Why garden for wildlife

Western Canada is an intricate system of living creatures and natural elements. Helping to maintain its balance brings countless benefits. We can do this in rural areas, small towns and large cities, like mine, Winnipeg. Supporting wildlife benefits us all.

One way is in our own green space - incorporating a variety of plants and natural elements to create habitat, using earth-friendly or 'green' practices and including regionally native plants.

This is especially important as wild areas are shrinking as home and commercial development and resource extraction increases.

Below are some positive impacts we can enjoy from gardening with wildlife in mind:

  • Using natural fertilizers like manure or compost, rather than synthetic ones, allows soil organisms to thrive leading to healthier soil and ultimately stronger plants that are more resistant to pests and weather. This reduces the need for chemical pesticides which can be harmful to beneficial organisms both above and below ground.
  • Save time and water.Appropriately, choosing and placing plants also contributes to healthier plants that have more chance of thriving, but also means less or no need for watering, especially when incorporating regionally native species.
  • Supporting activities like composting can save space in landfills, saving taxpayers millions of dollars from siting a new landfill too soon.
  • Provides thrilling momentsas you catch glimpses of animals you’ve never seen before. It’s also awe-inspiring, uplifting or downright hilarious as you see regulars in wacky or tender moments. Witnessing these moments is often the highlight of one’s day or week.
  • As wildlife benefit, we then benefit from their roles played in nature, such as pollinating about 1/3 of the food on our planet that we depend upon for our well-being. Their pest control services also keep potential 'pest' populations in check, preventing major problems with crops, lawns and personal comfort (bugs).
How To Garden With Wildlife In Mind - Provide Food & Water

A diversity of plants will attract the greatest variety of wildlife. A combination of evergreen and deciduous trees, shrubs, grasses, vines and perennials/flowers will provide plentiful food as flowers produce pollen and/or nectar for pollinating animals like bees, butterflies, beetles, flies and hummingbirds. Once pollinated, these flowers transform into seeds, nuts and fleshy fruit which provide food for all sorts of birds and mammals. Blue jays love acorns, as do wood ducks and some woodpeckers. Robins and waxwings enjoy the fleshy fruit of cherry, Saskatoon, hawthorns and others. Seeds from certain perennials and trees and shrubs are a great winter food for over-wintering birds.

Plants may also provide sap for some birds like hummingbirds and the yellow-bellied sapsucker. In fact, hummingbirds will locate their nest near a tree where a sapsucker drills holes. Butterflies also enjoy this sweet food.

Leaves from trees, shrubs and perennials are important for the early stages of a butterfly’s life – as caterpillars. Monarchs need milkweed leaves for their young, preferably the common milkweed. Where habitat for predators exists, caterpillar numbers don’t become problematic, as local woodpeckers, warblers and other insect eating animals help keep them in check.

A variety of plants allows a variety of heights, accommodating the various needs of differing species of birds. Some insects dwell in the leaves that fall from trees. This useful layer protects tree roots and returns nutrients as they decay, but that’s in part thanks to soil and ground dwelling insects. To keep these numbers in check, however, birds, like thrushes and amphibians like wood frogs feed on these bugs.

Water for wildlife can include natural features such as streams, ponds, rivers and other water. Creating a pond or recirculating stream will accommodate many species of wildlife, especially as you deepen the bottom. Edges are best if they are sloping, to prevent drownings of animals expecting a shallow area to drink. If space or budget limitations prohibit a pond, you can still provide water with a small birdbath. Clean the dish once a week, more often in the warmer weather. Avoid harsh cleaners. Instead, a simple scrub with water and scouring brush or cloth should be sufficient. If the dish gets really mucky, add a small amount of gentle liquid dish detergent and rinse well. This keeps the water clean and healthy for those who drink it.

Changing the water often also prevents mosquitoes from successfully breeding in your birdbath.

Butterflies love mudpuddling – a means of getting both nutrients and moisture. Leave an area of mud, sand, compost or manure. After a rain, watch and see how many of these winged beauties grace your garden in search of nourishment.

Other insects such as bees and dragonflies also require moisture. Fill a shallow dish with water, using one from the kitchen or a saucer from under a plant pot. It is important to place several stones in the dish, large enough to stick out above the water. This is where our insect allies can safely perch without fear of drowning. As with bird baths, clean often.

Add the sound of moving water and your yard will become even more enticing. Even a simple drip can attract more birds to your yard. Hummingbirds love flying through a fine mist and will get to know your schedule if you set up your hose to spray for 10 minutes at the same time each day.

How To Garden With Wildlife In Mind - Provide Shelter

Wildlife needs shelter for many reasons. It offers protection from inclement weather such as extreme cold, rain and heat.  It helps them hide from predators. And it provides them with places to safely raise their young. An absence or shortage of shelter limits the wildlife that will visit your property.

Planting evergreens provides effective cover in the cold winter months while deciduous trees block excessive sun but allow for more air circulation. Robins use both for nesting, making their first nest in an evergreen when the weather is still cool. Their second brood is usually in a deciduous tree as the air has warmed up. Both types of trees can offer protection from hungry predators.

In addition to plant types, the different stages of a plant’s life can attract differing species of wildlife. For instance, dead or dying trees are perfect for cavity nesting animals. These holes are important for roosting as well as for nesting, with many species requiring numerous holes to fulfill their needs. Many birds require cavities from these ‘snags’, including those that help control our rodent and insect population. Some of these allies include woodpeckers, bluebirds, wrens, flycatchers, tree swallows, chickadees and owls. Mammals like squirrels also need cavities.

Even plants with pithy, hollowed out stems such as elderberry, raspberry, sumac and annual sunflowers provide nesting sites for  bees such as the tiny carpenter bees.

Different plant types add layers, increasing available habitat, like adding a vine to a bare fence, for instance. Structures such as rock and brush piles are also very useful to wildlife. Even letting a log rot on the ground can provide shelter – and feeding grounds – for a variety of species such as the blue-spotted salamander or the shy ovenbird.

While keeping some grass is useful, look and see how much lawn you can replace with lush vibrant habitat. Shifting the balance to include more natural habitat will go a long way in supporting wild species.

Nesting and roosting boxes, if placed in a good location, help to make up for any shortage of places for birds to nest and rest. And while these are useful for birds, also consider building bat boxes for these helpful creatures. Clean nest boxes once a year, when they are no longer in use. This will keep them clean and healthy for next year’s family.

I love this quote:

“My mother early on taught us to respect all animals, and I mean all animals - not just cats and dogs but rats and snakes and spiders and fish and wildlife, so I really grew up believing they are just like us and just as deserving of consideration.” Joanna Lumley

Happy Gardening!


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Guest post by Jan - Bylands Account Representative

I’m very proud of my 4 children.  All 4 of them, worked many summers in the garden centre, they love plants and gardening too – but opted for totally different careers.  Jan loves living in Winnipeg and adds extensive plant knowledge to our team at Bylands.  You can sometimes find Jan as a guest on ‘The Gardener’, a radio program in Winnipeg on Sundays.