BACKYARD GARDENER: Create sustainability in your backyard wildlife garden

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By Kristopher Fante

Gardening Columnist

Last week’s column discussed creating a wildlife garden habitat to take care of wildlife around you and reverse a growing loss of natural habitat. We discussed how food, a water source and shelter were needed to create a dedicated wildlife garden habitat. There’s one more requirement for turning your outdoor space in to a wildlife habitat garden: sustainability.

You’ll need to implement sustainable practices in your wildlife habitat garden. Basically, this means to have a garden that has as little negative effect on the environment as possible. Maybe start composting or eliminate more of your lawn to cut down on pollution and greenhouse gases; less lawn equals more area for your wildlife habitat or any type of garden. Also, a very important part of sustainability is no pesticides or other chemicals. Eliminate spraying plants for insects or disease in this area of your yard. Though, if you are using native plants, then you won’t have a need for pesticides or fertilizers. Native plants are conditioned for what Mother Nature throws at them, whether it be insects, temperature, drought or disease. Native plants have been here for a very long time, they don’t need your help with chemicals to survive. Once established, you can leave them be, that’s just another advantage of having this type of garden habitat. Gardening sustainability is a good rule of thumb for your entire yard, but mostly in an area where you are going to be attracting pollinators and other insects and animals. If you find yourself needing to spray for lawn weeds, just leave a good buffer between your garden and your lawn, it won’t hurt you to have a small area of lawn with a few weeds. Also make sure you never apply lawn chemicals on a windy day. Pesticides can be carried by the wind right onto your plants, thus killing any pollinators that visit your garden. So being extremely mindful with chemicals is a very important element of sustainability in a wildlife garden, or any garden as far as that goes.

One other item that should be done, but is not required for certification; don’t cut back or cut down last years old stems from plants until mid-spring, or you can make it easy on yourself and just leave them to fall over in the winter and become natural mulch to help out the soil by adding good organic material. Beneficial insects, like butterfly caterpillars, may overwinter in these stems, so when you cut them back and discard in the trash or the burn pile, you’re killing next year’s beneficial insects and butterflies. Why do all this work to attract beautiful butterflies, then eliminate them? If you’re a super neat freak, and this bothers you, you can cut the stems off, and then lean them up against a fence or a location out of site. Once spring is in full swing, you can send the old stems to the compost bin or cut them up and use as mulch. I choose both of these methods myself. I cut back the stems right around the house and put them in my gardens further out in the backyard. Everything else stays put.

For more information on being certified and wildlife garden habitats, visit www.nwf.org. There is a lot of excellent information on their site, even if you’re not interested in being certified or having a wildlife habitat garden. The information on using true native plants is worth the time to get educated on plant selection for any garden you have. Furthermore, May is Garden for Wildlife Month, so it’s a great time to get started.

I have a personal goal to get my backyard certified, but I’m not taking this lightly. My plan is to make about 15-25 percent of my backyard into a wildlife habitat garden. This will include many native species of trees and shrubs, along with true native perennials and some cultivars of natives as well. It will provide food through nuts, berries and nectar. I will be installing several bird baths and a frog pond for drinking water and for the wildlife to clean themselves. I will create shelter for insects, birds and animals to live and hide from predators. All of this is a lofty goal, and may take some time, but it’s something I feel that I need to accomplish. Giving back to nature is a glorious feeling, and I strongly recommend it. I’ve already started seeing the fruits of my labors, and the garden habitat is in its infancy. I have a squirrel that frequents my yard, birds that are nesting, and rabbits having their young. We can choose to have gardens with shrubs and flowers that have no benefit at all for the wildlife, or we can choose to have a garden that’s full of life. Personally, I’m going with a garden that functions both as beautiful and beneficial, and I hope you consider that too. Your garden doesn’t have to big, you can start with a small 8x8 size or even a corner of your backyard and possibly expand it later as you have the time and resources.

Another good source for native seeds in Kentucky is roundstone seed.com, they have a very informative website and can help you with any questions you have about growing native plants. The can ship their seeds directly to you via the mail. Also, when you are visiting your local nurseries and garden centers, ask them why they don’t carry any true native species of plants. If we start letting them know that there is a demand for them, maybe they will start supplying them for us locally, and that will be a magnificent benefit for us and Mother Nature.