Go Wild: Creating Wildlife-Friendly Habitats in Your Space
As people who care about the environment, it can be hard to handle our reality of massive habitat and biodiversity losses that have been an unwelcome and often underestimated effect of development.
It’s easy to feel hopeless, but there’s something that any person can do to make a significant positive impact on your ecosystem: Start wildlife friendly gardening.
This goes beyond rejecting the use of chemicals in your gardening and lawn care, although that is an important part. You can actually create small habitats in your garden or yard for wildlife. You don’t need a lot of land to do it – in fact, you can even create a small wildlife habitat in your window box.
There are benefits beyond the positive impact you can make on the environment.
Reducing your use of chemicals creates a healthier environment for you and all the other humans around you, with less pollution going into food crops, soil, and groundwater. It may seem hard to believe that spraying chemical pesticides into your yard could impact your community’s water quality, but due to the interconnected nature of our ecosystems and our built environment, everything you put into the earth around you can have an impact on your drinking water.
By choosing certain food sources and habitat cultivations, you can attract certain kinds of wildlife to your home, providing you and your family or friends with unique experiences to observe and interact with beautiful animals.
First, think about the food chain and biodiversity.
To understand how to establish a wildlife habitat outside your home, think about food chains. The more foundational blocks of the food chain you can provide in your habitat, the larger and more complex your wildlife population can become.
The hard part of wildlife habitat creation for many gardeners might be the idea that you must allow your plants to be snacked on by insects such as aphids, caterpillars, or slugs. These are often targeted by chemical pesticides yet are vital to a well-balanced ecological community. More desirable wildlife such as ladybugs, dragonflies and many birds rely on these “pests” for food. Having a healthy population that preys on garden “pests” is actually better for controlling that pest population in the long run. It will be hard at first to allow pests to move in and chomp on your plants, but soon the next link on the food chain will appear, practically clearing your garden in a surprising amount of time.
Wildlife friendly gardening is all about maintaining balance, which helps both the animals and the gardener in the long run.
An important way to provide for beneficial natural predators is to create hiding places where they can also hibernate and raise their young. This could take the form of ground cover, stacks of stones, and piles of twigs or undisturbed leaf litter. You can also reduce how frequently you prune back larger plants such as shrubs. For example, ladybugs hibernate over winter in twiggy shrubs (Briggs 18), so having a perfectly tidy garden will discourage them from staying in your habitat. You can manage part of your grass as a small flower meadow, leaving it uncut for much of the year. This will encourage frogs or spiders to live there. If you dare to let things grow a little more wild, beneficial creatures will set up shop and work to keep your pest numbers down.
Decomposers and scavengers provide a vital link in the food chain, recycling the elements of life back into the environment to be used by the next generation of living things. Many of these creatures, such as bacteria, fungi and worms, make their home in the soil. You can encourage their activity by adding organic matter to your soil as a mulch, such as compost or decomposing leaves. Chemicals including synthetic fertilizers can destroy much of the soil’s microscopic life, creating a missing link in your habitat’s food chain. Decaying wood such as twigs left in the yard are very useful to decomposers as well.
We know that biodiversity is critical: studies have found that habitats containing a greater variety of species are healthier, more stable, and recover more quickly after damage than those with a limited number of species (Briggs). In nature, a huge variety of plant species will grow and intermingle in one place. Many pests and diseases are specific to certain plants or groups of plants, which makes most gardens an easy target. Pests and diseases have difficulty finding their host plant among all the others, and pollinators and insects that prey on pests are attracted in droves by mixed planting. Reduce pest and disease problems by mimicking nature and introduce as many different plants as possible to your chosen space.
In planting diversely, choose when possible from native plants. Native planting is incredibly important in attracting and sustaining pollinators because natural food chains and ecosystems have developed over many decades based on the plants that have historically grown there.
Now, let’s get specific. Do you have a yard or garden space? Dream big!
- Forest Habitat
A small woodland habitat may be centered on only a single tree, shrub, or woody climber, depending on the space you have available. The main function of each of these options is to provide height and shade. Bare walls, fences, or even a trellis screen can be home to climbing plants that provide shelter to birds, insects, and small mammals. Don’t be afraid to let your climber get a little wild: birds often like to nest among tangled stems and vines. If your outer walls are in good condition, climbers can provide a layer of insulation for your house as well as some protection from harsh weather. You can also fix a wooden block to the wall to create a gap between the climber and the wall itself, which will also create a hiding place for nesting birds and hibernating insects.
Woodland wildflowers will love being planted below in the partial shade. Whichever focal point you choose, accommodate for the decomposers and scavengers by mulching the ground underneath your main feature with leaf litter or twigs.
- Grassland Habitat
A small grassland or meadow can be as simple as a corner of your yard that you don’t mow for part of the year. There are two ways to create a permanent meadow in your yard. First, you can simply stop mowing a section of your yard for about a year and allow wildflowers that appear naturally to grow. Second, you can sow a new meadow from scratch, which is more work but does allow you to choose which flowers to grow.
You might not expect this, but your grassland habitat doesn’t have to grow wild year-round to be effective. For a spring meadow, you mow beginning in July until the end of the year; walking on a mown spring meadow actually helps the flowers to grow. For a summer meadow, mow as normal until June, leave it to grow until September, then continue mowing as normal; avoid walking on it.
If your soil is particularly sandy or rocky, you can grow plants that are found on sand dunes or rocky altitudes.
No yard? No problem.
Here’s some ideas for created potted habitats for those with balconies, window boxes, or paved backyards:
- Pollinator Gardens
There are many beautiful wildflowers to choose from. Planting a mixture of wildflowers or wildflower seeds creates a welcoming environment for pollinators. You can choose wildflowers that are known to attract butterflies to invite gorgeous visitors to fly through your window or balcony daily once spring and summer come.
You can create a mini meadow with a mixture of wildflowers who love fields and non-aggressive grasses that are allowed to flower. Take any container with good drainage holes, use poor soil or a soil-based compost, and add water-retaining granules to reduce the need for watering. If your container will grow year after year without new planting, trim your meadow in July (for spring flowers) or September (for summer flowers) to allow for new growth to continue.
- Pond Habitat
You can build a small free-standing pond. A container made of glazed ceramic, plastic, or metal will serve well, and so will a wooden half-barrel. If your container is not waterproof (such as those made of unglazed clay, stone or concrete, most wooden ones, and anything with a drainage hole), you can line it with a small piece of plastic pond liner. Put a small quantity of soil in the bottom, add some shingle and pebbles, then fill with water.
You may be wondering, how am I going to keep this pond water fresh and not disgusting? Easy. Keep your water fresh and aerated by planting a slow-growing oxygenator in a submerged container inside your larger pond container, such as water milfoil (myriophyllum), water starwort (callitriche), or dwarf water lilies (Nymphaea pygmaea vars.). Adding a piece of charcoal will also help absorb any impurities. You can plant a variety of aquatics in your pond, including submerged oxygenators and floating-leaved plants.
It’s unlikely that an animal would fall into your free standing pond, but just in case, add a sloping plank of wood or a pile of pebbles against the side to allow any unfortunate creature to climb back out. With a small pond habitat, you can attract diving beetles, pond skaters, frogs and newts, and birds, who like to drink and bathe in shallow container pools.
This type of habitat can also be adapted to yards or gardens, either by digging a hole to put the container into the ground, or by removing the container from the equation entirely.
Container habitats can be the perfect fit even if you have land to plant in. They’re a great option if you have trouble bending down. They’re also a good choice if you’re concerned about your wildlife habitat spreading into unwelcome parts of your yard, or if you want to include plants that are aggressive spreaders into your habitats.
The main ideas to attracting wildlife to your outdoor space are simple:
- Use organic cultivation methods and materials. Avoid pesticides and synthetic fertilizer, use compost and leaf litter, and grow several varieties together to reduce pests and disease.
- Grow some native plants. These support more wildlife species.
- Don’t be too neat. Leave some uncut grass, ground cover plants, fallen leaves and stick piles to shelter small predators and their prey.
You can create wildlife habitats regardless of how much or how little space you have available. You don’t have to feel disempowered when you think about land development or shrinking biodiversity in your area. If you have the courage to get a little wild, then the benefits for yourself, nearby wildlife, and the ecosystem as a whole are limitless.
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