Good habitat gardens have a variety of appropriate native plants, rely on balance rather than chemicals to control pests, allow a bit messiness, and include a compost pile.
Meeting the nutritional requirements of wildlife requires an understanding of both what and when animals eat. Most birds, for example, feed their young high protein foods, such as insects, though at other times of the year they may consume more seeds than bugs. Butterflies need high energy nectar gotten from a variety of flowers, though caterpillars, the butterfly’s larval stage, do not eat nectar and some are selective about what they can eat. The relationships between plants and animals that adapted together are incredibly complex, so rather than assuming we have a full and complete understanding, it is best to look to nature for clues. The simplest way to provide the correct food at the correct time for locally native critters is to plant locally native plants.
Monarch butterflies provide a good example. Recent studies indicate that the monarch butterfly population is in steep decline, possibly due to global climate change, and the loss of milkweed in farmland where genetically modified crops are grown. GMO crops are engineered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate (the same chemical used in Roundup). Farmers can control weeds with the broad application of glyphosate, while the GMO crop stands undamaged. One consequence of this practice has been a sharp reduction in milkweed, an important food source for the larval stage of the monarch butterfly. Although it is unlikely that residential gardens can make up for this enormous disruption, it would be foolish not to attempt to provide some milkweed for the dwindling population of this amazing, migratory butterfly.
|Caterpillars of monarch butterfly consume
leaves of showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa).
|Adult Queen Butterfly gets nectar from wide
variety of flowering plants. (I mistakenly called this
a monarch butterfly but the white spots are found
on the Queen, not the Monarch!)
It is known that monarch butterflies in warmer areas of the United States feed on non-native, scarlet milkweed (Asclepia curassavica). However, the timing of the bloom and growing periods for this plant differs from native milkweeds. An Emory University study published in 2009 suggests that the availability of food from this non-native milkweed over an extended period of time may interfere with the migratory pattern of the monarch in Florida. (1) Furthermore, monarchs remaining in a single location over a long period of time seem to be more susceptible to a specific parasite. As such, although the non-native milkweed is readily eaten by the monarch, it may lead to a disease-weakened population.
Although this work is not conclusive, work by other scientists shows variation of mortality and size of monarch larvae on different milkweed species, once again suggesting that plants and animals that evolved together offer unique adaptations that may be important for their continued success.(2) These ecological relationships are complicated and so native plants are likely to provide the best food for native birds, butterflies and the myriad of other organisms that need our help and can thrive in our gardens.
The best way to attract birds to your garden is to plant natives. Bird feeders may be used to supplement food supplies, but they must be kept filled and clean. Bird feeders also attract squirrels and rats so keep the area around the feeder clear of dropped seeds. Whether you use a bird feeder or not, a diverse selection of native plants is helpful to provide the right food at the right time, along with cover, and the accompanying insects so important to bird populations, especially for feeding their young.
|Animals also use water that collects on plant leaves.|
Modification to the hydrology of developed regions often reduces the availability of water for wildlife. This is especially true here in dry but flood-prone Southern California. Rivers have been channelized, and creeks and streams buried to maximize real estate development and minimize the risk of flooding. “Daylighting” these streams – bringing them back out into the open where they can provide needed water for birds and other animals, and beautiful green space for people – would be a wonderful development. The removal of concrete channels so that rivers can flow in more natural streambeds would also go a long way in providing important habitat in urban areas. Due to the cost of such projects, high land values, and the risk of flooding in densely developed parts of Southern California, it is unlikely that waterways will be restored any time soon, and so we can offer nature a hand by “artificially” providing water.
Adding water to a habitat garden can be done simply with a small bird bath. A fountain, pond, or other lovely water feature adds serenity to a garden while making it a popular meeting place for birds.
Places to hide and seek
|Bird sits on small seedhead that
provides dinner and a good
Most critters need protection from predators and the elements. Thickets and dense shrubs are a favorite gathering place for many wonderful songbirds. Trees also provide cover. Dried flower stems of low-growing perennials are not only important sources of food, but great places to keep an eye out for predators or prey. Similarly, dead branches on trees and shrubs furnish both delicious insects and good places to oversee the surrounds. Mixed heights offer different birds just the right vantage points needed for their health and survival.
|Hummingbird babies in low-
growing branch of tree.
Habitat provides the resources and space needed for mating, reproduction, egg development and hatching, nests, and maturation of young or larval forms. The key here, as elsewhere, is to create a garden with a variety of locally native plants. If you plant them, they will come.
|Chaparral yucca (poor choice for a parkway
due to its razor sharp blades) bloomed.
Somehow, even in suburban area,
yucca moth found it, pollinated the
flowers and oviposited eggs into capsule.
While working on the native plant garden hotline at a local botanic garden I was asked how to attract butterflies to a garden without inviting voracious caterpillars. Pretty flowers provide nectar for the butterflies but no food for the caterpillars. If habitat gardens, however, are to truly help butterflies, their young must also be supported. Yes, they may disfigure, or even thoroughly consume some plants but no caterpillars ultimately means no butterflies.
|Yucca moth on chaparral
yucca seed pod.
Lawn mowers and blowers, so central to the neat suburban garden, wreak havoc on eggs and nests. For example, lacewing eggs, hanging from leaves on remarkably delicate threads, are easily destroyed by blowers and power hedgers. Banish these noisy, polluting machines from your yard, and both you and the wild critters will be rewarded with a healthy and peaceful sanctuary. Also, if you must prune shrubs or trees, avoid nesting season, usually springtime.
|Caterpillars rapidly consume young lupine.|
Broad expanses of grass ringed by pristine garden beds devoid of fallen leaves and twigs not only offer little to eat, there is no place to hide, no place to get out of the sun, no place to find tasty bugs, and no place to hang delicate eggs. A neat and tidy garden is a quiet, lifeless place, so if you need an excuse for having a messy garden, you are doing it for the birds.
|Solitary, native bees need unmulched,
gravelly soil for their ground nests.
Although mulch has many benefits in the garden, it is important to leave some ground bare for our native bees which are solitary and nest in small holes in the ground. Given the decline in population of European honey bees, our native bees may play a bigger role in pollinating plants, including backyard fruit trees.
|No problem crawling on this
small patch of lawn
(saved for/by the baby).
A healthy variety of plants found in a good habitat garden attracts many different insects and birds. This diversity of life promotes a balance that discourages massive infestations of pests, thereby reducing the need for toxic chemicals. Naturally, the absence of toxins is not only good for the wildlife, it reassures you that your garden is a safe and healthy place for all members of the family, including low-to-the-ground pre-toddlers.
Composting is an excellent way to reduce your waste stream while improving your garden and creating habitat. Again, neatness is not necessarily a virtue. Find a place in your yard where you can pile green waste, including vegetable kitchen waste. For a while my compost pile was a focal point of the backyard. This does not meet design standards but was functional enough. It is best to locate the compost area where it is somewhat hidden, gets at least some sunshine, and is easily accessible.
Most cities offer classes to instruct residents on the ins and outs of composting. These are helpful, especially if you want to speed up composting because you have little room to store it on site. However, it is important to remember that compost happens, in fact, it is rather hard to keep organic material from decomposing. Nevertheless, there are a few simple principles that will help keep your compost healthy and manageable on relatively small residential sites.
|Composting tips (pdf)|
Apartment dwellers may be interested in enlisting the help of red earthworms for decomposing kitchen waste in a small space. Although vermiculture, as this process is called, requires maintenance, it can be done in an apartment setting and it yields excellent amendments for patio and balcony gardens.
Not only is the compost area one of the most active places in the yard, it provides an endless supply of mulch and compost so that purchasing commercial amendments is unnecessary. This saves money, reduces energy use and makes the garden a healthy, dynamic place.
|Compost from black bin (bottom picture). Passive composting does not require turning, just add waste to top and remove
compost from bottom. Once a year I take the whole thing apart, spread the debris, move the bin and begin anew.
|Pile of brown debris is overwhelming the compost area and we need to tidy up the yard for our son’s wedding.
The small electric shredder (left) is brought out.
|I am feeding the machine. Notice ear, eye, and breathing protection. Yes, my arm is in the mouth of the
machine but the blade is located at the bottom and the black funnel prevents unwitting user from reaching too far.
|Chipped debris spread out leaving the area all cleaned up and neat. (I must confess, I only do this when my
garden is going to be on display.)
(1) Harvey, Rebecca G., Patricia L. Howell, Carol Morgenstern, and Frank J. Mazzotti. 2009. Native Habitatsfor Monarch Butterflies in South Florida. Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Publication Number WEC-266.
(2) Zalucki, Myron P., Stephen B. Malcolm, Christopher C. Hanlon, Timothy D. Paine. Chemoecology. 2012. First-instar monarch larval growth and survival on milkweeds in southern California: effects of latex, leaf hairs and cardenolides. 22:75–88, Published online Dec. 30, 2011.
- Cornell University: Project FeederWatch, Frequently Asked Questions About Birds and Bird-feeding
Monarch Butterflies and Yucca Moths
- John W. McCord & Andrew K. Davis. 2010. Biological Observations of Monarch Butterfly Behavior at a Migratory Stopover Site:Results from a Long-term Tagging Study in Coastal South Carolina. J Insect Behav. 23:405–418. Published online: 20 August 2010
- Carol A. Sheppard and Richard A. Oliver. 2004. Yucca Moths and Yucca Plants: Discovery of “the Most Wonderful Case of Fertilisation”. American Entomologist. Spring 2004.
- EPA: Composting at Home
- Squiddo, Ten Composting Tips
- Eartheasy, Composting
- Garden Organic, Composting Questions Answered
- About.com, Vermiculture
- How Stuff Works, How Composting Works (by Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D.)