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97.9 The Hill and Chapelboro.com have partnered with Orange County Master Gardeners for “Playing in the Dirt,” a monthly column exploring the fertile ground of home gardening in our community and intended to provide the information and inspiration gardeners of all skills levels need to flourish! Check back on Chapelboro each month for a new subject – from our gardens to yours!
By Faye McNaull, Orange County Master Gardener Volunteer
A gardener can attract birds, bees, butterflies and helpful insects by creating a wildlife habitat. Birds and other wildlife all have the same basic needs: shelter, food, water and a place to nest and raise their young. Build these features into your yard and wildlife will come.
Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly on rosinweed at N.C. Botanical Garden. Photo by Margaret Cloud.
Start With A Sustainable Landscape
Use a variety of native plants in your landscape to attract and help sustain wildlife.. These are plants that existed in our region before European settlement; they have evolved along with wildlife and have adapted to our climate. They provide cover and reliable food for wildlife and need little maintenance once established.
Native plants phlox and gaillardia at the N.C. Botanical Garden. Photo by Margaret Cloud.
Non-native plants (those that originated in Asia or Europe, for example) may not provide sufficient food for wildlife. Some become invasive, spreading quickly and taking space and soil nutrients from native plants. Remove invasive plants such as English ivy, Bradford pear, Chinese privet and Japanese honeysuckle.
Author Douglas Tallamy talks about keystone plants, native plants that provide key food and shelter to support bees and caterpillars, which in turn support plants and other wildlife. Caterpillars start their life cycle in keystone trees such as oak, black cherry, maple, hickory and pine, then drop to the ground to complete the life cycle. Tallamy found that 16 of 20 bird families rear their young on insects and insect larvae because they are soft and easily digested by baby birds. The New Hope Audubon Society lists North Carolina keystone plants that support birds.
Consider reducing the amount of lawn grass in your yard. Instead, aim for layers of native large and small trees, shrubs, grasses, perennial flowers, vines and ground covers to support wildlife. Include conifers and evergreen trees for winter protection.
As much as possible, leave the leaves on the ground instead of raking them. A blanket of leaves protects the roots of plants and supports insects and other creatures.
If you have space, save dead trees, stumps or piles of brush as overwintering shelters for birds and brushfoot butterflies.
Avoid using chemical pesticides and herbicides that may harm wildlife. Instead, prevent damage from pests through identification and close observation and early removal by non-chemical methods. Use chemicals only as a last resort. Use natural fertilizers and organic soil amendments rather than synthetic fertilizers.
Provide Shelter and Safety
Eastern bluebird nesting box. Photo by Faye McNaull.
Plant shrubs and trees that provide nesting spaces and shelter for birds and animals.
Adding birdhouses and bird boxes to your yard will provide more spots for shelter, roosting and nesting; include baffles to thwart snakes, raccoons or other predators. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers plans for building and managing nesting boxes.
Native ground nesting bees such as bumble, sweat, carpenter and mason bees work in damp environments and pollinate while feeding on nectar. To help the 70% that nest underground in tunnels, avoid tilling your garden and leave some unplanted areas under taller plants or shrubs. For the 30% that are wood nesting, leave some brush piles or stacked wood and stems of dead plants for nesting holes.
You can buy bee boxes to encourage wood-nesting bees or build your own bug hotel.
The bee hotel at the Gold Park Pollinator Demonstration Garden in Hillsborough provides a home for 90 species of bees native to our area. Photo by Anne C. Gardner.
Butterflies, moths and skippers lay eggs on host plants that provide food for developing larvae. To help all stages of the insects, plant host plants near the adults’ nectar plants, and layer plantings for feeding and hiding. Read more information about requirements for each species and plants for hosting and obtaining nectar.
Some net-winged beneficial insects (Neuroptera) such as lacewings, antlions, mantispids and dusty wings prey on harmful insects by eating or paralyzing them. Others lay eggs on or in the harmful insect which is then consumed by the beneficial’s larva. For example, hornworms are consumed by pupating braconid wasps. Add cosmos, marigolds and tansy to your garden to attract these beneficial insects in large numbers.
Bees on cosmos flowers. Photo by Faye McNaull.
Add Food Sources
Install bird feeders in a variety of styles to attract a diversity of birdlife. Bluebirds do not use seed feeders; they prefer mealworm feeders and need low stakes or posts for perching to survey the ground for insects. Maintain hummingbird feeders from March through October.
Plant extra vegetable or flower plants that insects use for food. The caterpillars of black swallowtails love to munch on parsley! Encouraging insects and especially beneficial insects can improve the ecological balance of your yard. Read more about plants that attract butterflies.
Eastern black swallowtail butterfly caterpillar snacking on a parsley plant. Photo by Melissa Blackmon Kohout.
Feeders with rotting fruit such as bananas and oranges attract brush-footed butterflies like the buckeye and American lady.
Plant perennials and annuals like grasses, sunflowers, echinacea and thistles. Leave them in place in the fall so that birds can eat their seeds.
Birds also love berry-producing plants such as beautyberry, spicebush, dogwood, fringe tree, viburnum, wax myrtle and American holly.
Include Water Sources
Wildlife also need water to survive. Include birdbaths or moving water features in your garden, preferably near a small tree, shrub or fence to help birds escape if threatened. Change the water daily and clean receptacles with solutions that are safe for insects and birds.
If you have a stream or pond in your landscape, consider building food or nesting structures nearby.
You can leave some unplanted open areas hidden by garden foliage for mud puddling, which supplies water and minerals for butterflies. Swallowtail butterflies especially favor mud puddles. Or, make your own butterfly puddler using a shallow dish with sand or small pebbles and water.
It’s disheartening to have your carefully tended garden devoured by deer. Keep deer out of your yard with fences that are at least 6 feet high. For a natural barrier, try plants that have prickly or sticky foliage, or those with a sweet or pungent odor. Surround young trees and shrubs with plastic or wire cylinders. Cover vulnerable small plants with plastic mesh or a floating row cover, but be sure the materials cannot trap birds or other small animals.
Deer repellents may help but must be sprayed regularly. Some people hang fragrant soap in shrubs. Do not use mothballs — they are toxic to animals.
If deer are hungry they will eat almost anything, but these plants are less attractive to them.
Repellents and sweet-smelling plants that deter deer also may be effective against rabbits. Fencing or mesh covers can protect tender plants from rabbits.
Certify Your Habitat
The National Wildlife Federation provides information on building wildlife habitats and has a native plant finder. A sign marking a NWF-certified habitat shows your commitment to providing sustainable environments for wildlife.
North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook – Chapter 20, Wildlife. NC State Extension.
How to make your yard a NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat. National Wildlife Federation.
Landscaping for wildlife with native plants. North Carolina Cooperative Extension.
Top 25 native pollinator plants in North Carolina. Debbie Roos, North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Chatham County.
Butterflies in your backyard. North Carolina Cooperative Extension.
Common native bees and habitat management to support pollinators and other beneficial insects. North Carolina Cooperative Extension.
Managing backyards and other urban habitats for birds. North Carolina Cooperative Extension.
How to provide seeds and shelter for backyard birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“Bringing nature home: How you can sustain wildlife with native plants.” (Book) Douglas W. Tallamy. Workman Publishing, 2009.
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