As we all become more aware of our impact on the environment ahead of Earth Day on April 22, it’s worth considering what a big deal our green spaces are to birds and insects right now. We may not be able to reverse climate change or restore the honeybee population single-handedly, but we can all turn our gardens into flourishing corridors of shelter and sustenance for wildlife.
“In North America, we’ve lost almost three billion birds in the last 50 years, and monarch butterfly populations are plummeting,” says renowned naturalist David Mizejewski. “Agriculture and the spread of suburbia have replaced native plant communities with crops and lawns, and ornamental exotics that don’t have those ecological connections.”
But it’s not all bad news. Mizejewski, who has worked as a conservationist for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) for many years, remains wonderfully optimistic. He believes our gardens can help to provide the four essential elements that wildlife requires—food, water, shelter, and the means to reproduce—and still be aesthetically beautiful spaces.
Jo Thompson, an award-winning British landscape designer who conceives romantic country planting schemes, has become more nature-aware in her designs. “We all have a responsibility to support species under threat,” she says. “Native planting, shelter in the form of log piles and bug hotels, a water source, bird feeders, berries and seed heads in winter, a few ‘wild areas’ here and there… simple steps make a tremendous difference. And it doesn’t have to look untidy.”
A garden Thompson designed for the popular BBC TV program Springwatch encapsulated that approach perfectly, with a clover lawn, elegant timber bug hotels, and a grove of feeders and nesting boxes with a contemporary asymmetric design.
While smaller spaces encourage an imaginative approach, the gardens of large estates allow wildlife-friendly planting on a grand scale.
Bold blocks of color, repeated forms, or massed plantings of a single species achieve a striking design statement that also allows pollinating insects to locate these plants easily. It’s an effect that is executed brilliantly at InSitu, a 24-acre (9.7 ha) garden created by Seattle-based Land Morphology, where sculpture is surrounded by a sea of brilliant yellow rudbeckia, a North American bee-friendly native.
“One of our areas of expertise is perennial meadows and they are very biodiverse,” explains founder and landscape architect, Richard Hartlage. “At In Situ, I wanted a really dramatic effect, without having to irrigate or deal with plant disease.”
Take an Eco-Friendly Approach
Plants that have evolved to look after themselves have no need of harmful herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. You can contrast wilder areas of nature-friendly planting with tightly pruned hedges, elegant hardscaping, and topiarized trees, and provide cracks and crevices for insects within stone-filled gabions and handcrafted walls.
Green roofs are another inventive way to provide shelter and nourishment, on your pool house, pavilion, or garage, perhaps. All of these approaches can be architecturally intriguing, without shortchanging resident wildlife.
Biodiversity of wildlife is also becoming a watchword in forward-thinking public gardens. Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park combines naturalistic plantings with ecologically sensitive maintenance. In practice, some 200 plant species thrive in an area of just 2.5 acres (1 ha), attracting more than 100 species of birds, butterflies, bees, beetles, and grasshoppers. Seed heads stand proud in winter, and spring bulbs include alliums and quamash (Camassia), both adored by pollinating insects.
In the English countryside, historical country house and garden Great Dixter in East Sussex is revered for its lush herbaceous borders but, more recently, it has also become respected by scientists for its incredible data on biodiversity. “Great Dixter is so interesting,” agrees Hartlage. “It’s a historical Arts and Crafts garden, but it turns out it’s been successfully supporting wildlife all along.”
The question of whether to use native or non-native plants is one that even the experts debate. Mizejewski falls firmly into the native planting camp, while Hartlage adheres to “right plant, right place,” using well-considered plant communities. But both schools of thought share the same ideals: flowering plants provide pollen and nectar for flying insects, leaves for feed-grazing caterpillars, and climbers, bushes, and hedgerows provide cover from predators, and shelter to nest and sleep.
Useful wildlife-friendly plants include edible herbs, like dill and parsley, milkweeds, catmint, coneflower (Echinacea), Cleveland sage, and lantana, and flowering annuals such as zinnias, marigolds, and sunflowers. Thompson liberates the occasional self-seeded goat willow (Salix caprea) to help attract the purple emperor butterfly, while Hartlage’s favorite perennial meadow plants include solidago, bee balm (Monarda), ironweed, agastache, and Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium).
Losing a little of your grass lawn will also pay dividends. “If everybody exchanged a 10-by-10 [100 sq ft/9.3 sq m] area of their lawn for a bed of native trees or a patch of wildflowers, the collective benefit would be exponential,” says Mizejewski. If in doubt, he adds, plant an oak tree: “Here, in North America, the oak tree species is the caterpillar host plant for 557 types of butterflies and moths—way more than any other plant species.”
Related: Discover How to Create an Eco-Garden
Light the Way
Finally, pay attention to outdoor lighting. Nocturnal insects, unable to resist illumination, exhaust themselves, while bright light plays havoc with the natural rhythms and breeding patterns of migratory birds, hedgehogs, and bats. The solutions are simple: use dark sky-compliant fittings, choose warm-toned lumens, and direct any lighting downwards.
“We comply with dark-sky requirements because it’s the right thing to do,” says Hartlage. “And the effect is way more mellow. I like to light the ground and create pools of light that draw you from one area to another.” If you need security lights, use motion detectors, and focus light on key landscape features.
Of course, wildlife gardens benefit humans, too. “We’re all trying to do a billion things at once so people are not getting that daily dose of nature. What better place to connect with nature than right outside your door?” says Mizejewski. “Gardening for wildlife is a brilliant example of that saying, ‘Think globally, act locally.’ If we all make some simple changes, we can, collectively, make a big difference for our fellow species.”
For lists of local native plants and details of how to turn your backyard or estate into a Certified Wildlife Habitat, visit nwf.org
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