[Ed. note: this article is part of our series of weekly family activities called Family Fun, published on Fridays]
Last week, in Part 2, we focused on food, and located places on the garden plan for raised beds, fruit trees and bushes, rain barrels and a compost pile. See part 1 for instructions on creating your map. You and your kids use cut-out shapes to represent garden features and play around with possible arrangements. Remember, it’s a long range plan; don’t expect to do it all in one year. This week’s post is all about wildlife.
Food, shelter, water and safe places to raise young are the four essentials for welcoming wildlife. First, using the list below with your children, map what you already have and see what’s missing:
- Food: Trees, shrubs, vines, native grasses, flowers, birdfeeders
- Shelter: Trees (dead and alive), shrubs, vines, native grasses, brush piles
- Water: pond/container, creek, birdbath
- Safe places to raise young: same as shelter; some birds use nesting boxes and eaves.
- (& freedom from chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides!)
Cut out circles for native shrubs and trees: 4′ on your scale for shrubs, 8-10’ for small trees, 20 – 30’ for large trees – plan for their mature size. Place them on your garden plan. Remember not to shade vegetable gardens or your fruit trees/bushes. A large deciduous tree on the southwest side of your home will also cut your cooling bills in summer!
Cut out (or draw in) shapes for birdfeeders and birdbaths. Put them on the plan – read our article for tips about where to place them.
A butterfly garden is an easy, low maintenance addition. Cut out a shape representing about 25 square feet for your map. It needs 6 – 8 hours of sun a day. Maybe a circle or oval in an open area, or a rectangle or semicircle along a fence. Your unused side yard could become a butterfly garden. Put it where you can watch the action – from inside as well as out. Try to locate it away from the veggie patch as caterpillars love vegetables. But if you can’t, don’t worry. Picking caterpillars off tomatoes and parsley is one of my kids” favorite activities. I must confess that when they’ve been eating my vegetables we speed up the circle of life by putting them on the birdfeeders!
What about water? A pond is a big installation project with fairly high maintenance needs! It needs a mostly sunny area so the flowers bloom and it doesn’t fill with leaves in fall. Smaller containers like a barrel, large ceramic pot or old bathtub are more do-able. These make beautiful water features when planted with aquatic species, and will still attract amphibians (don’t release purchased tadpoles or frogs from catalogs or pet stores.) You can add mosquito dunks to kill off mosquito larvae; they don’t harm other species. Backyard birds can’t use water deeper than 3 inches, so be sure to provide a bird bath separately.
If you have a low, boggy area, this can be used as a bog or wetland garden. (In warm areas you can grow those awesome carnivorous plants like pitcher plants and venus flytraps!) These can be strategically used as rain gardens, allowing heavy rain to soak in instead of running off (just like natural wetlands do); you can direct downspouts towards them. It should be at least 10 feet away from your house though. If you don’t have a natural wet depression, you can create a bog in a container.
Open, dry sunny areas like lawn can be replaced, gradually, with meadows that include the gorgeous native grasses, sedges and wildflowers. The flowers, seedheads and fibers provide food and nesting materials, attract birds and butterflies throughout summer and fall, and also yield beautiful flowers for cutting. Bluebird nesting boxes can also be installed in an open meadow area; they prefer this to wooded sites.
Reducing your lawn should be a goal: monocrops are desolate areas to wildlife, and people often apply chemicals to them. On sloping ground, replacing lawn is especially strategic, not only due to the mowing challenges but also because of erosion: dense, diverse plantings of trees, shrubs and perennials hang on to the soil better during heavy rain as well as attracting diverse wildlife.
When adding plants, use as many native species as possible. Plants native to your region are better suited for your local conditions, so need less water and maintenance, and provide the specific food and cover needed to support local wildlife. There are also lots of options for shady areas (which have limited food-producing potential) such as ferns and spring wildflowers. PlantNative is an excellent website to start with, it has state-by-state plant lists and helpful organizations, plus loads of other insights on landscaping for wildlife.
If you already have a great landscaping layout you can simply introduce native species into existing beds, and as older plants die, replace them with natives.
Creating diverse habitats within your yard, both front and back, gives your family the double pleasure of viewing a wider range of captivating creatures directly, making it much more appealing for kids, while also supporting local biodiversity. Habitat loss is one of the main causes of species decline in North America, and it’s truly amazing to watch creatures find resources – no matter how small or seemingly lost in a sea of asphalt. From seed distribution to pollination to pest control to nutrient cycling, wildlife performs critical ecosystem services we all depend on. So have fun planning out how your family can really use your patch of earth to support creatures that belong in your area, and look for future posts with step-by-step instructions for creating them.
David Mizejewski, Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Creative Homeowner 2004)