Creating a Habitat Garden

a photo of the eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly on blazing star

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Blazing Star, photo by Cindy Gilberg

By Cindy Gilberg

(This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener November/December 2011 issue.)

We have all seen landscapes where the only moving object is irrigation equipment or the weekly mowers. Occasionally a passing bird or butterfly can be seen, perhaps lost or on its way to more productive feeding grounds. A species count of birds, butterflies and mammals in this type of landscape would reveal very low numbers. In other words, landscapes such as these are incredibly low in biodiversity of animal species as a direct result of the low number of native plant species.

The human landscape has had a dramatic impact on the natural landscape through loss of habitat. The plants and animals endemic to our region evolved together in a way that sustains them—they depend on each other. Ultimately, humans are also sustained in an environment that is biologically rich. Understanding the habitat requirements of animals is the first step in creating a landscape that is not only visually diverse but one that provides what they need to thrive.

Food

What at first seems obvious and simple requires more in-depth consideration. Food should be available in all seasons, in many forms and from a diversity of native plant species. While insects and some animals compensate for low availability of food in winter months by either finishing their life cycle, migrating or hibernating, there are many others that overwinter here and are active. Choose native berry and nut-producing plants such as winterberry, hawthorn, oaks, hazelnut and Viburnum for those species. One of the most beautiful winter resident birds are the cedar waxwings that come in large flocks to eat the blue berries on my cedar tree. Other plants, including the dogwoods, spicebush, elderberry and chokecherry, offer sustenance in the summer and early fall.

Native plants that produce large amounts of seed are another group to include in your habitat garden. Grasses are high on that list—prairie dropseed, sideoats grama and little bluestem are easily purchased and work well in residential gardens. Purple and orange coneflowers, blazing star, asters and coreopsis are particularly good to include, but don’t stop there. Note that deadheading flowers before or cutting back the garden in fall removes the seed crop for that year.

Insects make up a huge part of the food chain for not only birds but for other insects and many mammals. Oak trees support the most species (over 200!) with the majority of these being insect species. Include flowering plants that provide pollen and nectar in each season for a vast list of insects. Think before spraying a pesticide on that insect feeding on your plant—it plays a vital role in the overall habitat and could be tomorrow’s butterfly.

Shelter and Nesting Sites

A diversity of plants, in particular shrubs and trees, will provide many opportunities for shelter from both predators and weather. The thick branching structure of shrubs and small trees is especially conducive to both shelter and nesting sites for birds in particular. Evergreens such as cedar and holly provide winter shelter for many birds. The foliage of perennials and grasses supplies great material for nest making as well as shelter for smaller birds, insects and mammals.

Water

Water, essential to life, can be supplied in simple ways such as low basins. It is easy to

a photo of a bird on a bubbler

Water sources like this bubbler are essential for attracting birds. Photo by Cindy Gilberg

make a simple bubbler by drilling a stone and inserting a tube through which water is pumped and trickles out over the surface back into a basin. Pondless waterfalls and even water gardens with water moving over stones all create places for animals of all types to drink and bathe. Some birds prefer a shower to a bath, such as warblers and hummingbirds, and are delighted with a mister. Note that water in the winter should also be offered and will need to be kept from freezing solid with pond or birdbath heaters.

Remember that diversity is the key to a biologically rich habitat garden. Include in your plant palette perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees that produce flowers, seed or fruit throughout the seasons. You will be rewarded with a non-stop show of wildlife to observe and get to know.

Native plants fit into any landscape design scheme. It is you, the gardener/artist, who decides whether the garden is a traditional or a natural design, whether it is formal or wild in appearance.

Resources—this is just a small sampling of what is available!

Bringing Nature Home, by Doug Tallamy

Native Landscaping for Wildlife and People, by Dave Tylka

Birdscaping in the Midwest, by Mariette Nowak

Shaw Nature Reserve (www.shawnature.org) Native Plant School and Native Landscaping Manual Feb and March 2012—book discussions of Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home in addition to other native landscaping topics

Missouri Botanical Garden – Gardening Blitz March 3, 2012 features Doug Tallamy as the keynote speaker presenting Bringing Nature Home

Missouri Department of Conservation (www.mdc.mo.gov)

St Louis Chapter of Wild Ones (www.stlwildones.org) –dedicated to promoting native landscaping

Xerces Society—promotes invertebrate conservation (www.xerces.org )

Audubon Society—St. Louis Chapter ( www.stlouisaudubon.org )


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