Biodiversity is a mainstay of sustainability and animals contribute to the palette of organisms in a healthy ecosystem. Encouraging the buzz of wildlife in your garden has many benefits. Birds, insects and small mammals form a community of pest patrollers and pollinators that can keep pest problems in check. But before you open your front gate and beckon Bambi into your garden, there are some principles that will help you enjoy both your garden and the company of birds, bats and bees.
• Welcome insects. Attracting a variety of insects to your garden is an excellent way to control pests and keep your garden in balance. Ladybugs, parasitic wasps and praying mantises keep harmful pests at bay. As you move up the food chain, those same insects provide nourishment for songbirds, reptiles and spiders that also are pest patrollers. Spraying toxic pesticides not only poisons your soil but it also creates a ripple effect in insect populations — indiscriminately wiping out populations of insects that protect your garden.
• Be selective. Thinking through nontoxic approaches and barriers, keeping pesky critters from moving in, will save you heartache. Deer can ravage shrubs and flowering plants. Voles enjoy nibbling the roots of plants, decimating your garden. Fencing, both above and below the ground, can protect your plants. On the Marin Master Gardener website (marinmg.ucanr.edu), review lists of plants that are deer-resistant and add them to your garden. If you have a particular pest problem, check out our integrated pest management link for help.
• Think native. Native plants are an excellent choice both as a wildlife attractant and sustainable habitat for birds and bugs. Many native plants offer the food and shelter wildlife needs as they patrol your plants for pests. Select a variety of plant types — mix trees, shrubs and perennials with ground cover and plants offering blossoms, seeds, sap and cones during different seasons. Grasses offer food in the early spring while plants with nuts and berries are plentiful in the fall.
• Let it be. The environment that supports wildlife is a bit messy. Leaves, deadfall, branches and twigs serve as an important part of their habitat. Those untidy corners of the garden are moist and dark, offering protection and sustenance for many insects. Many species of bees use our gardens to overwinter in decomposing logs or tree cavities. For birds, reptiles and spiders, those piles of refuse are a feeding delight. Blowing dead leaves and raking up debris destroys these habitats. By leaving some leaf litter for animals to burrow under in the winter gives them a head start eliminating pest problems in the early spring.
• Control pets. Birds are one of the gardener’s best friends. Pest patrolling songbirds eat some of our most egregious pests — like slugs, aphids and thrips. And while housecats may be simply manifesting their natural propensity to hunt, they kill billions of birds every year. Minimally, a bell sounding from the collar of a kitty would save some bird-lives.
• Offer water. If you’ve planted natives, conservation of water is a primary benefit. Irrigation systems that use untargeted overhead sprinklers are wasteful and can create run off, so converting to a targeted drip irrigation system is healthier for the plants and the soil. Wildlife needs sources of surface water to keep hydrated and their feet wet. Birds, mammals and insects are attracted to pools of water, whether it’s a saucer on the ground or a bubbling fountain. Consider creating such a source in your garden, regardless of how small it is.
There’s nothing more enticing than a garden buzzing with life — the song of birds and the fresh scent of healthy soil. It attracts both humans and wildlife. Gardens come alive when gardeners welcome the wildlife around them and join forces to create a safe, nontoxic environment for people and animals.