As you evaluate your garden at the end of summer and plan for changes you want to make next year, I hope you will plan to allow your garden to become wilder. How is a messier garden a good thing, you may ask? Because it welcomes wildlife such as birds, butterflies, bees, turtles and even snakes.
There is a need for gardens to welcome nature because each year we bulldoze more trees and native plants for interstate exits and subdivisions, leaving less room for our native wildlife. Already many of our birds are fewer in number and monarch butterflies are in danger due to declining habitat. We encourage wildlife in our gardens by providing them food, shelter and nesting places. This may mean that your garden looks less neat and tidy but the enjoyment you find in having birds and butterflies and other wildlife in your garden will more than compensate.
In order to attract wildlife to your garden you must first have more insects. While holly berries and purchased birdseed are appreciated by adult birds, baby birds require protein in the form of insects. And they require a lot of them! This means we cannot use pesticides in our gardens. When you encounter a caterpillar, just remember that it could be dinner for a baby bird or may become a beautiful butterfly or moth. Pesticides kill the good bugs along with the bad and insects are essential to wildlife in the garden.
In order to attract butterflies, moths and other pollinators to your garden, you must have flowers rich in pollen. You should plant a variety of flowers in masses to provide a strong beacon for pollinators flying overhead. Planting in masses will also keep things from looking messy. Plant a variety of native flowers and try to have something blooming throughout the growing season.
If you want butterflies to reproduce and lay eggs in your garden you must provide the plants that their caterpillars will eat. Each species has its own preferences. Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed (Asclepias spp.) and the zebra swallowtail requires a pawpaw tree.
For a wildlife-friendly habitat, you should have more plants and less lawn. Your garden should be thick with layers of plants, giving the wildlife more places to nest, hide from predators and forage. Winter is a good time to plant more trees and shrubs. Try to choose natives because they require less care and are more wildlife friendly. This is also a good time to enlarge your planting beds by smothering grass with wet newspaper, cardboard and chopped leaves.
To encourage wildlife you can also be less diligent about cleaning up your garden in the fall. Plant stems that are left 12-18 inches tall provide a home for beneficial carpenter bees. Sometimes I clean up the beds in the front of the house and leave the ones in back for the birds and pollinators.
Quit using pesticides, plant pollen-producing flowers and host plants; add more plants and trees and shrubs, less lawn and more dead plants. You don’t have to do it all at once but try to do one or two of these things this year. Once you start to loosen up and let your garden get a little wild you will find that you are more relaxed and enjoy your garden more. And just imagine the corridor of wildlife we can sustain if we all go just a little wild (in the garden.) This article was written by Kathy Davis, Lincoln Parish Master Gardener.