“How can I attract wildlife to my yard?” asked an attendee after one of my recent talks. My answer: “Cultivate untidyness.”
Untidiness does not mean littering your yard with old tires or trash, or letting invasive weeds take over; it means letting at least some of it remain natural– “messy” to some eyes. The compunction to tidy and groom, whether spraying the lawn with pesticides, raking up leaf litter, or pruning shrubs and trees to rigid shapes is not friendly to wildlife.
Biologists talk about diversity in terms of both species diversity, the number and kind of species found in a particular area, as well as structural diversity, the form of the community. A typical yard with lawn, raked flower beds, and specimen shade trees is not diverse by either measurement. It may be tidy, but it provides habitat for very few native species.
Landscaping for wildlife means growing a variety of native or regionally-adapted plants in a natural arrangement that includes diverse shapes, colors, flowers, and fruits, and leaving areas to go natural to provide shelter, cover and food for wildlife of all sorts.
It means providing layers: ground covers, grasses and flowers, shrubs, trees of different heights, and vines as “ladders” between them where appropriate. And horizontal diversity as well: openings in woods, meadow areas, shrub or tree islands in open areas, and pathways like dry or wet streambeds connecting the different habitat areas. Strips of plants running between different habitat areas allow small critters a corridor for safe travel.
One way to accustom yourself to cultivating untidyness is to start small: choose an area of lawn that you can replace with a mix of native shrubs, flowers, and wild grasses. By selecting plants that provide different heights and forms, foliage, and flowers with varying blooming times plus an assortment of fruits and seeds, you add interest year round and habitat for wildlife.
A “wild” garden doesn’t have to look sloppy: Arrange the plants to enhance the space they’ll occupy, considering their eventual shape, size, and habit of growth and bloom. Cluster plants for maximum impact by grouping three or five plants of the same species. Place clusters to contrast colors, foliage, and blooming time.
Here in the Southern Rockies, for example, the blue-purple spires of Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon stricta) open wide during the day on tall stalks. Yellow Missouri evening primrose (Oenothera missouriensis), by contrast unfurls its huge flowers in evening not far above ground level, and they wilt in the next day’s sun.
Flowers of different sorts in different seasons appeal to diverse kinds of pollinators, including native bees, butterflies, beetles, moths, and hummingbirds. Day-flying native bumblebees love Rocky Mountain penstemon, as do swallowtail butterflies. Night-flying hovering hawk moths are lured to Missouri evening-primrose flowers by their sweet scent and moonlight-colored petals.
Resist tidiness: leave organic litter in place to mulch the soil, don’t cut back dead stalks until spring to leave seeds for food, prune thoughtfully, and avoid using pesticides. Mulch shades the soil, keeping it cool on hot summer days and warmer in winter. It holds moisture and decomposes to release nutrients that help plants grow. Dead leaves may hide the cocoons of butterflies; a dense shrub or tree provides camouflage and thermal protection for the tiny nests of hummingbirds.
Learn what’s a weed and what’s a native plant. The latter are important for their established relationships with wildlife and other plants; regardless of whether they suit our aesthetics or not, native plants are the backbone of wild communities. The former are unhealthy and disrupt the relationships that make for good wildlife habitat.
Here in the Southern Rockies, for instance, Big Sagebrush (Seriphidium tridentatum) is often called a weed. But this tough and fragrant native shrub is an integral part of western landscapes and is essential to the survival of many native species, including pronghorn, sage thrashers, sagebrush lizards, and two species of sage-grouse.
Tumbleweed (Salsola tragus), on the other hand, is a true weed, an annual native to the steppes of central Asia that crowds out native species, thus eliminating the relationships that sustain insects, birds, and other wildlife.
Cultivating untidiness takes practice, but it’s worth the effort. As Ken Druse points out in The Natural Habitat Garden, if every one of American’s estimated 38 million gardeners landscaped just one-tenth of an acre for wildlife, it would equal 3.8 million acres of wildlife habitat. Make a New Year’s resolution to cultivate untidyness and provide wildlife habitat in your yard!
© 2013, Susan J. Tweit. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us