Some Thoughts about Gardening for Wildlife


(This 1048th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on April 24, 2011.)


I often receive requests from readers asking me to write about planting for wildlife. My gardening expertise is limited (my wife would reduce that estimate to zero) and colleagues like Sally Cunningham are far more knowledgeable resources. For those reasons, I limit myself in this column to offering a number of personal prejudices about wildlife gardening.


First, I consider it a general rule that the more formal you make your garden, the less it will serve to attract wildlife. That neighbor you're always complaining about because his (it's most often a his) garden doesn't live up to your and Good Housekeeping's expectations, is probably attracting twice as many wild birds, animals and butterflies as you are. And that other neighbor's garden of which you have always been jealous, the one with every shrub and tree carefully pruned, every dead leaf removed from every flower and every inch of ground so well-mounded and edged that it would easily illustrate a geometry text? That one will have half as many as your less well-kept garden.


I am not suggesting here that you turn your backyard into a garbage skip; rather, I urge you simply to remember that animals need a place to hide. That means leaving ground-hugging shrubbery and brush piles for cover and not removing every dead tree limb.


Second, at least modify those dratted lawns. If you must have one, instead of cutting it every other day, walk around the block for exercise. Play croquet and practice putting on your neighbors' lawns: there are plenty of them. Set your lawnmower at its highest level and let your lawn grow to at least four inches before you cut off an inch or so. You will be doing your lawn a favor as well: the higher the setting the healthier the lawn.


I especially hate to see country property given over to those vast monocultures. Those acres would be far better served if allowed to grow to eight-inch height. Some wildlife experts have found that to be the optimum height to attract a variety of animals, birds and butterflies.


Such "lawns" would be further enhanced by allowing wildflowers including dandelions, to penetrate or, better still, sowing wildflower seed mixes to add to their luster.


I honor those residents of wooded areas like those in East Aurora who maintain no lawn at all, giving over their property instead to ground covers like these native plants: kinnikinnick (bearberry), running euonymus, partridgeberry, Canada mayflower, common blue violet and wild strawberry.


Third, avoid pesticides as much as possible. Are you attracting wildlife to your garden to poison them? Remember that many of those pesticides accumulate as they move up the food chain. Recently a friend had a handsome gray fox, an animal I rarely see, die in his backyard to no apparent cause. If that wild animal died of a garden poison, your pet dog or cat would be equally threatened.


Fourth, provide water. A lovely birdbath is fine, but a simple pan of water lying on the ground will serve both birds and groundlings like frogs and toads. And do yourself a favor: cut a 3-5 inch hole out of the top edge of a good-sized flowerpot and leave it upside-down for a toad home. One estimate: they eat over 15000 bugs a year.


Fifth, please use special care to plant native wildflowers, shrubs and trees. You may like the appearance of imported plants, but we already have a serious problem with garden escapes taking over our woodlands. One example of this is the ground cover celandine. I admit that for a week or two each spring its blossoms create a beautiful yellow forest carpet; how much better, however, to have that same ground covered with native plants.


Finally, two personal favorites among garden plants:


Wildflower: Any of the monarda: bee balm or Oswego tea are two species. The lovely blossoms of these plants attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. (Bonus: their crushed leaves in boiling water make a medicinal tea.)


Vine: trumpet honeysuckle. This plant blossoms early and serves as one of the few food sources for reawakening bumblebee queens. It later attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. This plant should be pruned with care to prevent it from crowding out other species. (Also, do not confuse it with the invasive bush honeysuckles.)-- Gerry Rising