Cultivating Diversity with Wildlife Gardening

Naturalistic garden sm
Low dense groundcovers, meadow-like perennial plantings, shrubby thickets, trees large and small, and other vegetation types provide a patchwork of habitats for wildlife. (image by Jessie Keith)

Want to invite more of nature into your garden?  Then cultivate diversity —from the ground up.  Even a small garden can feed, shelter, and house an abundance of animals and insects (and plants!).  And it all starts with the soil.

The key to creating a wildlife-friendly yard is to grow lots of plants and plant species —especially natives.  This is mostly about food: nectar, pollen, fruits, nuts, and leaves.  More plant diversity means more dietary options and niches, supporting more furry and feathered (and warty and creeping) things.  A diversely planted garden is alive with feeding activity.  Bumblebees mob the pollen-rich blooms of blueberries and shooting-stars (as assassin bugs lie in wait).  Butterflies flutter about the sweetly scented flower-heads of spice viburnums and meadow rues.  Caterpillars and other insect larvae browse the foliage of their favored (and —in some cases—exclusive) hosts.  And at the upper end of the food chain, birds, amphibians, mammals, and other omnivores gobble down fruits, nuts, and insects (while hummingbirds buzz in to sip from the tubular, brightly hued, nectar-rich flowers of penstemons and salvias).  Plant more species (especially natives), and they will come – and eat.

More plants also mean more places for your local wildlife to hang out.  Low dense groundcovers, meadow-like perennial plantings, shrubby thickets, trees large and small, and other vegetation types provide a patchwork of habitats where animals and insects can forage, nest, shelter, advertise for mates, and do all that other wild stuff.  Accessorize with some bird feeders, bird (or bat or bee) houses, toad abodes, bird baths, butterfly puddles, and other wildlife-appropriate man-made features, and you’ll have a place for just about every critter in the hood.

Bee on Ageratum houstonianum
Planting for pollinators with favorite bee and butterfly blooms is one simple way to plant for wildlife. (image by Jessie Keith)

If the thought of all that up-close, wildlife-friendly habitat gives you (and your neighbors) a touch of the creepy-crawlies —then keep it at a comfortable distance.  Border it with some hardscape and lawn where the children and dogs (rather than the deer and the garter snake) can play.  Provide some observation areas from which you can safely monitor the children and the wildlife.  But consider leaving some lawn-free corridors to connect your plantings with those of your neighbors (hint, hint).  Together, you can form one contiguous neighborhood mega-wildlife-garden.

And put away the pesticides.  No matter that your spray-can trigger-finger instinctually starts twitching at the very mention of insect-hosting plants.  You’ll doubtless find that insect damage is far less noticeable and less troubling in your wildlife planting than in other, more pampered areas of your yard.  More diversity means less likelihood of one critter spiraling out of control.  So protect that diversity by not spraying it with poison (although in some areas a deer fence might be in order).

As with all gardens, the best way to proceed is from the ground up.  And I do mean ground – as in good old dirt (a.k.a. soil), the base layer of terrestrial life.  For it is life in the underground (comprising mind-numbingly large numbers of bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and other soil microbes), which supports life up in the sunlight, including the plants that populate our gardens.  The healthier the soil is, the greater the possibilities for our gardens – and for their human and non-human inhabitants.

So before you plant anything, check with the soil.  Is it heavy clay or porous sand?  Does it have a nice topsoil layer or none?  Is it in the sun or the shade?  If possible, send a soil sample off to your state’s horticultural extension service for analysis and recommendations (most states offer soil testing for a relatively modest fee).  And in most cases, add organic matter such as Fafard® Premium Organic Compost. This top-quality compost is at the top of the menu for most soil microbes.

To convert a whole swath of lawn to a wildlife perennial planting, use the technique known as sheet mulching.  Blanket the erstwhile lawn with a thick layer of wet newspaper or cardboard, and cover the paper with Fafard Premium Organic Compost (1 cubic foot per square yard) and several inches of “soft”, seed-free organic material (such as leaves or straw).  Add more compost and top with 3 or 4 inches of wood chips.  Allow your mulch parfait to decay for a few months before planting into it, or plant immediately by creating topsoil-filled hollows in the bark layer.  Keep the border edged and weeded while your new planting establishes – and then watch diversity happen.

Scarlet beebalm, purple coneflower and orange butterfly weed
Natives like scarlet beebalm, purple coneflower and orange butterfly weed are sure to draw lots of wildlife pollinators. (image by Jessie Keith)

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