Creating a Wildlife-Friendly Garden

An Investment in Health and the Future of the Planet

By Taylor Smith 

Photos and illustrations courtesy of shutterstock.com

“Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirits of divine discontent and longing.  —Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

New Jersey is one of the most populated, fastest-growing states in the nation. In fact, the New Jersey Audubon Society website states, “with less than 20 percent of unclaimed space available, New Jersey is running out of land and is projected to be the first state in our nation to reach build out.”

The magical thing about cultivating your own green space is that you can create a livable habitat for birds, bugs, insects, microorganisms, and all sorts of other creatures to enjoy. It doesn’t matter what size your yard is. Urban gardening for wildlife can be achieved with a few well-placed and well-chosen plant varieties in pots and window boxes on a balcony. If you do have a small backyard to work with, gardening for wildlife is the perfect summer challenge.

What many people don’t realize is that, unlike traditional notions of landscaping, eco-friendly gardens are all about sustainable living practices. These are gardens that you loosely cultivate and then sit back and simply watch. In the age of COVID-19 and international uncertainty, who wouldn’t want to see the drama of birds, bats, frogs, insects, and woodland animals creating a home in your own backyard?

One important thing to avoid when creating a wildlife garden is pesticides. These harmful chemicals not only kill bees, the primary pollinators of plants, they can also negatively impact human health (many have cancer causing agents), contaminate soil and vegetation, the ozone layer, and more.

Bees are central to a healthy garden. To attract bees, focus on soil health over chemical treatments. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) states that in one teaspoon of healthy soil, there are more living organisms than there are currently people on the planet (nrcs.usda.gov).

Achieve soil health by adopting a “no dig” or minimal dig policy within your wildlife garden. It’s worth noting that the soil at the edge of cultivated farmland is usually the healthiest. This is the undisturbed soil that still has natural plant cover to hold the different layers of soil in place. By removing or disturbing any one of these layers, you risk disrupting the biological diversity of the earth. If you do engage in digging to install plants or to move them around, treat the soil with well-rotted manure or garden compost. Another significant benefit of soil health is that it discourages flooding. Soil layers (particularly when they are well-covered with meadow or native grasses) will hold onto water and release it slowly, as needed, throughout the yard.

British horticulturalist Monty Don says that “real gardens have a past, a present, and a future.” In other words, sustainable practices create an ever-evolving garden that will naturally attract wildlife and biodiversity. It may be a new concept to some, but being the least invasive as possible with your new garden is the best practice. The “natural” drama of watching your garden evolve over time can also bring great pleasure and a sense of internal peace.

One can also think of a wildlife garden in terms of a green postage stamp, in which wildlife can jump from one backyard or open space to another, helping them to avoid high traffic roads or desert-like high pollution areas. This is especially helpful for reducing the amount of roadkill and creating safe havens for New Jersey’s wildlife.

Waterscapes like birdbaths, bubbling fountains, or a pond will attract a range of aquatic creatures. You can even take a large ceramic pot or water trough and use it as an above-ground water feature. When creating a pond-like element, think of it in terms of different depths. Layering in plants and adding lily pads, stackable rocks, moss, and branches will enable small animals to take a drink and then be able to climb back out. You wouldn’t want a hedgehog or mouse to drown inside your water feature while trying to take a drink of water on a warm summer day!

Designing your wildlife garden around year-round blooming plants is also a great way to ensure that your greenspace is active and lively year-round. Princeton’s planting zone is in Hardiness Zone 6b. The average frost date falls between October 21-31 and usually lasts through April 21-31. Summers are hot and humid and winter temperatures can reach as low as -5 F (plantmaps.com/08540). For the winter, ivy and evergreens are a great option. They provide natural coverage and nesting materials for birds. The branches can also be clipped off and dre ssed along the pathways of the garden for an ethereal look that bugs and mice will love.

Spring flower options in the Garden State include daffodils, tulips, azaleas, dogwood flowers, and rhododendrons.

June’s birth flower is the rose, and these bushes can bloom from late May through early fall if well maintained. Other blooming plants that can withstand the state’s summer heat are dahlias, butterfly weed, peonies, and aster. Some may worry that these fragrant, heady blooms attract ants and beetles. In fact, a healthy garden can take care of itself with little to no chemical intervention. For example, if you notice your dahlias are starting to attract aphids, wait 2-3 weeks before reacting. In most cases, the aphids will be eaten by the excited birds and the problem will resolve itself. In the case of ants, there’s nothing a little spray of the garden hose can’t fix. More than likely, the ants will disperse, especially if there are natural predators within the area.

If you feel you simply must intervene to combat insects on your blooming plants, garlic spray is a good option. Insects do not like the smell of garlic and the spray will discourage helpful as well as harmful insects, so use this solution only when necessary. Garlic spray can be made using garlic cloves, mineral oil, dish soap, and water. Add 4 cloves of garlic to a tablespoon of mineral oil and let sit for one day. Strain out the garlic and add 1 teaspoon of dish soap to a pint of water. This is a concentrated form of garlic mixture so you will need to add 1 pint of water and 2 tablespoons of your garlic concentrate to a spray bottle. Shake to mix and then test the formula on a hidden part of your plant. Wait a day or two to make sure that no damage was done to the leaves. You can always dilute the mixture further.

Other elements that will encourage a wildlife garden habitat are gravel for pathways and creating vertical space with climbing plants and hanging birdfeeders. Make sure the bird feeder is filled with diverse seed and is hung well outside the reach of neighboring cats. House walls and shed walls are great for bird and bat boxes.

Bats are an important part of the Earth’s ecosystem, and it’s good to support them. Did you know that electrical light disorients bats? One way to combat this is to use solar powered garden lights instead of electrical landscaping lights.

The Native Plant Society of New Jersey (NPSNJ) has expert-level tips on how residents can incorporate native plant species into a home garden. They also offer advice on how to create a butterfly habitat and ways to protect your garden from the out-of-balance deer population that roams much of the state.

So, why are native plant species so beneficial to creating a sustainable garden? The National Park Service (NPS) states on its website that “it takes millennia for specialized insect-plant relationships to develop. A well-known example is the monarch butterfly and milkweed. Monarch mothers only lay eggs on milkweed species because monarch caterpillars have evolved the ability over tens of thousands of years to digest poisonous milkweed leaves other insects cannot eat.”

By removing milkweed from its natural habitat, the monarchs inevitably find somewhere else to go or disappear altogether. This is why people often refer to these intra-mutual plant-insect relationships as “fragile.”

As described by Doug Tallamy, professor of agriculture and natural resources at the University of Delaware, “when we create a meadow, we restore an ancient food web.” (audubon.org/content/why-native-plants-matter). It has taken generations upon generations of time for insects to adapt and to be able to derive nutrients from certain plants. Most plants have evolved some means to defend themselves, making the relationships between distinct native plants and insects extremely specialized.

Tallamy’s tips for designing your own native plant garden to attract and sustain wildlife are very helpful. He suggests considering planting an oak. There are native oak species for nearly every state in the nation. Oaks grow very quickly and act as a hub for wildlife activity within your own backyard. Next, add a birdbath or water feature followed by a multilayered hedge which will attract nesting animals, spiders, and insects. Other options include the addition of ivy, creating a meadow, planting native fruit trees, and/or a native harbor.

The Philadelphia Horticultural Society (PHS) runs a PHS Gold Medal Plant Program that helps gardeners find the perfect tree, vine, or perennial plant to add to their wildlife garden. These plants have been pre-selected for “their ease of cultivation, multiple seasons of interest, commercial availability, appropriateness to the Mid-Atlantic region and value to wildlife.” Learn more at phsonline.org.

For those looking for coursework to enhance their gardening knowledge, Longwood Gardens offers a variety of excellent online courses that will expand any gardener’s knowledge of plants and native species. A sample of upcoming summer courses includes Creating and Managing Landscapes for Native Bees (beginning June 21); Trees, Shrubs, and Conifers (beginning July 11); and Annual, Perennials, and Vines (beginning July 11). Visit longwoodgardens.org to check for new online courses, which are added throughout the year.

The wonderful thing about gardening is that it is an investment in health. On a personal level, the act of being outdoors and tending to your plants can dramatically improve one’s mental health and outlook. On a global scale, a return to sustainable gardening practices is an investment in the future of the planet.