To those people living in urban or even suburban areas, it may seem like there is none of the native habitat left in the neighborhood. And mostly, that would be true. It is possible, however, to replicate many of the functions of the native vegetation. Trees, shrubs, and grasses serve to remove carbon from the atmosphere, creating oxygen, that life-giving gas the rest of the animal world needs. Plants roots capture water before it runs off the landscape and hold the soil in place. Their branches provide cooling shade and habitat for countless animals, birds, and insects. In short, they make the world a livable place.
Just because the native plants have been eradicated by human development doesn’t mean that their life-supporting functions can’t be replaced with other plants. Most homes and buildings are landscaped in some way, but conventional landscape practice doesn’t go as far as it could to recreate the kind of natural habitat and role of the natives. What birds, foxes, spiders, and butterflies all need is a source of food, their preferred home-building materials, and protection from the elements and their predators. That hedge of juniper along the foundation of a house has little to offer. Nor does the single mulberry tree planted in the middle of a wasteland of lawn. To encourage and nurture native inhabitants and provide the beginnings of a locally sustaining ecosystem (as unnatural as it may be) requires a new mind-set.
How about if the plants screening the garbage cans from view, or creating the mental barrier between neighboring yards, or hiding the kids’ play area from the intimate spa space for Mom and Dad were plants that never needed pruning? What if they also provided food for birds, or attracted beneficial insects to feast on the aphids attacking the roses? This, and more, is all possible.
By increasing the diversity of plants in the garden, the diversity of animal visitors and inhabitants will also increase. By carefully selecting plants whose dimensions at maturity match the desired dimensions of their purpose in the garden, the need for constant maintenance is reduced or eliminated. By connecting planted areas to each other, corridors of green are created to allow animals to safely enter and traverse the garden.
Learning the food requirements of animals, birds, and insects that may be beneficial and offering them in the garden creates a healthier, more stable environment. For example, many birds eat berries and seeds as adults but may also need to consume high-protein insects during their breeding season. Choose shrubs that flower and fruit, and both insects and birds will come. Pick the species or cultivars that will fill the space needed, but don’t get ones that are too large and need topping. And plant a variety of different kinds.
Avoid the monoculture mentality; the more diverse the planting, the more diverse will be the animals that visit and maybe even take up residence. In this way, a conventional hedge becomes a hedgerow, a type of planting that is even regulated by conservation law in England in an effort to preserve plant diversity and provide habitat for birds and animals of the countryside.
• Harvest vegetables and pick ornamental flowers regularly to promote more flowering and fruiting.
• Watch for caterpillars: Tomato hornworm, geranium budworm, and cabbage worm are the most common. Pick off or dust with nontoxic Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Be aware that Bt is deadly to all moths and butterflies.
• Maintain mulch layers at 4 to 6 inches through the warm, dry summer months.
• Divide bearded iris now. Cut tops back by one half and replant immediately.
• Daylilies and agapanthus may also be divided now.