In January, the gardener’s thoughts turn to seeds: browsing seed catalogues, preparing seed orders, and receiving parcels of seeds in the mail. When we are not obsessing about seed, we are reading nurseries’s lists. It gets us through the winter – dreams and plans and anticipation that next season will be the best yet. With a little attention, we can make choices which enhance our gardens’s ability to attract and sustain beautiful wildlife. Let’s look at three ways to increase wildlife benefits: planting for pollinators, butterfly gardens, and planting to feed wild birds.
Pollinator gardens: As the plight of pollinating insects becomes more known, pollinator gardens have become very popular projects with horticultural societies and clubs and private gardeners. The first stage in a pollinator garden usually focusses, for good reasons, on easy native mid- to late summer flowers for sunny sites: Anise-hyssop, Virginia Mountain Mint, Wild Bergamot, Black-eyed Susans, diverse Asters and Goldenrods. These plants have easy-to-access flowers with abundant nectar or pollen, and are able to feed many species of pollinators.
Share your garden with more wildlife and make your pollinator garden even more interesting by continuing to increase the diversity of native plants. Consider adding some flowers with distinctive flower shapes to provide food sources for specialized pollinators. For example, add Bottle Gentian (for a damp spot), Prairie Smoke, and flowers in the pea family, such as Purple Prairie Clover and Wild Lupin.
Another great way to make a pollinator planting even more useful is to include flowers for very early and very late. Many of the earliest blooms are on shrubs: willows, American fly honeysuckle, serviceberries, among others. If you can find room for native shrubs (or, ideally, more native shrubs), they offer many wildlife benefits. Even the smallest gardens can find room for some ground-hugging early perennials. The spring ephemerals of deciduous forest make use of early spring sunshine reaching the forest floor. For open sunny places we like Early Saxifrage and Hooked-spur (or Early) Violet to start the season.
The last native flower to bloom in our garden is Silky Aster, which is still blooming at the end of October.
Butterfly Gardens: Adult butterflies are among the pollinators we are aiming to provide for with our flower-filled pollinator garden. To truly be a butterfly gardener, however, we need to provide the native plants, often highly specific, upon which the young of butterflies, the caterpillars, live and dine. Caterpillar host plants will draw adult butterflies to our gardens, because mama butterflies are seeking good places to lay eggs.
Caterpillar host plants are a diverse lot and include big canopy trees like Hackberries. At Beaux Arbres, we concentrate on Pussytoes and Pearly Everlasting for American Ladies, Golden Alexanders for Black Swallowtails, Showy Tick-trefoil for Eastern Tailed Blues, Bird’s Foot and Hooked Spur Violets for Great Spangled Fritillaries, Swamp Milkweed and Butterfly Milkweed for Monarchs, and Turtlehead for Baltimore Checkerspots. We also offer a number of native grasses, which are hosts for tiny green caterpillars which will become diverse Skippers. New for Spring 2018, we will have some young Hop-trees, for caterpillars of Giant Swallowtails which have been moving north into the Ottawa area in the past decade.
Wild Bird Gardens. Songbirds of all kinds raise their nestlings on a diet of caterpillars and sawfly larvae. Very few of the many thousands of caterpillars needed will be the monarchs and swallowtails you and I are eager to help – most will be caterpillars of moths. Now, moths can be lovely creatures, too, but predation is key to keeping them in balance. You may never see, let alone identify, the many kinds of caterpillars that are feeding the baby sparrows and warblers in your neighbourhood, but it is NATIVE vegetation which is feeding the caterpillars. The more we incorporate natives of all kinds, the more our yards will provide food for nestlings.
Planting shrubs and perennials with berries to attract adult birds is also rewarding. There are many lovely herbaceous plants for woods and woodland edges which have berries in early autumn. We especially like the shrub-sized Pokeweed and American Spikenard, and the more moderately proportioned Blue Cohosh, False Solomon’s Seal, and Starry False Solomon’s Seal. Last fall, we had a flock of grey catbirds descend on our ripening Pokeweed fruit. Other fruit disappeared more quietly but disappear it did, as migrating birds fuelled themselves for their journey.
Using native vines on existing fences and trellises is way to bring more bird-attracting native fruit to a backyard: American Bittersweet (NOT the invasive look-alike Oriental Bittersweet), Glaucous Honeysuckle, and Canada Moonseed are some to consider.
Nannyberry, Grey Dogwood, and Alternate-leaved Dogwood are large shrubs that can be used in the urban landscape as small trees. We love these handsome native shrubs and have made sure to add them to our garden. In our nursery, we concentrate on smaller shrubs. Our favourite mid-sized shrub, for spring flowers and late season fruits and flaming fall foliage, is Purple Chokecherry, a splendid and under-utilized landscaping choice.
Wild roses are in bloom relatively briefly (compared to garden roses) but offer wonderful fall colour and small red hips (fruit) which last into the winter to feed hungry birds. Last fall, I started a shrub and native grasses border featuring grey dogwood, Virginia pasture rose, switch grass, and little bluestem grass. I am hoping that there will be spectacular fall colour and abundant food for wild birds where there used to be a problem too-dry and hard-to-mow bit of lawn. Now my winter garden planning needs to focus on how I can make this shrubby beginning into an even more diverse and bountiful space for me to enjoy and to share with birds and bees. I need to add some early season flowers and maybe some fruiting ground-covers and …