Wildlife Friendly Yards

Faith Peterson
Adams County Master Gardener

Do you own your yard? Or does your garden own you? How less complicated life would be if everyone understood the value of gardening with nature. People would grow trees, shrubs, and a variety of flowers and vegetables, with minimal lawn area. There would be birds singing everywhere. There would be little or no need for pesticides which affect our water sources.

There would be less mowing, resulting in cleaner air and quieter neighborhoods. The good insect population, including pollinators, would soar. There would be more time to enjoy our yard. If this lifestyle sounds good to you, here are some steps you can take to achieve a rewarding outdoor lifestyle and a cleaner, healthier environment.

All life exists in a fragile balance that requires that no single organism becomes so dominant in number that it becomes out of proportion at the expense of other organisms. The natural balance in a garden is comprised of good soil, plants, insects, arachnids, slugs and snails, earthworms, leaf litter and moss. Insects are vital to the function of the earth, and we could not exist without them.

Insects pollinate plants so they can produce fruit and seed. People assume that a large number of unidentified insects on a plant is bad. So they kill the insects with pesticides, which kill all the insects. It is better to identify the insect and understand its role in the natural world.

Caterpillars are usually disliked by gardeners. They eat the leaves of their specific host plant until they morph into butterflies and moths, which everyone loves. Caterpillars are the main food source for birds to feed their young. Spiders (arachnids) are crucial to nature as predators and prey. Some scavenge dead animals; some are preyed upon by wasps as food sources for their larvae.

Slugs and snails are yucky – but they are critical to the functioning of home landscapes. They feed on plant debris and dead creatures. The release of their waste adds nutrients to the environment. Earthworms further process dead plant material as worm castings. Allow your leaves to remain on flower beds over winter and on into spring. After all, leaf litter is nature’s mulch.

Slugs and snails that eat plants do not have enough debris or decaying material to eat, which is why they eat your hostas. Slug-caused plant damage is also a sign of a garden that does not have enough predators that feed on slugs and snails. Firefly larvae can solve that problem, since they are top slug and snail eaters. Fireflies lay their eggs in moss. Many people eliminate moss from their yard, and in the process remove any potential slug and snail predation, as well as spoiling Mother Nature’s 4th of July firefly show.

Animals that help your garden, besides butterflies and bees, are bats which people fear as carriers of disease. A Brown Bat can eat up to 1000 mosquitoes an hour. Interestingly, the mosquitoes are the disease carrier, West Nile virus being one. Frogs and toads eat lots of insects, and toads eat slugs.

Birds keep insect populations in check. Many dine on aphids, while larger birds of prey eat rodents. Garter snakes feed on insects, mice and voles. The snake is uniquely designed to crawl into rodent burrows to hunt.

Living with wildlife can be challenging at times. Consider white-tailed deer, which are so plentiful that trees and shrubs needed for bird nest sites are being eaten, which negatively impacts bird numbers. The best option for deer control is fencing. I recently read that WV Botanical Garden has used milk (any form) in a 1 part milk to 3 parts water ratio, sprayed on foliage and flowers. It lasts through several rains. Apply on sunny days so it can dry on the foliage.

Rabbits will eat dandelions and plantain in your lawn, if you don’t use herbicides to kill weeds. Mice are important in nature’s food chain. They provide food to many animals. Skunks and moles eat grubs of Japanese beetles.

With Mother Nature’s help, our yards can be transformed from areas that require far too much of our time, attention and resources to green spaces where we can relax and enjoy the benefits of a well-balanced yard attuned to nature.

Read other articles on ecological gardening & native plants

Read other articles by Faith Peterson