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.
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.
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!)
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