The Wildlife Garden as Shelter from the Storm

Dense plantings shelter wildlife from the brunt of storms.

When Carole invited me to be a contributor to NPWG, my first thoughts went something like this: “a gardening blog? Me? She must only be asking because she hasn’t seen my garden!” Then I read Debbie Robert’s on fall cleanup (or not) and Vincent Vizachero’s post on the virtue of untidy gardening, and I knew I was in good company!

For my first outing, I had planned a nice post on introducing young children to backyard birding. Then Sandy came barreling in, and concern for friends on the east coast started to hang over that idea (don’t worry, I’ll get back to it).

Amid all the warnings, advisories, and preparations, I got to thinking about the role backyard habitat plays in a storm like this. To be sure, all of our good intentions are useless in the face of floodwaters. That said, a well-conceived wildlife garden can be a haven against Mother Nature’s tantrums.

When dreaming a wildlife garden with an eye towards storm protection, the focus becomes less about food and water and more about shelter. The best way I know to build shelter can be summed up in two concepts—layers and dense plantings.

All kinds of invertebrates, as well as reptiles and amphibians, find shelter in a layer of leaves.

Left unattended, nature builds its own layers, from an ancient forest floor of needles and moss to the cryptobiotic soil of an unmarred desert. In the home garden, we achieve this layering effect by leaving leaf litter in place wherever possible and building brush piles in the nooks and crannies. The quantity of life supported by simply leaving leaves, brush, and other debris in place or in designated areas is astounding. Annelids (worms), fungi, moss, bacteria, not to mention arachnids, insects, small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, all live and shelter in these simple habitats.

But, how to keep these layers in place against driving wind? That brings us to the second concept—dense plantings. Nature does not build nice, tidy plantings of one shrub spaced just so, followed by another shrub, fronted by a neat row of flowers. That’s our construct. Nature packs in as much life as a given environment can sustain. It builds interrelated communities, in which each member plays a role. Grasses and ground cover snatch the lowest levels. Shrubs stretch their arms out from side to side and trees reach up tall. When the wind comes, low-lying leaf and debris piles are left largely intact, protected by a thick protecting wall of vegetation.

These closely spaced plant communities also shelter larger animals from the brunt of wind and rain. Deer, owls, raccoons, opossums, foxes—all find shelter in cavities, under thick evergreen branches, or in shrubby thickets.

This native oak, a remnant from our neighborhood’s predevelopment state, snuck up in one of our garden beds 13 years ago.

So, as you look to add to your existing habitat, think lazy, layering thoughts and let nature give you a little help. Rake the leaves only where absolutely necessary. Otherwise, let them lie. Instead of filling the yard debris bin and leaving it on the street to be carted away, use some of that debris to build a brush pile in some out-of-the-way corner of the yard (be sure to leave diseased debris in the bin). And if some squirrel-planted shrub sneaks into a garden bed, consider letting it grow. Given some time, nature will hand you layers and dense plantings. All you have to do is a little work to find your own personal balance between wildlife garden and overrun jungle! (Mine runs a bit more to the “jungle-y” side!)

© 2012, Christy Peterson. 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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Comments

  1. says

    hi Christy and welcome to BWG! You are in good company here, I am with you on “think lazy and layering thoughts and let nature give you a little help”! I wrote an article here about a month ago about dense plantings as storm protection but I was thinking about erosion control rather than wildlife shelter – your point is a good one, dense plantings are useful in many other ways including shelter from the storm for the little critters who have a tough time in a hurricane.
    Ellen Sousa recently posted..Use Your Weeds! Violets as Groundcover

  2. says

    Christy, Your post brings up a very important point that I don’t often think about…how a wildlife garden really is a haven in a storm. Layering is crucial and I’m all for the idea of ‘think lazy, layering thoughts’ when it comes to ceating wildlife gardens.
    Debbie recently posted..Containers for the Birds

  3. says

    Christy, thanks for your post – it reminds me that it’s really ok to leave an untidy garden over the winter and how beneficial leaving Mother Nature to her own devices really is. I appreciate the permission to be messy. One of the corollaries to your post is how void of life cleanly raked, mowed and weeded areas can be – life of all kinds. One of the most amazing things I see people doing is raking the forest floor bare attempting to rid them of leaves, debris and all the wonderful creatures you mention. Something is wrong with this! It will take lots of education to begin to have people recognize the value of the forest floor and the value of dense plantings to provide habitat and shelter from the storm.
    Kathy Settevendemie recently posted..Tempted?

  4. says

    Christy, this is a great article that is very relevant in the case of Sandy. We’re trying to help gardeners not lose their bees as well. Ground nesting bees are covered nicely with what you suggested. Nothing helps with flooding, though most of the cocoons in the ground are waterproof, so can handle a bit of overhead water.

    Solitary bees in holes are equally protected if the tree isn’t blown down. Tubes/reeds/trays are obviously best brought indoors for such major storms.

    Thanks for writing this post!
    Crown Bees recently posted..Want to get more fruit from your fruit trees?

  5. Daniel says

    Great article! However, I just thought I’d speak the thoughts of long-time wildlife gardeners who purposely sought out lush, colonizing plants like jewelweed, aster, goldenrod, monarda, painter’s pallet, virgin’s bower, etc. These are great plants for filling in a garden, but they can also not only outcompete each other but overwhelm smaller plantings completely. If you have a relatively small space, say a 1/4 acre of property only a portion of which is devoted to your garden, it’s great to go with what nature tells you, but it’s okay to set some boundaries, if you’re able? Thinking about the relationship of your garden to the wider landscape (suburban houses, local forests, sources of native and nonnative seed) may help you to decide what kinds of biodiversity you’re going for.

  6. Pam says

    This is EXACTLY what I’ve done! I’ve actually created quite the little wind shelter during the past two years and every time I look at it or add more to it I wonder who has found and made this their home. I can’t believe how many people (especially men who have worked in and around my yard) have asked me if I wanted it all hauled away! WE really are wired differently in our thoughts! I love the little haven I’ve created and overturning leaves and logs every now and then to see what interesting creatures I will find in that world underneath our feet. I saw slug eggs for the first time…I knew what they were immediately and was amazed! I love having a wildlife yard and garden!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] When dreaming a wildlife garden with an eye towards storm protection, the focus becomes less about food and water and more about shelter. The best way I know to build shelter can be summed up in two concepts—layers and dense plantings.   All kinds of invertebrates, as well as reptiles and amphibians, find shelter in a layer of leaves. … The quantity of life supported by simply leaving leaves, brush, and other debris in place or in designated areas is astounding. Annelids (worms), fungi, moss, bacteria, not to mention arachnids, insects, small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, all live and shelter in these simple habitats. …   Nature packs in as much life as a given environment can sustain. It builds interrelated communities, in which each member plays a role. Grasses and ground cover snatch the lowest levels. Shrubs stretch their arms out from side to side and trees reach up tall. When the wind comes, low-lying leaf and debris piles are left largely intact, protected by a thick protecting wall of vegetation.  [...]

  2. […] writing about leaves in the next couple of months. They are amazingly versatile as free fertilizer, wildlife habitat, and fun all in a colorful, crisp package. In this article, we’re going to focus on the […]

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