Your Garden as a Haven for Nature's Little Helpers

By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, February 14, 2009

A natural garden can create a home for birds, butterflies, bees, chipmunks, rabbits, turtles, frogs, snakes, bats and more -- all while requiring less pruning and preening. But it takes the right flora to get the fauna to appear.

When creating a natural garden, keep in mind the three requirements for all animals: food, water and shelter. A shrub or tree can provide shelter for offspring. A pool with a shallow area is good for toads and turtles, while puddles on flat rocks give butterflies a chance to relax and have a drink. Chipmunks like tunnels, birds like safe nesting places, snakes like rocks (remember that as you lift one), and a host of wildlife will live in hollow logs and brush piles.

Here are some guidelines to make your property attractive to wildlife:

· Plant a variety of shrubs, grasses, flowers and trees that provide nectar, nuts, seeds and berries.

· Provide water. If you don't have room for a pond, a birdbath will do. Leave open space around it so birds can see predators coming and fly away.

· Reduce lawn space. Lawns are largely useless to wildlife -- there's no food, no place to hide and no shelter.

· Provide a variety of materials useful to birds building nests, including thin twigs, short lengths of thread, feathers, dryer lint, short strips of fabric or dog hair.

Design plants that are native and produce berries, and you've added an incentive for birds. Several native bird-attracting shrubs and trees are serviceberries; inkberry hollies; viburnums; blueberries; blackberries; chokeberries (Aronia arbutifolia); and dogwoods, which attract 86 aviary species.

I'm a strong proponent of using plants instead of bird feeders in urban and suburban gardens. Rodent problems can develop if seed drops to the ground.

Hummingbirds are nectar feeders and love tubular flowers like honeysuckles, trumpet vines and bee-balms (Monarda). They're fond of bright colors, especially red and yellow, and will come to hummingbird feeders containing nectar-like liquids. Butterflies are attracted to many of the same nectar plants, and butterfly weed is good for attracting monarchs, while sassafras can lure spicebush swallowtails.

Along with the birds come the bees, the world's most beneficial insect pollinators. One-third of the world's food crops depend on them, and gardens with them are healthy, happy spots. Bees like the same nectar-producing plants that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Herb gardens are an absolute haven for them. Do not use insecticides in gardens that are home to valuable pollinators.

Bees are in decline because of mites and a syndrome scientists call "colony collapse disorder." Entire colonies are dying in alarming numbers, and we don't know why. And, the reasons for loss of wildlife are only half an answer. Like in Humpty Dumpty, how can we put it back together again?

You can't do it all, but each person can do something. Bees are just one of the animals whose population has declined. Whether you live on a farm, in the suburbs or in the middle of the city, you can help maintain the balance of wildlife.

Some creatures are desirable because they prey on undesirables, like mosquitoes. Bats, though they can be frightening, fall in that category. They eat at least half their weight in flying insects, mostly moths and mosquitoes, daily. They come out beginning at sunset when people are indoors, and live in trees, caves or rock crevices, though they adapt to urban settings and will nest in buildings. If one gets into your house, do not swat it with a tennis racket; try to confine it to a room and open the window so it can leave on its own.

Water can attract other desirable predators, such as dragonflies and frogs, which are voracious mosquito eaters. Frogs' mating calls and a little fog can give your garden the aura of a movie set.

Toads and turtles are valuable assets because they are voracious slug and insect eaters. The American toad, for example, will eat about 200 insects a night. They need clean in-ground water, thick grasses and boggy areas. Turtles must have shallow water with gradually sloping rocks and a soft forest floor or beach for burying eggs, with cover plants for foraging and shelter.

The maligned but beneficial snakes eat insects and rodents, and few in the Washington area are poisonous. They like areas of moist woods or grassy areas with hollow logs and rocks.

Where does wildlife attraction stop and pest begin?

Chipmunks, squirrels, turkeys and deer love nuts and seeds. They also cherish tasty tubers, like tulips and hyacinths before they've sprouted. Some herbivores, like deer and rabbits, eat top-growth on many plants. Protecting flowers from them might be accomplished only with tall fences, extending underground six inches to also discourage burrowing animals.

Rabbits and chipmunks also can dig up the garden. Raccoons can be destructive. Foxes are beautiful, as long as they don't have rabies. If these animals are approaching you, especially in daytime, acting aggressive or strangely, call animal control in your local jurisdiction.

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site,

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company