What gardener doesn’t enjoy the chirping of birds and the beautiful colors of butterflies? And a smaller but increasing number understand the importance of maintaining beneficial insects and animals, such as ladybugs and insect-eating birds, in creating a wildlife-friendly yard. However, few seem to have any idea how to really attract wildlife.
When it comes to drawing birds into a garden, we of course immediately think of buying a feeder, as if it spending money was the solution to ensuring the presence of wildlife. But a bird feeder is pretty much the last factor you really need to consider: if you live in a world of asphalt and concrete, pretty much the only birds that will come to a feeder are starlings, sparrows and pigeons. To really attract wildlife to the garden, you have to create an environment where animals, birds, and insects will be able not only to come and eat, but actually want to live. And for that, I suggest you think about HELP: Host plants, Environment, Pesticide-free Maintenance and Laidback attitude.
1. Host Plants
There is nothing wrong with bird feeders, but they only attract a few species of seed-eating birds. If you want to attract the full range of wildlife, including insects, birds, amphibians, and, yes, even spiders, it’s better to learn to feed them naturally. The more your garden is filled with plants that offer food to insects and other animals, the greater the variety of insects and other useful animals you’ll see. Think of flowers rich in nectar, trees and shrubs that bear fruit, and grasses and forbs that offer plenty of edible seed. They’ll attract insects like bees, hoverflies, and butterflies which will, in return, bring in a wide range of birds and other animals. Some plants are even specific host plants for insects. There would be no monarch butterflies without butterfly weeds (Asclepias), for example. Or black swallowtail butterflies without umbellifers (plants like parsley and wild carrot). It’s not complicated: include a wide variety of plants in your landscaping and you’ll find a correspondingly wide range of animals will come calling.
For wild animals to thrive, you have to try and create an environment that suits them. Not just food plants, but plants where they can nest, take shelter, hibernate, etc. The ideal situation is an environment that essentially takes care of itself, with the least amount of human intervention. A garden that includes a variety of environments, like a wooded area with shrubs and trees where birds can sing and nest, a flower garden with annuals, perennials and grasses that imitates the meadows so loved by butterflies, a source of water for the entire community (and all it has to be is a bowl filled with rainwater), and even a few spots bare of anything green (sand, rocks, etc.) where cold-blooded wildlife can sun themselves and birds can take a dust bath, all that will bring in a maximum number of species. And yes, you can even have a lawn… just not too much of one, as lawns only attract a very limited number of wildlife compared to other environments like flower beds or shrub borders.
3. Pesticide-free Maintenance
It should be obvious, but since if you want to attract birds, butterflies and other wildlife to your yard, you simply can’t scatter poisons everywhere. But obviously this point is not well understood. How many times do you see people spraying pesticides left and right… and then wondering why there are no more butterflies and why no birds moved into the birdhouse they put up. Ideally, you should avoid using any toxic pesticides at all and use even fairly safe ones (soaps, oils, diatomaceous earth, etc.) sparingly. After all, pesticides (again, even safe ones), have a cascade effect: by killing off all the undesirable insects, you’ve eliminated the food source of many beneficial insects, and that reduces the bird population as well, and with fewer birds… well, you get the picture. Pesticides simply disrupt the healthy environment you’re trying to create. At the very least, think twice before you spray… and your backyard wildlife will be much happier.
4. Laidback Attitude
Fall cleanup is probably the best way of ruining a budding backyard nature reserve. When you “clean up” in the fall, pulling out annuals, cutting back perennials, picking up every single fallen leaf, you actually destroy habitats vital to many beneficials, a place where they feed, hide, overwinter, etc. All those dead leaves and brown stems are not just waste: in fact, they aren’t waste at all, they are Mother Nature’s way of recycling, they’re a habitat full of life. You can compromise and rake your lawn, but keep those leaves on your lot, dumping them into flower beds, shrub borders and under trees (they make a great natural mulch!). So many beneficial insects overwinter in fallen leaves and the hollow stems of annuals and perennials that you’ll actually discover the number of insect pests, the ones that attack your garden plants, dropping off precipitously when when you give up fall cleaning. Just watch the slug population fall over time in a less-managed garden: by hoeing and raking and keeping things neat, you’re killing off their predators. Let your plantings take care of themselves and you’ll find you’ll have more birds, butterflies and beneficials than ever before… and fewer slugs!
So there you go: a bit of HELP and you can have a world of wildlife in your own backyard!