A Garden’s Worth Of Difference

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.

This is what it looks like, in case you’re curious. Photo from Wikimedia CommonsSo, yeah. One guy saved a whole species in his garden.

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 Cardinal

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:

1 Pipevine Swallowtail

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


41 insects

(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.

© 2012 – 2013, Ursula Vernon. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. julianna zdunich says

    this is a great post, thank you. when thinking about how a few people (or one) can make a difference, i always remember the california sea otters & how they were thought to be hunted to extinction – except that there was one small group of them that was hidden for years by people who were unwilling to let them all die. how cool is that? i think you have to choose to be on the good side, to do what you can with what you have and where you are at.

  2. says

    Ursula you have done it again…another wonderful post to encourage us to get started because we can make a difference. I keep saying that as I pull out invasives and plant specific plants for butterflies, birds and other insects. Heck my stand of common milkweed is an insect garden of eden…and the dragonflies from my pond have just skyrocketed in number….frisky frogs have created hundreds of tadpoles in the small pond too…..frogs, toads, snakes, birds of all kinds growing, eating, nesting all over the place….my meadow feeds and houses hundreds of insects and the firefly show every night is spectacular….thx for making us realize that even a small garden like mine (.75 acres) in the middle of the ‘burbs is making a difference…although that rabbit and new momma deer…OK yeah I plant for them too….the voles though who just stole and ate one of my new pumpkins…we raise them for food for the fox, snakes and raptors.
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Simply The Best-July

    • Ursula Vernon says

      *laugh* I didn’t include the rabbits that have undoubtedly added many, many babies living under our blackberry bushes—there’s more of them in the world thanks to me, but I try not to think about it!

  3. says

    That’s an amazing number of critters! I can’t boast anything so grand, but I absolutely keep imagining the many small islands of habitat that will eventually connect if enough of us with tiny spaces keep trying. The rabbit comment really made me laugh; I need a fox for sure. Five babies born already, and one lives in the chard, literally. Good thing I planted too much.
    (If you visit my site, forgive all the buddleia in the pictures. The butterflies think it’s funny to only pose on the non-native plants, the little rascals. I really have plenty of natives out there, really.)
    Joanna recently posted..Welcome Back Tiger!

  4. says

    YES! This is exactly what I referred to at the end of my recent article: http://nativeplantwildlifegarden.com/the-science-behind-our-passion-for-native-plants/.
    This is not a scientific survey, as you say. But if we continue to accumulate examples of this sort, all of them together add weight to the evidence that native plant gardens are beneficial to wildlife. I am looking forward to your observations through the years. Thanks.
    Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Of Spring Beauties and Lesser Celandines

  5. says

    Ursula, what precious and wonderfully encouraging narrative! I am in South Central KS indulging my passion for working outside and in my art studio painting wildflowers amid the 108 degree heat. Worse than the killing heat is the endless attack on all things beautiful, wild and prairie-like by industry and industrial agriculture. I DO LovE the prairie and all the living creatures woven into the fabric of our wild America. I am in the Kansas Native Plant Society, a group of enthusiasts for all native plants. They sent me here. So glad to find kindred like you in the steamy south. Sending a painting of Prickly Poppy your way for summer time enjoyment. http://www.matthewrichter.com/piece_bio/prickly_poppy_meadow_edge.html

  6. Dena says

    Love your article, It is a new wayto think of my yard and the impact it can make. More people need to think this way. There is no explanation as to why I have had 3 broods of bluebirds averaging 3-5 babies but for some reason they like it here even though I back up to a busy highway. And then there are the geckos that keep having their babies who find their way out into my bathroom. I still haven’t figured out where they are coming from, but it is florida so what can ya do but catch ‘em before the cat does and release them in the backyard.

  7. says

    Thank you for underscoring how I feel about the media barage of bad news and what we as individuals can do about it.
    I have had a love affair with Franklinia for about 15 years. I have one Franklinia tree in my yard here in Connecticut. It is a beautiful example of a survivor.
    I have noticed alot more butterflies this year and last. There are positive signs out there!

  8. says

    Doing a headcount of saved creatures is one way to measure success. But the aspect of gardening or doing anything about which I am passionate that is most heartening is the stuff you can’t measure, the unintended consequences. Small actions all together collectively matter and create trends which engender even more potency and momentum. But no one can say who play the most important role–the dramatic people who are on the front lines or the homebodies keeping the hearth burning. The one needs the other. We are all in this together.
    Michelle Beissel recently posted..How to Make French Onion Soup…and fresh green bean salad

  9. Lee says

    Y’know, I was reading this article, and thinking, “I ought to copy the link and port it over to Ursula’s LJ, she’d really like this.” Then I got to the bottom and realized you wrote it!

  10. Dee says

    Fantastic post, it gives me encouragement to keep on going, as every little bit does help the local wildlife. I have a butterfly garden in my small yard in a mobile home park. I created a raised 8 x 12 garden bed out of cedar planks, then I began to study, read lots of posts from this site, & educate myself as much as I could so I would be a responsible steward of the environment. The 1st year I had at least 8 different species of butterflies. This year I’m adding more host plants. I loved this article because it made me realize that I am making a difference. Please visit my butterfly garden page at https://www.facebook.com/MyButterflyGarden


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