The Cranky Gardener

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Attracting Wildlife to Your Garden1

If you are like most people you enjoy waking to the sound of songbirds, walking through a meadow filled with wildflowers or wading a clear stream. Unfortunately it isn't always possible to find time in our hectic, urban lives for visits to wild areas. And many of our urban parks put most of their emphasis on tennis courts, ball fields and picnic areas. Few, in my area at least, are designed as wildlife habitats.

There is a solution. With some study and planning it is possible to create a safe haven for birds, butterflies and other wildlife in your backyard. Not only will you be providing an oasis for local wildlife, you will create a beautiful, relaxing place for you to escape into when the stresses of modern urban life get you down.

Creating a wildlife habitat isn't a weekend project. It will require a commitment of time and resources. You will need to research which plants are native to your area and then locate a source. You will have to do a careful evaluation of your property and then create a workable design. And you will have to be patient.

Natural ecosystems have developed over millions of years with plants and animals adapting to coexist in a balanced environment. Healthy ecosystems are self-sustaining. Problems arise when the natural balance is overturned. Your task will be to restore the natural balance found in nature to your garden.

The fastest way to upset nature's balance is to introduce exotic plants and animals into the environment. When you hear the word exotic you may think of expensive orchids or some rare species from the rain forests of Borneo. What exotic means in this context is any plant or animal that is taken out of its normal habitat and placed into another habitat.

Granted, Mother Nature introduces new species into environments. It is called evolution. But this is a very gradual process and the environment has time to adapt. When humans introduce exotic species into landscapes the effect can be almost immediate. If the exotic turns out to be invasive the result eventually will be the creation of a monoculture in which native plants are smothered or choked and only the exotic will survive. Examples of invasive plants popular with gardeners that have done great ecological damage in North America are both Chinese and Japanese Wisteria, English Ivy and Purple Loosestrife.

There are other problems with exotic plants. The substitution of native plants with similar hybrid or imported species often results in a reduction of food for birds and other wildlife. An example of this is the Native Dogwood which provides berries. In contrast the Asian Dogwoods, which are widely planted, produce inedible berries.

Exotic species also introduce disease into the ecosystem. In 1904 diseased Asian Chestnuts were planted in New York. The Asian Chestnuts could harbour the disease without dying from it. The native American Chestnuts, however, had no defense against the disease. The long term result is that there are no healthy native Chestnuts in North America today. The same thing happened with a blight that spread among American Elms and nearly wiped out the species. And currently a fungus (anthracnose) spread by Asian Kousa Dogwoods is slowly killing both Pacific and Native Flowering Dogwoods. So the exotic Dogwood that produces inedible berries is also spreading disease.

In addition, the introduction of exotic species at the expense of native ones often reduces the supply of insects available as a food source for birds. Isn't that the reason gardeners like exotics, after all? Because insects leave them alone and because they are disease resistant?

Exotics also require more water and fertilizer. And non-organic gardeners, wanting to protect their investment in these plants, use pesticides on them. So the widespread use of exotic plants can result in a depletion of resources (water) and the pollution of the environment through the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

The purpose of this litany is to persuade you to use native plants in your landscaping - even if you are not actually trying to create a wildlife habitat.

Wildlife requires four things in order to be successful - food, water, shelter and a safe place to raise their young. All of these needs can be met by carefully designing and planting your garden. Since this is such a big topic, I'm going to take each requirement and devote an entire column to it. I'll begin next week with a discussion of ways you can provide food for wildlife in your backyard.

In the meantime you can find a wealth of information in the National Wildlife Federation's Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife by David Mizejewski. It is available at creativehomeowner. If you are serious about creating a wildlife habitat this is one of the best books I have ever seen on the subject. If you don't want to purchase a copy, ask for it at your local library. (Shameless self-promotion)

There are also a number of excellent articles in the Edited Guide that you can read on the subject.

You're going to be spending so much time planning and planting your wildlife garden that you won't want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. So this week's recipe is for something that's easy yet satisfying after a long day in the garden.

Chili Topped Potatoes


  • 4 medium russet (baking) potatoes
  • 1 can - 15oz, 425g - chili - (your choice of varieties)
  • 1 cup - 4 oz, 100g - shredded cheese - (Mexican blend or your choice)
  • Thinly sliced green onions

Scrub the potatoes, pierce with a fork and arrange in a circle on a paper towel or on a microwave safe baking dish. Microwave on high for 14-16 minutes or until tender. If you do not have a turntable, rearrange the potatoes once during cooking. Let stand for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the chili in a saucepan.

Split the potatoes in half lengthwise. Mash the potatoes lightly with a fork and season if desired. Place one potato (two halves) on each plate. Top with the chili and sprinkle with the cheese and the sliced green onions. Serve with a vegetable, corn sticks and fruit for dessert.

The Cranky Gardener


29.04.04 Front Page

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1Plant names capitalised for clarity.

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