As various other people have noted, when you care about wildlife and the world, it’s easy to get depressed these days.
I won’t lie to you, O Readers—lotta bad stuff going on out there, and it’s a short jump from “This is really depressing” to “and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.”
It comes at you from all sides. I turn on the radio and hear about drifting plastic killing sea turtles, I hit the internet to look up a butterfly and run across forum posts saying that gardeners can’t make a difference to their numbers, in the face of overwhelming habitat loss, I turn on the TV and hear about the plight of the grizzly bear, the Florida panther, the weird contagious face-cancers that are killing off Tasmanian devils.
Too much of this and I wind up laying face down on the bed, going “It’s hopeless. Just send the asteroid. What good can one garden do? If I wanted to make a difference, I’d have to be a social organizer or invent a new kind of lightbulb or start desperately collecting seeds at the edges of civilization in an effort to preserve the species before the bulldozers get there, and I am not good at any of those things.”
Fortunately for me, I am not very good at sustained misery. Eventually I sit up and move my moping to the front steps of the garden and stare out at the bees and remember Franklinia.
Franklinia is a species of shrub native to Georgia. (The North American Georgia.) The last known report of it in the wild was in 1803. Not long after that, it went extinct in the wild, and would have passed from human memory…except for a guy named William Bartram, a botanist from Philadelphia who collected seeds and mentioned just how rare it was, in 1765.
All living specimens of Franklinia are descended from seeds he collected and propagated in his garden two and a half centuries ago. There’s now a bunch in cultivation, despite being a finicky bugger, and the Nature Conservancy keeps trying to reintroduce it to its native range.
I am unlikely to do anything so specifically awesome, but nevertheless, stories like this give me hope.
No matter what I do in my garden, no matter how many native plants I plant, I will not get a grizzly bear or a Florida panther. My pond is unsuited to sea turtles, and if a Tasmanian devil shows up, something VERY strange is going on. So what difference does my wildlife garden make?
I could blather a lot of generalities, but hell with it. Quantify! I decided to sit down and make a list of critters that I am sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, were born and raised in my wildlife garden and might not exist if I didn’t spend a fairly ridiculous amount of time throwing mulch around and wondering if there’s a spot where I can cram the orange milkwort.
First, the birds. Okay, let’s figure the last three years in the count—Single Female Hummingbird had two ruby-throat babies this year, the Carolina wrens produced…five babies in the last three years? At least five. The chickadees have reliably done two fledglings a year, we had the one pileated woodpecker, the mourning doves…well, let’s be conservative with the mourning doves and say four…
I listed only birds that had been raised in the immediate environs (the neighborhood crows didn’t count) and went for minimums—I strongly suspect that there were a lot more cardinals and nuthatches, but I lowballed.
The final list looked like this:
5 Carolina wrens
2 Ruby-throated hummingbirds
6 Carolina chickadees
1 Pileated woodpecker
1 Red-bellied woodpecker
2 Blue-gray gnatcatchers
4 Tufted titmice
4 Mourning doves
1 White-breasted nuthatch
27 birds fledged in the garden
Now, this is a LOT for a typical wildlife garden, no question, and the reason is the trees surrounding the yard, including (most usefully) several standing dead snags. We had one year where red-bellied woodpeckers gave way to titmice gave way to a late run of Carolina chickadees, all in one single nest cavity. In a smaller space, I’d expect fewer fledglings (or at least fewer species) since birds rarely want to live right on top of each other. Part of this, however, is that this is such a food-rich area, between feeders and lots and lots of bugs, that occasionally the offspring stick around and raise babies of their own. I think we’ve got at least three generations of chickadees and wrens living here, and the one young cardinal appears to have brought in a mate the next year rather than striking out on his own.
So, not too shabby. How ’bout the Reptile House?
Well, let’s see….I usually count the bronze frogs sunning themselves on the edges of the pond, and I know a couple of those got eaten by the blacksnake last year, but there’s still at least fifteen after casualties, and some of them have to be moving out every year…call it a dozen. I keep tripping over Eastern pickerel frogs in the yard—let’s say two of those—and lord, I don’t even know with the cricket frogs. Fifty? A hundred? They would have been here anyway, but the numbers increased massively when I started gardening. And the Carolina anoles exploded last year—call it twenty-five—and the five-lined skinks are popping up everywhere this year—we’ll shoot low and say a dozen—then there’s the brown snakes going nuts in the mulch….
Well, it’s not the most scientific method, but I came out to a hundred and ten on the reptile/amphibian front, spanning seven species, and again, I think that’s probably quite low.
As for bugs…crap. I don’t even know how many bugs there are in my wildlife garden. I’d require a trained professional to come out and make a survey. Going just with species that I can ID, just with ones that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt were raised on one of my plants or in my pond or in my rain barrel:
2 Predacious Diving Beetles
2 Io moths
1 Stinging Rose Caterpillar
6 Blue Dasher Dragonflies
6 Eastern Pondhawks
2 Mourning Cloaks
1 Imperial moth
20 Carolina mantises
(That is, incidentally, a ridiculously low number, since the garden is covered in bees and beetles and flies and wasps, and I’m only figuring five mantises per mantis egg case I’ve discovered, and a half dozen dragonflies per year of those species I’ve seen laying eggs in the pond. I also left out the eleventy million mosquitoes, and things like Tiger Swallowtails that come in for the tulip poplar trees I didn’t plant in the first place. But I’m trying to make sure I don’t inflate the numbers unnecessarily.)
At the end of the day, I wind up with 178 individuals of 26 species that I can honestly say might not have existed without my wildlife garden around to host them. Sure, nearly a third of those are cricket frogs. Cricket frogs are getting rare up north, and it’s up to us down here in the South to make sure the species has plenty of places to live. Sure, Single Female Hummingbird could have gone somewhere else, but she might have had to fight for the territory and maybe she would have fledged only one baby, or none. Sure, the predacious diving beetle might have found another pond, but by digging one in my yard, I made a little tiny bit more habitat for them.
There are 178 more critters in the world because I made a wildlife garden. (Obviously some of those got eaten by now, or died of old age, or dropped dead of sexual exhaustion, but that doesn’t really matter—they don’t have to be immortal. It’s enough that they existed when they might not have otherwise.)
Now, as a caveat—this is a very unscientific number. It says more about me than about the garden, since it’s all vertebrates and charismatic insects. It’s “the things I care about enough to observe closely” number. It leaves out the nest of yellow-jackets and the little shells of solitary wasps tucked against the deck railing. (Hell, if I could remember the names of that one spider that keeps producing little webs covered in babies, the number would be up in the thousands.) And it’s admittedly useless for any actual science since it’s not weighted in any fashion, and one Pileated Woodpecker chick counts the same as one cricket frog, and one Carolina mantis counts the same as a Pipevine Swallowtail. And this doesn’t take into account at all the thousands of meals that my garden has provided over the years for various critters, because again, hard to quantify. (How many meals for a bumblebee = one cricket frog? You can’t do it.)
But as a “Make me believe that my gardening isn’t futile” number? I’ll take it.
Is that a gigantic number? Is my wildlife garden huge and special and located somewhere amazing? Nah. The lot’s 2.5 acres, but the area I’ve actually got under cultivation is a great deal smaller. Large stretches of it are mulch and goosegrass and not much else. And I actually get fewer types of birds here than I did living in the city, where I was an oasis. We could make a case for more forest dwelling beetles here, but I didn’t actually count any of those in the list. Lots of trees is the great advantage—but almost all the activity takes place at the edges anyway. About the only things that I don’t think you could get in the average city garden are the Stinging Rose Caterpillar, who’s a bit of a rarity, and the Pileated Woodpecker, who requires a whole lot of dead trees.
Are these rare, threatened species? Oh, maybe not. What turns up in your garden depends on what’s local. My wildlife garden might not help the Kirtland’s warbler or the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but hell, a friend of mine’s mother has the endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker nesting in a tree on her block, so anything’s possible. And a fair number of songbird species, while not rare, are in decline in all or part of their ranges.
Anything that helps those songbirds is good. Imperial moths and Pipevine Swallowtails need all the help they can get.
So. Can gardens make a difference?
Well, let’s think numbers. What if in North Carolina, in my general biome, we had a hundred wildlife gardens like mine? I think that’s probably a very conservative estimate, given that I can think of a good dozen off the top of my head, and some of those are much bigger than mine, and I don’t go on garden tours or anything. But it’s a round number. Say we had a hundred wildlife gardens running for three years. That’d be…17,800 more critters. What if we checked back in six years? 35K, at least. (Actually I expect it would be a lot more—many of those critters showed up in the last year or so, and I will bet you a nickel that ten years from now, we’ll blow those numbers out of the water. A bigger garden doesn’t necessarily mean more species, but an older wildlife garden might. Ask me again in a few years, and I may have another opinion.)
Peanuts, you say? In the grand scheme of things, maybe. But there’s a lot of endangered species out there who’s conservators would cry tears of joy to find a hundred more specimens. Populations are big things, but they are made, ultimately, of individuals like the ones in our gardens.
For my money, we make a difference. I don’t know what happens when we die, and I don’t believe anyone else does either, but if I someday find myself standing in front of some cosmic judge, and they say “So, puny mortal, what did YOU accomplish with your allotted time?” I like to think that Exhibit A for the defense will be a whole bunch of cricket frogs and a couple of predacious diving beetles.
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