Layers for Wildlife
Volume 22 Issue 4, Winter 2017
by Anne Owen, Audubon at Home Ambassador
High-rise condo with a view, cozy townhouse or single-family home — there are many different places that people choose to make a home, and the same is true for the wildlife in our backyards. By taking that into account as we add native plants, we can greatly enrich the variety of habitat available. Not everyone has room for tall trees, but taking a classic approach to layering plants such as using taller shrubs and perennials at the back of beds, with lower ones in the middle and low-growing ground cover at the front, will increase visual interest as well as provide a variety of niches for critters that need food, shelter and nesting sites to succeed.
Upper Story: Trees
We all know that many birds nest in trees, but the magnificent deciduous forest natives like oak, hickory and sycamore also provide home, food and larval host services to countless species of butterflies, moths and other insects that enable those birds to feed their chicks and raise their broods. In the canopy you will also find tree frogs, snakes, squirrels and so many more wildlife species that are essential to a balanced ecosystem. Trees may also support beneficial vines like Virginia Creeper, which add nesting places and food while providing us with wonderful fall color. Dead trees and snags are of great value to woodpeckers for food, and to Mason Bees for nest sites.
Mid Story: Small Trees, Tall Shrubs
Early flowering beauties like cherry and dogwood trees support the emerging early pollinator insects, and later provide berries for birds. But along with later-flowering shrubs like viburnums, they also provide essential cover for birds like chickadees, jays, wrens and kinglets to move about between food sources while avoiding predators such as hawks. Near feeders, it is very common to see a nuthatch or a titmouse dart in to pick up a seed, then retreat to the safety of a nearby branch to crack it open and consume the kernel. Bluebirds and flycatchers, like the Eastern Phoebe, like to make use of mid-level branches as perches from which to catch insects on the wing. The Redbud is also a preferred source of leaf matter for nesting Leaf Cutter bees.
Understory: Low Shrubs and Perennials
These may be the tallest plants that will fit into a small yard, but there is plenty of opportunity to layer low-growing shrubs like Virginia Sweetspire or Fragrant Sumac with pollinator favorites like bee balms, asters, goldenrods and coneflowers. St John’s Wort is another favorite of Leaf-Cutter Bees for nesting. Native grasses, like Purple Love Grass, larval host to the Zabulon Skipper, can be a good addition in hot, dry areas, while ferns like the Cinnamon Fern can add an accent in moist areas, and birds love to use the fuzz covering the young fiddleheads as nesting material.
Ground Cover: Grasses, Sedges and More
Ground covers do more than just eliminate the need for unsightly mulch! Many birds forage on the ground, and a varied planting of low-growing plants can provide an excellent hunting ground, especially if you let leaf litter lay through the winter. Robins, sparrows and juncos will all appreciate the food and shelter from predators provided by plantings of clumping grasses like Purple Love Grass, or sedges like Pennsylvania Sedge. Broad-leaved Sedge hosts over 35 species of caterpillars, while the handsome Golden Ragwort attracts butterflies and bees, then provides seeds much loved by goldfinches.
Yes, even bare earth is a valuable habitat! 70% of bees in our area nest underground. Look for a small patch of compacted earth that catches the early-morning sun and is unlikely to be flooded, then just leave it bare — and you might well provide a home for a hard-working pollinator.
If you are interested in learning more about how you can provide habitat for wildlife on your own property and the Audubon at Home Program, please contact Ann Garvey, at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.