their passion for nature-friendly gardening—especially when talking to folks new to the concept.
“Developing a wildlife-friendly landscape only becomes scary and undoable if you think you have to do it all by tomorrow,” Doug says.
He suggests approaching it with an eye toward one or two of the four components of a healthy ecosystem: supporting pollinators, supporting the food web, sequestering carbon and managing the watershed.
“Look at your property and ask yourself, ‘Which one of these can I do better?’”Doug says. “Think of it as an ecological hobby: I’m going to improve the ecological integrity of my property a little bit each year.”
The experts encourage starting in a small, specific area of the yard or garden rather than an entire makeover. This saves time and money, and allows gardeners to learn as they go.
They also agree the basis of any nature-minded landscape is use of native plants suited to local environments. Because these plants evolved with local wildlife species, they provide almost everything local wildlife needs to thrive.
“There’s no garden in the world that is ‘no maintenance,’” Michelle says, “but you shouldn’t have to water and fertilize native plants as much as you do nonnative species.”
Plant natives densely and diversly, filling space with compatible but different plant species.
“The more plants you have, and the bigger the grouping of them, the more likely you’re going to support wildlife,” David says.
Reducing the amount of land dedicated to a lawn can open more space for wildlife-friendly native plants and lower lawn care maintenance. However, lawns are happy places for many homeowners, so there is no need to eliminate them entirely. Instead, replace under-utilized areas with native plants.
It is important to assess a site’s growing conditions, including its soil profile, moisture levels (whether naturally wet, dry or somewhere in between) and lighting conditions (shady or sunny).
“The key to all native gardening is matching the plant to the conditions rather than matching the conditions to the plant,” Michelle says. “It’s the same as it would be for any kind of gardening.”
Armed with an understanding of local conditions, homeowners can explore the choices of native plant species suited for their sites, and select ones that appeal to both their goals and styles.
“If you choose the right plants, your yard can look just like your neighbor’s, only yours will be supporting nature and wildlife whereas your neighbor’s yard might not,” David says. “That’s something to aspire to.”
By Invitation Only
As wonderful as it is to have a yard filled with flitting birds and floating butterflies, uninvited wildlife species can crash the party. What’s a homeowner to do with unexpected guests?
In his role with the National Wildlife Federation, David Mizejewski promotes the creation of wildlife-rich landscapes, but understands there are limits.
“You don’t have to invite the entire wild kingdom into your yard,” he says.
It helps to understand what brings critters to our doors. Often, they are drawn by a bowl of cat food left on the doorstep or an open compost bin. They also may be homeless because of habitat loss, and in search of food and shelter.
While wildlife can pose a threat to humans, pets and property, he says it is usually more nuisance than danger.
“Most of the time in home landscapes, the only time you have real problems is when you have created such an unnatural scenario that things get out of balance and there aren’t natural checks and balances,” David says.
Creating a garden featuring an array of plants that supports a diversity of species helps restore balance, because many native plants are resistant to or repugnant to wildlife feeding.
David says wildlife-friendly gardening requires thinking before acting.
“Conventional gardening would say if you see an insect eating your plant you should run out and get some insecticide and spray it,” he says. “But if you recognize that the insect is a native caterpillar or a moth that is a really important pollinator, and that caterpillar is a food source for birds that are trying to feed their babies, and the native plant it’s eating is adapted to be eaten by that caterpillar so it will not be damaged, then why would you want to kill it?”
Compromise can help, such as designing gardens using natural, flowing lines so damage from wildlife feeding is not as noticeable.
If the problem becomes too onerous, David says the first line of defense is to use nonlethal and nonpoisonous controls, such as barriers, motion-activated sprinklers, and unappealing scents and flavors sprayed on or around plants and the yard. If that doesn’t work, he says to turn to professional, humane wildlife control experts or wildlife conservation groups for help.
Resources to Grow Wilder
Gardening for wildlife is addictive, often turning casual gardeners into passionate eco-conscious gardeners eager to learn more and spread the word about this nature-based gardening ethic.
Want to make a home for nature and share the experience? Here are resources to tap into expertise and advice on everything from plant sources to sustainable gardening practices.
Naturalist David Mizejewski’s book, “Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife.”
Doug Tallamy’s four books: “Bringing Nature Home,” “The Living Landscape,” “Nature’s Best Hope” and “The Nature of Oaks.”
The National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife program that David represents: nwf.org/Garden-for-Wildlife.
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, wildflower.org, where ecologist Michelle Bertelsen studies and educates others about natural ecosystems and the power of nature in our lives.
The Homegrown National Park grassroots initiative, which encourages citizens to turn their yards into mini national parks offering havens for wildlife: homegrownnationalpark.org.
Native plant societies, master naturalist and master gardener groups, and other garden and conservation organizations.
Colleges and universities, cooperative extension systems in each state, and public gardens and arboretums.
By growing in and from the wild world of nature-based gardening, we can learn firsthand how gratifying it is to make the world a better place and make new friends.