Feeding Wildlife Naturally
Vol. 18 Issue 4, Winter 2013
By Emily Cook
We spend considerable time trying to deer-proof our yards, purchasing plants that are considered “inedible” only to have them grazed through like a cheap buffet. We net our berry bushes and fence off our gardens in an attempt to save a small fraction of the harvest for ourselves. Perhaps this is not the right approach? Perhaps we should find ways to provide something for the wildlife whose nightly rounds take them on a gastronomical stroll through our gardens and, as a result, foster a more natural balance between having a manicured yard and an environment that supports our local mammals, birds and insects.
Much of what we typically plant is not nutritionally adequate but is eaten simply because there are no other options except starvation. Perhaps we should be planting with the mindset of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
And in case you were wondering, yes, you can design your garden to be both attractive and beneficial to animals at the same time!
We often forget about native plants when we design our gardens. Many native plants possess both physical appeal as well as a nutritional benefit to our forest friends and should not be overlooked. Considering how our gardens can be wildlife-compatible might even prevent some ornamental plants from being consumed since there are other options available.
The list of native plants wildlife finds beneficial is extensive, but you can start small and then peruse some of the lists in the resources below to expand your variety over time. Birds are very dependent upon berries, seeds, nuts and insects, while mammals often seek out plants that produce fruit, or use a bush or tree for shelter. Flowering plants, bushes and trees can all meet these nutritional needs, depending upon your gardening objective.
If you’re looking for small- to mid-sized plants that work well in more naturalized areas, big bluestem, a tall ornamental grass, would be a good fit, and is ideal as a food source for birds that rely heavily on seeds. This plant is particularly beneficial to wildlife in winter months as it also serves as shelter for ground birds such as quail. It’s also an attractive addition to any wildflower area with its blue-green foliage and purple blooms.
A deer-resistant option that is extremely popular with goldfinches, juncos and other songbirds is goldenrod. Covered with intensely bright yellow flowers in late summer to early fall, this important flowering bush is extremely easy to grow and is not only a source of nectar for many butterflies and hummingbirds, it is a virtual mini-city for a wide array of insects including bees, praying mantis and a host of others which are a source of nutrition for many birds and small mammals. Sweet goldenrod, one of the many varieties available, produces flowers with a very pleasant scent and would make an excellent addition to any garden.
There are also many bushes that yield berries, making them a suitable choice if you’re hoping to attract birds and small mammals. Elderberry, inkberry and blueberry bushes are all good options, as are raspberries and blackberries, though their foliage is not as visually appealing. Although pokeweed can become a nuisance, leaving a plant or two in the garden ensures hours of entertainment watching birds guard “their” plant and savor its berries. In addition to providing a dependable food source for birds, these bushes often attract several varieties of turtle which eat the berries that have fallen to the ground.
Another berry-producing bush worth considering is the spicebush. It produces bright red berries that are enjoyed by many birds as well as raccoons and possums. The spicebush is also a main source of food for the eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly, and its fall foliage is bright and showy, making it a dramatic addition to the landscape.
Flowers are an important part of every garden and are also a great option when trying to attract birds and wildlife. Purple Coneflowers and Black-eyed Susan are examples of bright, colorful flowers that attract butterflies and bees throughout the spring and summer. In fall, as flowers wither, their abundant seed heads draw a wide variety of birds. Phlox and trumpet-vine, both graceful and displaying an abundance of color, provide nectar during the spring and summer months, making them popular with hummingbirds and butterflies.
Trees that produce seeds, nuts, berries or fruit can be incorporated into your landscape as well and are very valuable, both as a food source and potential shelter for many animals in winter. Hawthorn, with its draped canopy covered with lacy white flowers, provides nectar for many insects, bees and butterflies, producing bright red fruit in the fall that is enjoyed by ducks, foxes, squirrels and rabbits. Dogwood, a medium-sized ornamental tree, produces plentiful large, white flowers and works well as a landscape tree, yet its red berries are commonly consumed by cardinals, finches, deer and other mammals. The holly bush is another winner in this regard as it is frequently the preferred nesting spot for cardinals and in fall and into winter teems with birds enjoying the abundance of red berries.
The options are truly endless when it comes to creating a landscape that is both attractive and beneficial to wildlife. Almost every native plant has something to offer, and if you do some research, you can make your yard come to life with activity and support the animals in your neighborhood, all while enjoying the beauty of a well-designed garden.