Want More Wildlife in Your Garden? A Few Small Changes Can Make all the Difference.
A friend recently told me her mom was visiting and advised her to clean up her yard, remove all the debris and get it tidy like her neighbours. As they were chatting her mother remarked on all the birds that were in her 'messy' garden and how lovely it was to see them. The woman then pointed out that they were there, and not in her neighbours yard, precisely because it had not been tidied!
We've all heard the call lately to de-lawn our yards, leave the leaves in fall and be more aware of the long term ecological impacts of the choices that we make. But I feel like many of us find it hard to make large scale changes. If you're like us then median change is a great way to go, small things here and there add up to larger ones in the long run. Here are a few suggestions, easy small scale ideas. And remember there's no shame attached to imperfection, we're all just trying to do a little better each time.
Lawns - Don't let yourself get caught up in this 'perfect lawn' thing where people take pride in a golf green at their front door. Try cutting it a little higher to allow space for beneficial insect habitat and lessen overall plant stress. Interplant low growing flowering species to provide food sources, encourage biodiversity and build plant communities rather than monocultures. There are lots of plants out there that are both beautiful and functional that can easily be seeded into turf grass and some (like clovers) can even help to end the need for chemical fertilizers by making soil nutrients readily available to surrounding plants.
Allow moss to grow in shady areas, it's not only beautiful but it helps to clean pollutants thanks to its large surface area.
Don't sweat a few bald patches, there are plenty of bee species that only nest in such spaces. Plus if you're spending less time maintaining grass (cutting, de-thatching, liming, aerating etc etc) you'll have more time to enjoy green spaces with all of your new wild friends.
Use a mulching mower or compost grass clippings, cause why give away free nitrogen? use what you cut to feed new growth. Plus who wants to haul around bags of grass?
Take note where and what kind of weeds are popping up, they can tell you a lot about your soil conditions. Weeds with long tap roots like dandelions, plantain and burdock show up to loosen compact soils and bring nutrients to its surface. Purslane and chickweed make a break for rich soils while buttercup and goldenrod prefer heavy wet areas with poor drainage. There's also something to be said for allowing such weeds to stick around and help adjust your soil for the better, as long as you pull them out before they get out of hand (preferable before they flower/ propagate themselves).
Perennials - A tidy garden isn't a necessarily healthy one. Try leaving some piles of debris out of the way in a sheltered place or as part of a bug hotel. It will provide nesting materials, protection and habitat for birds, insects and fungi.
A thin layer of broken leaves and small twiggy bits will also help to protect vulnerable areas of bare soil and provide the building blocks for future soil health, without the need for amendments and tilling. Disturbing the soil will attract weeds so try not to cultivate around plants too much.
Allow death and decay to become a part of your gardens beauty, leave some seed heads and rotate the areas that you're refreshing so that all aspects of the life cycle are represented as all parts are important to plant and animal life. Accepting imperfection is healthy both for you and your green spaces.
Use, save and trade seeds to add new material without much cost or effort. There are some plants, particularly annuals that just do better when they're sown directly into beds. Plus there's something completely magical about tossing some seeds into soil and watching a plant grow!
Trees & Shrubs - Let's all make a pact to stop trimming our plants into balls, even if it's little by little. Try letting more natural shapes come into your garden. Great design includes structure for sure, but choose where it's most effective and then let the rest go. Contrast is queen.
Prune with structure in mind and don't worry so much about looks, especially if the plant is long lived. Think ahead, five, ten and twenty years down the line.You'll want a safe and beautiful mature tree which takes good pruning practices over many years not just one.
Consider leaving some standing dead wood or log piles for habitat as small reptiles, bugs and fungi all add to a healthy ecosystem. Branches, driftwood and decaying trucks also add a unique and natural sculptural element that doesn't happen with hardscape.
Check your areas bird nesting season, here on the west coast of Canada it's March through August. So try to do any pruning outside of these months. If you find that you need to trim something, then be sure to check carefully for feathered friends before you start.
Add Water - Spend less time watering the garden by choosing the right plants and hardscape for the conditions you have. This includes evaluating your soil, remember that super fertile, high water retentive soils may not be achievable or even necessary. There are loads of great plants that thrive in lean soil conditions.
Do add a water feature for wildlife. Bees, birds and other species all need fresh water to drink and bathe in. Even a simple water dish with a few rocks and pebbles can bring hours of wildlife viewing, soothing sounds and lots of life into your garden.
Conserve and direct storm water by using permeable surfaces rather than solid ones and if you get a lot of rain consider a bioswale or functional rain garden design and use the conditions to your favour.
Mulches and ground covers are a great way to both protect bare soil from erosion and slow down water evaporation, especially in warm weather.
Try winter cover crops that can be seeded in fall. They help to build soil health by breaking up compaction, fixing nutrients and stopping erosion. Just turn them into your soil a few weeks before you plant your summer beds.
Work with What You Have - Make the most of the unique climate, resources and conditions in your space. A little research can go a long way to creating a garden that is less work and more enjoyment. Pick plants that suit your conditions and don't get hung up on things that will require specialized maintenance or care. Let mother nature help you out!
Go local whenever possible and cut back on packaging and chemicals where ever you can. Stop trying to change your area to suit the plants that you want and work with ones that thrive in what you have. Not only will it make your life easier but it will increase your own happiness and wellbeing. Less work and more play is the goal.
Try adding a sign to explain to passers-by what your wildlife garden is about and maybe it will inspire them to join in. You can get creative and make something to add to your plot yourself or purchase readymade signage that's good to go. You can even join others all over the world by registering your pollinator-friendly patch with one of several wildlife oriented associations with great rewards like special plaques and national maps that connect individual spaces into giant green bands. There are lots of options to choose from!
We're all about less shame and more encouragement, no one is perfect and no garden is either. It's all about embracing the imperfections and working together for a better future. So, try a few small changes next time you're out in the garden and let us know how it goes. We're always looking to improve too and any new ideas are definitely welcome, it's a community effort.
-Sara-Jane & Alicia at Simple Leaf Design
We're planting design specialists in the Vancouver, Canada area that love to build exceptional garden spaces and chat all about it. And don't forget to stay in touch @simpleleafdesign2 on instagram.