We have bears, coons, squirrels, a skunk, the odd owl that flies through and a variety of birds that come to visit. Spring time is usually the busiest season for wildlife visits but fall is eminently more important for wildlife in the garden as animals look for food to fatten and survive the lean winter months. I am frequently asked how to build and design the garden to attract and support wildlife. My primary advice is be careful what you ask for, and secondly, be willing to accept all of the positives and negatives of having wildlife share the garden.
The best wildlife-friendly gardens follow several key concepts. In simple terms, animals need the same things we do to survive: a variety of healthy food sources, fresh water, a safe place to live and most importantly, acceptance. It seems strange to me that when people talk of having wildlife in the garden, they are willing to have birds visit but not insects, or squirrels but not raccoons, or deer but not bears. Having wildlife in the garden is not some type of buffet-service, you don't get to choose who visits and who doesn't.
Currently, my students at the UBC Botanical Garden are working on a project to choose plants that enhance backyard biodiversity. A worthy project in this day and age but enhancing biodiversity in the garden is not just about choosing plants, it's so much more and it comes with the responsibility to be accepting of all forms of life. One of the long-held doctrines of attracting wildlife to the garden is the focus on choosing native plants. The believers say that if you plant native plants, wildlife will appear to eat at the table you have set. Such a belief is naive and untrue in the modified and unnaturally managed urban environment. I am not against planting any of the 5,500 or so B.C. native plant species, of which a mere 20 species or so can be bought legally and commercially. I am against the use of the myopic policy of using only native plants to attract wildlife at the expense of so many other ornamental plants that attract and feed wildlife equally well.
Here are some key concepts that will attract wildlife into the garden.
? Provide food in many forms: Plant a wide variety of flowering plants with nectar for insects to feed on, which will attract birds to feed on the insects. Grow trees with a variety of seeds and fruits to attract birds and squirrels, which will attract higher life forms to feed on the birds and squirrels. Protect and enhance the community of soil life to attract birds, snakes and frogs to feed on soil insects.
? Plant in layers: Planting a layered and diverse canopy structure will attract a diverse array of wildlife. Tall trees underplanted with smaller trees, and large shrubs underplanted with small shrubs, and perennials underplanted with groundcovers and bulbs, will provide a diverse canopy structure that offers varied living spaces for life. By contrast, a lawn with a few shrubs provides home for a very limited array of life and those monoculture plantings load the dinner plate for pests.
? Is there anything to drink? Water is a primary element needed to sustain all life and without some form of fresh clean water, few animals will visit or stay in the garden. Use deep-sided ponds, large oak barrels, deep-dish bird baths or any other manner of built water feature that provides reasonably clean water to allow insects and animals to get a drink.
? Where do I sleep? If you want wildlife to visit then make them a bed to sleep in. Birds need undisturbed dense areas in trees and shrubs to nest in. Larger animals like raccoons and chipmunks need large branched trees to rest and sleep in. Insects and small animals like frogs, salamanders and snakes need dense cover such as wood piles, rock piles, rotting logs or thick leaf litter mulch to hibernate in during the winter months. An immaculately clean garden with nothing to eat and no place to live attracts nothing but slugs.
? Is that going to hurt me? Fertilizers, pesticides and bug zappers cause harm to many forms of life. Do no harm, cause no harm and use no harmful product in the garden if you want to attract wildlife. As I always tell my students: Don't you know? If not, then learn. Don't you care? Maybe you should.
Lastly, show some tolerance, respect and spirituality for life in its many forms and enjoy those priceless and thrilling moments of wildlife viewing in the garden.
Todd Major is a journeyman horticulturist and chief horticulture instructor at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden. For advice contact him at email@example.com.