The Cranky Gardener

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Feeding Wildlife in Your Garden1

One of the joys of backyard gardening is being able to sit quietly and enjoy the presence of birds, butterflies, squirrels and other native wildlife. I'm sure there is a person somewhere who does not long for a quiet, natural retreat, but I've never met him. We are all drawn to natural settings, whether it be a desert landscape, a tranquil woodland, a craggy shoreline or a mountain meadow. Mother Nature calls to us.

Natural habitats are being lost at an alarming rate all around the world. The purpose of this series of articles on creating backyard habitats is to encourage you to help reverse this trend. Even small gardens can be designed and planted in ways that will help the ecosystem and protect wildlife.

Wildlife need four things in order to survive - food, water, shelter and a safe place to raise their young. Of these four, food is the first consideration. Do you remember the lesson in biology class about food chains? Every living thing resides somewhere on a food chain.

Food chains are made up of producers and consumers. Plants are producers. They feed themselves. They take in water, nutrients from the soil, and energy from the sun and use them to produce carbohydrates. Animals are consumers. They cannot create their own nutrients. Some animal species rely solely upon plants for nourishment. These are called herbivores. Some species only eat other animals. These are carnivores. Species that eat only insects are insectivores. And species that eat both plants and animals are omnivores.

When you create a viable natural habitat in your garden, what you are actually doing is building an ecosystem. Ok. A mini-ecosystem. But an ecosystem, nonetheless. What you want to achieve is a natural balance which encourages the presence of food chains. You can't do this simply by putting out feeders. You will need to restore the elements of the natural food chains that existed on your property before it was cleared and urbanized. You can do this by planting native species of trees, shrubs and wildflowers.

The reason it is so important to use only native species in your plantings is because in nature plants and animals evolve together. This means that the naturally occurring wildlife in your area is dependent upon native plants. Plants provide food for animals in a number of ways. Some are eaten whole. Some provide nuts or berries. Others produce pollen or nectar.

Mother Nature has designed plants to attract animals. When you see a beautiful Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans) for example, you are attracted by the bright colour and lovely shape of the blooms. But the hummingbirds in your garden will also see it as a source of nectar. Hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, bats and many insects are attracted by both the bright colours of flowers and their fragrance. These species eat the nectar and in the process transfer pollen onto their bodies which they then transfer to the next flower. So the plants feed the animals and the animals pollinate the plants. Beautifully simple, isn't it? Mother Nature is a smart old gal.

How about all those fruits and berries that attract wildlife? Did you realize that their seeds are indigestible? They pass through the animals digestive tracts and are subsequently deposited elsewhere. So again, the plant is feeding the animal and the animal is propagating the plant.

Some plants also attract prey insects that become meals for hungry birds and other insectivores. Songbirds are a great joy to have in your garden. They will need insects to eat. Many small mammals and amphibians are also insectivores.

When designing your garden you will need to make sure you provide enough producers and prey for the consumers. And you will need to take seasonal needs into consideration. Make sure you plant varieties that will provide food in the fall and winter as well as in the spring and summer. Late blooming flowers like Asters (Symphyotrichumm ssp) and Goldenrod (Solidago ssp) for example provide nectar late in the season for migrating Monarch butterflies. Amphibians and small mammals that hibernate over the winter will need extra nourishment in the fall. And birds that winter over in your garden will need berries in the winter.

Another thing to keep in mind is that natural predators are a very important part of the food chain. So don't be in a big rush to eliminate all of them. Your ecosystem will be more diverse and healthier if it contains predators. Predators will keep insect populations in check for you. Hate spiders? Before you get out the Spectracide think of this. Spiders catch and eat more insects than all of the other insectivors put together. These include biting insects and those that riddle your vegetable plants. How about ladybugs2? A ladybug will eat up to 5400 aphids in a lifetime. Salamanders will eat mosquito larvae. Owls will catch mice as will many varieties of snakes. Bats will eat mosquitoes.

The types of plants you will require depend upon your location and which species you are attempting to attract. If possible take a walk through the countryside and write down the native shrubs and wildflowers you find. If you live in the US, you can contact your local University Extension Agency (usually located in your county courthouse) for lists of native plants. Nurseries may or may not be helpful. Most nurseries in my area sell hybrids and exotics but few native varieties. You can, however, find most of the common native species in seed catalogues.

And you're all on the internet or you wouldn't be reading this. So do a search of plants that are native to your area. Good search terms are natural habitat, butterfly garden, hummingbird garden, attracting wildlife and feeding wildlife.

You will probably want to also put feeders in your garden to supplement your efforts. This will be especially important while you are establishing your habitat and if you are surrounded by neighbours who do not have any interest in feeding wildlife. Next time we will talk about feeders - bird feeders, bat feeders, butterfly feeders, squirrel feeders, and other ways to supplement the diets of wildlife in your garden.

This week's recipe is for a dessert that tastes like an old fashioned banana split but has the advantage of being made ahead so you can just pop it out of the freezer and serve at the last minute.

Banana Split Squares


  • ¾ cup - 6oz, 175g - butter or margarine, divided
  • 2 cups - 10oz, 250g - powdered (confectioner's3) sugar
  • 1 cup evaporated milk
  • ¾ cup - 4½oz, 120g - semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 24 Oreos4, crushed
  • 4 medium sized bananas, sliced into ½ inch slices
  • ½ gallon carton - 4 pints, 2.4 litres - vanilla ice cream, divided
  • 1 can - 20oz, 500g - crushed pineapple, drained
  • 1 jar - 10oz, 250g - maraschino cherries, drained and halved
  • ¾ cup - 4oz, 100g - chopped pecans
  • Whipped topping if desired

Take the ice cream out of the freezer to soften.

Combine ½ cup butter, the powdered sugar, milk and chocolate chips in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat and boil for 8 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and cool.

Melt the remaining ¼ cup butter and toss with the cookie crumbs. Press into a greased 9" X 13" X 2" cake pan. Freeze for 15 minutes.

Arrange the banana slices over the crust. Spread with 1 quart of softened ice cream. Top with 1 cup of chocolate sauce. Freeze for 1 hour. Refrigerate the remaining chocolate sauce. After 1 hour spread the other 1 quart of ice cream over the dessert. Top with the pineapple, cherries and pecans. Cover and return to the freezer for several hours or over- night.

Remove from the freezer 10 minutes before serving. Reheat the chocolate sauce. Cut the dessert into squares and top with warm chocolate sauce and whipped topping if desired. Yield 12 - 15 servings.

The Cranky Gardener


06.05.04 Front Page

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1Plant names capitalised for clarity.2In the UK this is called a Ladybird.3Icing Sugar.4White frosting-like filling between two crunchy chocolate biscuits. Also available as 'golden'.

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