Theresa Schrum is a Certified Arborist and the owner of Eco-Terra Landscape Consultants.

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Wildlife-Friendly Gardening
by Theresa Schrum    

While considered a weed by most gardeners, I remember one pokeweed on the roadside that was so covered by feeding birds it was nearly bent to the ground.

Ask any gardener what their definition is of a garden and you will get a different answer each time. For most of us, it’s a place of beauty, a place of serenity, somewhere to let out our frustrations, get some exercise or all of the above. We garden for pleasure. However, to other creatures the garden is a place to live, eat and raise a family. Often the needs of wild creatures clash with the desires of the gardener. Gardeners need to consider the needs of other creatures when planning a garden.

When asked about wildlife, many people think of two creatures – birds and butterflies. There seems to be a definite value system associated with wild creatures. The term wildlife should also apply to those that we may not always appreciate – rabbits, deer, bees, snakes, squirrels and bats, to name a few. Without them, the ecosystem and the garden within are out of balance, which can lead to problems.

All creatures basically need the same things – food, water, shelter and appropriate habitat to rear young. These needs vary from animal to animal. However, what they envision as prime real estate often differs from an orderly, maintained garden.


The Basics

When asked about food sources for wildlife, I always respond that native wildlife should consume native food. Native plants provide the best diversity of healthy food sources at the proper time of year. Therefore, I select native plants known for their wildlife value, some of which are way outside the comfort zone of many gardeners. Such atypical garden plants include sweetgum (Liquidambar), sumac (Rhus), pokeberry or pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), Smilax and even poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). Despite the obvious problems with poison ivy, it’s an important food source for over 60 species of birds, as well as deer. Native plants more acceptable to conventional gardeners include hawthorn (Crataegus), Viburnum, dogwood (Cornus), beautyberry (Callicarpa), crossvine (Bignonia) and buckeye (Aesculus), to name but a few of many. Conversely, many native plants depend upon wildlife for pollination and seed dispersal. As such, I never hang a bird feeder in my garden.

American beautyberry is a great ornamental shrub with magenta berries in the fall.
Once ripe, the berries are quickly stripped away.

It takes a certain amount of undisturbed area with a balanced ecosystem to sustain a healthy diversity of wildlife. With so many people becoming focused on preserving green space, I’m becoming increasingly troubled by the green space I’m seeing preserved. Some of these areas aren’t worth saving at all. I can’t tell you how many acres of “green space” I’ve crawled through that were practically impenetrable with non-native invasive plants such as Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense), Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), English ivy (Hedera helix), Wisteria and so forth. While some of these plants may produce berries or nectar that are consumed by wildlife, the nutritional value of these food sources is questionable. Also, non-native invasive plants often crowd out other plants to form a monoculture habitat that actually reduces the overall availability of food.

Unless you live near a reliable source of moderately clean water, it would be very polite to provide your wild friends with a source of clean water for both drinking and bathing. Birdbaths, ponds and fountains can do the trick. (Pools with all of their chemicals can be harmful.) Keep the water clean and change it every few days to help reduce mosquitoes.



A Place To Call Home

While my dream home is a mountain hideaway of logs and stone, the ideal abode for many creatures looks more like my hair in the morning – a disheveled mess of overgrown foliage. Most gardeners work relentlessly to maintain order. However, a bit of disorder would be more neighborly to wildlife. Building a brush pile or a mass of logs or stones will attract a great number of creatures, many of which will return the favor by consuming garden pests. To placate those who don’t understand the importance of such habitats, place the brush, log or stone piles out of the way or near your compost pile and tell your family and friends that you’ll dispose of it when you get the time, which never happens.

Other homes for wildlife include thick evergreen plants, tall canopy trees, snags (standing dead trees) and fallen logs. Occasionally, our houses become the sanctuary of wild creatures. Bats and squirrels move into the attic. Raccoons, opossums and snakes take up residence in the crawl space under the house. Just how much “company” you’re willing to tolerate is entirely up to you, but remember to clean up after any guests that take refuge in the attic.


Raising a Family

While an environment may be able to sustain adult creatures, to maintain a healthy population there must be protected places to rear young. Each species has different requirements. Many birds will lay their eggs in the cavities of living trees, others only dead trees. Rabbits, snakes and deer prefer areas with dense underbrush. All creatures need proper nesting sites that are not disturbed by humans or pets. Try to maintain a quiet zone away from nesting creatures or they may abandon their young.


Control in the Community

All creatures in a healthy ecosystem co-exist together as a community delicately balanced to maintain diversity. To stay in balance, there must be creatures that occupy all levels of the food chain, including (and especially) predators. Due to our human activities, we have stripped off the top of the food chain in many ecosystems. No longer are the big cats found in many areas. Wolves have been gone from many areas of the South for more than a century. Coyotes still remain, but they are hunted mercilessly.

As a result, we are overrun with deer, rabbits, squirrels and many other creatures that would normally end up as prey. In turn, these creatures over-browse most of the available food sources, harming the plant communities. Once food becomes scarce, these creatures begin to suffer from starvation and its associated diseases. To remedy the problem, control programs must be instituted to reduce the overpopulation of some creatures; it’s either that or reintroduce the predators.


Another favorite of hummingbirds, crossvine flowers appear in abundance in mid-April and then sporadically through the rest of the season, providing a source of nectar for several months. Red buckeyes will bring hummingbirds into your garden in early to mid-April. Later in the season, the buckeye nuts will be carried away by squirrels.

Sumac berries are used as a winter food source by many birds. Those with red berries are often accused of being poisonous, which is actually only true for those with white berries. All red-berried varieties are edible but a bit tart.


(From State-by-State Gardening September 2005.)


Posted: 10/31/11   RSS | Print


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