As the evening light wanes, I step out the back door of my suburban home, entering my wildlife habitat. If I was seeking some alone time, I’ve come to the wrong place.
Many familiar friends are waiting for me. Butterflies fly above the heads of a resident box turtle, a few frogs, and a pair of anoles. Dragonflies avoid the praying mantis; the yellow garden spider weaves a web to welcome guests; and mosquitoes are being served for the bat buffet. Several birds are taking flight; others are chirping. I can hear bees buzzing, gathering their last bit of nectar and pollen before night falls. As I look around my wildlife habitat, I realize that each is here by invitation. It really is true—if you build it, they will come.
Creating a wildlife habitat is simple to do and richly rewarding. Your wildlife garden can be a container garden, a corner carved out of a traditional landscape, or an entire suburban lot. As we continue to look for ways to reduce lawn areas, making a sunny spot into a wildlife habitat is the perfect solution. Simply provide food, water, cover, and places for creatures to raise their young, and you will create a wildlife habitat.
To attract wildlife, supply the necessary kinds of food—either naturally or with supplements. The more food sources you have on hand, the greater variety of creatures you’ll attract. Various seeds, nuts, cones, berries, foliage, and fruits, as well as nectar, sap, and pollen, are all good food sources. Use regional native plants, as they typically support 10 to 50 times more local wildlife than do non-native plants. You can also supplement the naturally occurring food with feeders that hold seed, suet, or nectar.
Consider, too, food needs at different stages of the life cycle. For example, the larvae of butterflies feed on specific host plants (depending the type of butterfly), yet adults will sip the nectar of most flowers with an umbel shape, which makes a landing pad for easy feeding.
Water is essential for drinking and bathing, and a clean, reliable water source is key to creating a good habitat. Providing water can be as simple as adding a birdbath. Add multiple locations, at varying heights, to attract a greater variety of wildlife. It is important to provide water year-round, even in the winter and especially during times of drought. Locate the water source within an easy view to make it entertaining for the homeowner also.
Wildlife needs cover for protection against the elements and predators. Having a place to escape the threat of pending danger will attract more little creatures to your garden. A variety of plant life—ranging in size, height, and density with trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, vines, and ornamental grasses—will increase your chances of attracting more kinds of wildlife.
The cover will also give your wild friends a safe place for reproduction and nurturing their young. In a backyard, dense shrubbery and nesting boxes provide safe areas for birds to nest. Different animals have different needs; some animals require water to raise their young, such as salamanders, frogs, toads, and dragonflies.
Sustainable gardening practices will also benefit your wildlife habitat. Make an effort to control non-native and invasive species, and eliminate or reduce the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. It also helps to use mulch and reduce your lawn size, adding more sheltering and food plants for your wild visitors.
Take comfort in providing for the wildlife. With good sustainable gardening practices, you are also creating a safe haven for yourself as well. Invite the wildlife to your garden; it’s all the buzz!
In 1996 I became a mother. A lot changed for me that year, but nothing was more profound than the impact on me as a gardener. Not unlike statistics from the American Automobile Association reporting that women become better drivers after becoming mothers, I imagine that if a study were performed, it would find that new mothers also become safe gardeners, as do dads. It became increasingly important for me to build a garden where children could take part, not a place where I feared for them to tread.
In the past, I was hung up with perfection—no holes on the leaves, no bugs noshing my nasturtiums. As I proudly got rid of one pest, another took its place.
Then I stopped. I stopped using anything, chemical or organic-based, to rid the garden of pests.
The new garden, the one that I’m raising a family around today, is a place where everything is free—free of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides; free of worry about holes in my leaves and bugs roaming uninhibited; free of fear that my kids might want to eat an unwashed fig from the tree. Within a year, the entire half-acre garden was in balance. Today, Helen's Haven is a menagerie of birds, bees, butterflies, snakes, frogs, and lizards. It’s an ecosystem more than a mere garden.
The decision to let nature take her course set me free.