What is a wildlife garden?
It’s a garden that contains shelter, water, and a wide variety of berries, seeds, nectar, and food plants to attract many species of birds, butterflies, insects, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals. All waste material is recycled, and no chemicals are needed.
The purpose of our Backyard Garden is to demonstrate that a wildlife garden can also be beautiful and, once established, require relatively little maintenance. The wide variety of plants not only gives us a “backyard” that changes from month to month, but also creates ecological balance that makes the use of herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers unnecessary.
Top reasons for attracting wildlife
- recreate some of the habitat destroyed by urbanization
- enliven your garden with birdsong, fluttering butterflies, trickling water
- use natural pest control instead of harmful pesticides
- create a beautiful, lively haven for wildlife and a place for you and your family to enjoy nature
Food and cover for birds
A properly maintained bird feeder provides important nutrients to overwintering birds and a well-earned snack for spring and fall migrants. But the variety of native, berry-producing shrubs – such as elderberry (next to the feeder), Nannyberry, dogwood, Serviceberry, and Flowering Raspberry – planted here makes birds welcome all year round. Evergreens like cedar and spruce provide additional winter food and shelter. Shrubs planted close together in a staggered fashion as a hedge or in a clump offer birds food, shelter, and nesting sites.
Notice the bird nesting boxes as you walk around the garden. The one on the edge of the hill is most likely to attract Tree Swallows, which eat huge numbers of mosquitoes and other insects.
Beauty, variety, and balance
A key concept in wildlife gardening is diversity. The more than 300 species of native, naturalized, and horticultural varieties of plants in our garden ensure a panorama of colour from spring through fall. We have deliberately chosen plants that are attractive to wildlife. The nectar of Joe Pye-weed and Black-eyed Susans attracts important pollinators, such as bees, wasps, ants, and butterflies. Queen Anne’s lace, daisies, and asters are favoured by some of the wasps and flies that prey on other “pest” insects. Seeds from grasses, cup-plant, and evening primrose feed birds and small mammals.
Beardtongue and bumblebee
Varying the height of plant material increases the amount of shelter for birds, animals, and insects. The greater the diversity of plant and animal life, the stronger the links and interactions among the various species, and the less the likelihood of pest or disease problems. Diversity promotes a natural system of checks and balances, where plants and wildlife can live together in harmony.
Native meadows of eastern Ontario
Plants that are indigenous to our area are well-adapted to local soil and climate conditions. They require minimal watering and tend to be pest and disease resistant. Through evolution, many of these plants have developed a strong relationship with local wildlife. Natural meadows have a high proportion of grass species, but we have chosen to grow sun-loving natives, such as goldenrods and asters, Fireweed, Pearly Everlasting, and Dogbane, along with native grasses. These adapt readily to average garden conditions, and growing our native wildflowers preserves our natural heritage.
Water – essential to all life
A pond not only provides a place for birds, small mammals, insects, and other creatures to drink and bathe, but also a breeding place for toads, frogs, and dragonflies, whose eggs are laid and hatch in water. In late spring, watch for the hundreds of tiny black tadpoles that gradually develop into young toads and frogs.
Frogs, toads, and dragonflies are all efficient consumers of insect pests. Toads also roam our garden in search of garden slugs and earwigs; we’ve found them near water taps and deep in the cool depths of a garden bed under a rock.
Moisture-loving Blue Flag irises, Cardinal Flowers, Marsh Marigolds, sedges, and Wild Mint grow in and around our pond, providing cover for the creatures that come to drink.
A bird bath is a good alternative water source, especially for small spaces. Birds prefer a shallow, flat-bottomed container located within easy fleeing distance of a tree or shrubbery.
Most backyard ponds are artificially created using a molded plastic or flexible waterproof liner. We prefer the flexible type to allow shallow slopes so that frogs can get in and out of the water easily and shallow areas for birds to bathe. Around the pond, we wanted to plant wildflowers that grow naturally is damp, boggy areas or wetlands, but there was very little soil covering the edge of the liner. Outside the liner, the soil was no wetter than the rest of the garden.
We solved this problem a few years ago by creating a “bog bed” next to the pond. We dug an area about 10 feet long, 3 feet wide and a foot and a half deep. We lined the bottom and sides of the hole with pond liner, punched a few holes in the liner, and refilled the hole with soil. The liner serves to hold rainwater much longer than other parts of the garden, keeping the roots of our water-loving plants damp. If it hasn’t rained during the week, we can run water into the bed through a buried hose until the soil is damp again.
Back to the wild
We are deliberately letting the area at the bottom of our garden go wild to see what happens. We expect it will gradually become overgrown with tall grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, vines, and trees – a great place for a mouse to hide or a bird to build a home. A brush pile of branches and clippings is a safe retreat or overwintering site for small mammals, toads, and insects.
Woodland walk – using the shade
The shade from the black locust trees along the top edge of the ravine allows us to grow some of the wide variety of local native woodland plants, many of which are available in garden centres. Spring wildflowers, such as Hepatica, trillium, Trout Lily, Bloodroot, and violets, bloom before the trees have leafed out – a spectacular spring show! Woodland ferns interspersed with the colourful berries of Solomon’s seal and baneberry create a rich tapestry that can be enjoyed all summer. Herb Robert blooms later in the summer, and zigzag goldenrod and white snakeroot provide colour into the fall.
A major requirement of these shade lovers is rich organic soil, which can be produced by adding composted leaves. Just as in a natural forest, insects, earthworms, and microbes turn the leaves into humus. Berry-bearing shrubs, such as pagoda dogwood and Flowering Raspberry, grow well in shade. A rockpile shelters toads, insects, and chipmunks.
A feast for butterflies – and caterpillars!
Because each bloom only produces nectar for a brief time, a wide variety of plants must be grown to ensure a continuous supply for butterflies. Although butterflies will sip nectar from a wide range of plants, they are very specific about where they lay their eggs and where their larvae (caterpillars) feed. In our garden, we grow yarrow and Golden Alexanders for Black Swallowtail larvae and Swamp Milkweed for monarchs. The long grasses in the garden and the many apple trees in the ravine are good food sources for other hungry caterpillars.
Joe-Pye weed, New England aster, pearly everlasting, and purple coneflower are favourite nectar sources for a variety of butterflies. Of course butterflies will use many of the flowers planted throughout the Backyard Garden.
Gardening on dry land (xeriscaping)
Low-growing, drought-tolerant plants growing in well-drained, sandy, gritty soil interspersed with various sizes and shapes of rocks make up our rock garden. Some birds use the grit to help their digestion; insects and small mammals hide among the rocks. Many of the flowers, such as white aster and grey goldenrod, attract pollinating insects.
Although this is a dry flower bed, it was designed to catch as much water as possible. The layered rocks are angled inward so that rain will run into the bed instead of off onto the grass. Some hold puddles, offering a temporary drink for birds and mammals. The large flat rocks in the centre of the bed hold water under the soil, slowing evaporation.
To ensure a supply of water during the hot summer, we also catch and store rain in a convenient barrel.
Recycling the debris
No garden should be without a compost heap. Unwanted plant material is placed in these cribs and left to break down into humus that is used to enrich our garden soil instead of commercial fertilizers. Partly composted leaves are spread between the flowers as mulch to reduce weeds and conserve water.
Because no pesticides are used in the FWG, clippings and weeds are quickly broken down by soil organisms, insects, and earthworms. Woody cuttings and branches that decompose slowly are piled up in a corner of the garden to provide shelter for wild creatures.
Aliens in the garden
Next to our Interpretive Centre, we are growing wildflowers that were originally brought here by settlers from Europe, often for use as herbs and medicine. Many of these alien plants have become naturalized to our conditions and are now found commonly in the wild. Plants such as phlox, geranium, sedum, and feverfew attract butterflies and other insects.
But be careful to avoid invasive alien species, such as dog strangling vine and garlic mustard. These seem to have no natural enemies in our region, so are able to spread rapidly and replace native plants.
Did you know that the common dandelion did not exist in North America until it was brought by Europeans who valued it for its nutritional and medicinal properties?
Natural pest control
Gardeners often unknowingly create the monocultures (large areas of a single species) that sustain garden pests! They are then forced to use pesticides that are deadly to most forms of wildlife. A garden filled with a diversity of plants is much more likely to achieve an ecological balance that keeps pests and other species under control.
Certain plants are especially attractive to wasps and flies whose larvae prey on many of our pest species. To encourage the “good” insects, we have spring-flowering trees and shrubs, such as crabapples and serviceberries, for early season nectar. In summer, herbs, such as chervil, coriander, anise, and fennel, are abuzz with these species, and in fall the asters and goldenrods serve the purpose.
We hope you enjoy our Backyard Garden and are inspired to adopt some of our methods: biodiversity for balance; food, shelter, and water for wildlife. For more information, please visit our Interpretive Centre where brochures on specific topics are available, and be sure to read the noticeboards at the front of the centre for up-to-date information on what to see in the rest of the Fletcher Wildlife Garden.