Welcoming the wild things

Hummingbird moth on penstemon                                         Larry Lamsa/Flickr

Hummingbird moth on penstemon                                         Larry Lamsa/Flickr

“Sustainability” is a watchword among gardeners who want to tread lightly where resources like water are in short supply. But given the threats that pollinators face and the steep decline in wildlife populations, many are tweaking the idea a little and planting sustaining gardens – those that support the birds, the bees and the butterflies.

The National Wildlife Foundation, the North American Butterfly Association  and the New Jersey Audubon Society all warmly endorse the backyard habitat movement and offer copious “how-to” information on their websites, including detailed plant lists.

 With a dizzying array of plants available today it all boils down to making more thoughtful choices for the garden and landscape. The era of the weed-free expanse of lawn and the rigidly pruned array of “foundation shrubs” may be finally yielding to more generous ideas about how the private garden fits into the wider landscape.

Pockets of food, shelter and nesting sites are especially important in a densely developed state like ours, where fields, woods and meadows succumb daily to the developer’s backhoe. As you huddle over garden catalogs and plan the gardening season ahead, spare a thought for the honeybees, hummingbirds, swallowtails and dragonflies that can give your garden brilliant, brimming life in surprising variety.

It’s a truism that if you create a bit of wildlife-friendly habitat, the critters will find it. If you plant it – food, shelter and nesting sites -- they will come.  And if there are children in the house, the antics of bathing birds or the flight of jewel-toned butterflies just might get their attention. Long before it chiefly meant the Internet, “the web” referred to the complex interrelationships between flora and fauna in the real (not virtual) world.

“You need to support the whole community of life – not just the beautiful butterfly but the caterpillar, the predatory insects and their insect prey, the honey bees and their flowers,” says Randi Eckel, owner of the Toadshade Wildflower Farm, a native plant nursery in Frenchtown, NJ. “If all you have are highly hybridized plants, which are often sterile and lacking seeds or nectar, you’re not offering much.”

The native plants that evolved over millennia with our indigenous animal life are the backbone of any sustaining garden. It’s no sacrifice to devote a garden bed to some of these, since they include many garden-worthy species including asters and goldenrods, coneflowers and liatris.

 You might even be drawn to less familiar subjects like obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana) with spires of magenta flowers beloved by bees, turtlehead (Chelone glabra) the preferred food of the Baltimore checkerspot’s caterpillars, or spiky beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), a favorite of hummingbirds and moths.  You’ll find a gallery of native plants and nursery sources on the websites of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey and at Jersey-Friendly Yards.

“Plan to have something in bloom through the season from columbines in spring to beebalms in summer and asters in the fall,” says Eckel. “The key thing is to plant in conspicuous swaths, not just a plant or two dotted here and there. In the supermarket, are you drawn to the huge display of Pepsi or the single can of soda hidden behind the soup on the bottom shelf?”

When winter shuts down action in the garden, birds can be drawn near with feeders that offer an easy meal. Yes, the seed will attract squirrels, too, but their raids can be mitigated by feeders enclosed in wire mesh or with metal ports that thwart wholesale thievery.

The bird vs. squirrel battle raises the point that homeowners can’t be selective about which critters come to visit. For some, the problem isn’t too little wildlife but too much. Certain areas of the state have coyotes and bears to deal with but the most formidable species for most is the deer, hungry herbivores that can decimate vulnerable gardens.

Deer-resistant plant lists aren’t infallible, but one developed in New Jersey is the Rutgers Extension Service database, available at Landscape Plants Rated by Deer Resistance. Experts recommend that plants new to the garden be sprayed initially with a repellent to discourage nibbling. Bobbex, Hinder and Deer Stopper (a New Jersey product) have consistently been rated as effective.

Another strategy for growing munchable plants is to surround them with something that is not “deerlicious,” says Eckel –plant lilies in a sea of monarda, for instance. Avoid heartache by passing up plants that deer can’t resist like hostas, daylilies or arborvitae.

Bluejays enjoying a bird bath.                               Rachel Kramer/Flickr

Bluejays enjoying a bird bath.                               Rachel Kramer/Flickr


1. Plant some shelter – Evergreens, especially those that provide berries like junipers, offer secure nesting sites.

2. Don’t be a neat freak — Leave fallen leaves in wooded areas. Leaf litter is shelter for insects, worms and other small creatures.

3. Offer water – a birdbath or small water feature is always welcome.

4. Grow your own birdseed — Sunflowers are a favorite but also attractive are cosmos, zinnias, four o’clocks; black-eyed Susans, purple coneflower and coreopsis.

5. Hang some birdhouses — Wrens, chickadees and titmice will move into ready-made homes.

6. Rethink lawn care — Limit the use of synthetic fertilizers and avoid “cides” containing persistent toxins. Let a few violets or patches of clover grow.

7. Confine your cat indoors — and encourage your neighbors to do the same.