Gardening Meets Conservation
By Claudia Mosby
Wild LifeOctober 2015
By Claudia Mosby
Photos: Erin Claassen
When we brush back the surface of the earth in our own little corner of the world to lay within her womb the seeds of life yet to blossom, we are indeed preparing the way for the birth of something marvelous.
All of us—wherever we are—can engage in the act of co-creating a wildlife-friendly habitat, says the National Wildlife Federation.
Whether our human landscape is urban, suburban or rural, we can introduce
native plants to attract butterflies, bees, migratory birds, small mammals, frogs and other amphibians that help sustain local ecosystems.
“The principles can be implemented anywhere,” says David Mizejewski, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife program. “It does not matter where you live, how much space you have, your budget or your expertise. If you can plant something, even if it is in a pot on a rooftop, deck or urban balcony, you can participate in this program.”
Formerly the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program, Garden for Wildlife attracts people who do not necessarily think of themselves as hardcore wildlife conservationists, says Mizejewski, but who seek a personal way to engage in entry-level wildlife conservation.
“Our program is based on basic wildlife biology 101,” he says. “The four essentials are food, water, cover and places to raise young. These are at the core of wildlife needs and the elements that we look for in gardens we certify.”
Food comes from plants that provide nectar, seeds, berries/fruits, nuts, and sap for a host of birds and small mammals. Some wildlife species feed on the foliage of the plants, which Mizejewski admits not everybody loves but says is part of a natural habitat.
While conventional garden wisdom propones the eradication of bugs, Mizejewski says insects are a normal, healthy part of the ecosystem, adding, “They are micro-wildlife, but they count as much as the bigger, more charismatic wildlife.”
He cites studies showing a garden planted with native plants can support up to 60 percent more insects, the menu for 96 percent of the backyard birds people regularly try to attract. “If you don’t got bugs, you don’t got birds,” he adds.
Water resources can be magnets for wildlife, particularly during a drought. “Something as simple as a bird bath counts,” says Mizejewski. “It can be anything from a flower pot drainage dish to a 30-gallon plastic prefab pond sunk into the ground.”
Shelter offers wildlife safety from inclement weather and predators. “Not many wildlife species can find cover in a lawn,” says Mizejewski. “If you have shrubs or a living fence along the property line, or a big bed of native flowers that gives insects and small animals a place to hide from predators, you begin to see the value. Balance is key.”
Places to raise young ensure a species will perpetuate itself. Attracting wildlife is good, but Mizejewski says, “If the habitat is not supporting the species at every stage of life and encouraging reproduction, it is not doing its job.”
Butterfly caterpillars, for example, require a completely different habitat than adult butterflies. Each species can only feed on a limited number of host plants (Monarch caterpillars can only eat milkweed plants, according to Mizejewski), so from a practical standpoint, planting the host plant fosters more success because it is what attracts the females and males then follow.
These four essentials—food, water, shelter, and places to raise young— can be regionalized and tailored to individual spaces and interests. “There is an element of place-based gardening here,” says Mizejewski. “The act of restoring habitat starts with the act of planting things with a purpose and that, by definition, is gardening.”