The Cranky Gardener

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Home Sweet Home, Part 11

When we began this series on natural habitats, I listed the three requirements for wildlife to be successful - food, water and shelter. We are going to continue our series by discussing ways to provide native species shelter and a safe place to rear their young.

There are two kinds of cover for wildlife - natural and man-made. Since we have been talking about ways to return your garden to a more natural state, I'm going to give you some tips about creating safe areas for native species using natural plantings. Natural plantings will also give cover for native predators. Providing cover for non-native predators, such as your cat, is a bad thing; providing cover for native predators is a good thing. Remember, our purpose in creating a back yard habitat is to restore balance to the landscape.

The best way to provide shelter for wildlife in your garden is to copy nature. We talked earlier about the way that animals and plants evolved together and how their life cycles are intertwined. For this reason native species do better in areas where native plants are present. Their nutritional and cover needs are tied to the seasonal changes of the plants.

Perhaps the most successful habitats on earth are our forests. This is because they are layered. There is a canopy of tall trees beneath which are smaller trees, shrubs, vines, flowers and ferns. Provided you already have the tall trees, this is the ideal habitat to recreate in your garden. Each layer will shelter different species of wildlife. An additional advantage to using underplantings is that they complement your trees and look beautiful.

Different plants provide different types of cover. That is why it is important to use a wide variety of species in your plantings. If possible you should include some evergreens and some low-growing plants with thorny leaves to give added protection from predators to smaller species.

One of the most practical ways to create a wildlife habitat is to create a hedgerow containing all native species of plants. There are a few things to consider when designing a hedgerow. First, you will need to determine the mature size of the shrubs you plant and then arrange them so that the heights vary. This will give you a more visually appealing planting as well as create a layered effect. Next, you should try to select species that produce berries or flowers that can be used as a food source for your resident wildlife.

A planting that is too sparse will not produce as much shelter as one that is dense. But if your planting is too dense the shrubs will suffer from overcrowding and be more susceptible to disease. So you have to reach a happy medium. Again, keep in mind the mature size of the shrubs. Planting most shrubs four to five feet apart will give you a good healthy hedgerow.

A planting that is designed to provide shelter for wildlife should be allowed to grow naturally. Put your pruning shears away. We're trying to recreate nature, not produce a neatly trimmed hedge. Locate the hedgerow along a boundary line to create a natural fence or use it to connect two naturally planted areas with lawn in between. The latter provides a wildlife corridor. Lastly, plant ornamental grasses and wildflowers in front of your hedgerow to increase the habitat area and to make it more attractive.

A good balance can be achieved by using the following formula: plant one evergreen, one shrub with thorns, two shrubs with berries and two shrubs with flowers that contain nectar. Repeat the formula as often as necessary to achieve the length desired.

If your property does not lend itself to a woodland habitat, another possibility is to recreate a prairie habitat. Natural grasslands are composed of... well... grasses. And sedges. And wildflowers. And an occasional shrub or small tree. Tallgrass prairies occur in areas with abundant rainfall and support grasses over five feet tall. Shortgrass prairies occur in more arid regions and support grasses less than two feet tall. Mixed grass prairies are transitional regions where a wide variety of plant species can be found.

Even a small area of wildflowers and native grasses will provide good shelter for wildlife. But I want to warn you that if you go the prairie route you will have to defend yourself from anxious neighbours who think you are just too dang lazy to mow your lawn. A prairie habitat is more practical on a larger property.

A woman who lives a street over from me has turned her entire front garden, which is very small, into a prairie. Besides grasses, she has Phlox, Native Daylilies, Brown-eyed Susans, Indian Paintbrush, Gallardias and Coneflowers. It is actually quite attractive. But each year there are neighbourhood meetings to decide what to do about Crazy Alice.

We talked about ponds last time. They make good shelter for aquatic species. If you enjoy frogs and toads and turtles and lizards, then you definitely need a pond.

If you have access to large stones you can create a low rock wall. Remember to lay the stones loosely - no mortar. The openings between the stones will soon be used for shelter by a variety of species. Laying stones near the base of a tree creates a pleasing appearance while providing an additional layer of shelter. Or placing the rock wall in the sun will make it attractive to species that like to absorb the heat from the stone in the evening when the air temperature cools.

Or you can create a brush pile or log pile. This recreates the type of cover that occurs in the forest when trees die and branches fall to the ground. Here, again, you could be getting yourself in trouble with your neighbours if they are the super neat types that think every bit of debris that falls should be burned or sent to the landfill. But a brush pile or log pile is a quick, inexpensive way to create shelter on your property.

To create a brush pile properly, you will first need to lay a base of fairly thick logs on the ground about a foot to a foot and a half apart. Then begin layering them crosshatch style with progressively smaller branches until you reach the desired height. A top layer of evergreen branches is desirable if you have them. If you suspect the neighbours will start complaining, head them off at the pass by planting flowering vines around the base. The ideal size for a brush pile is about five feet in diameter. If you want to attract larger species, then the centre at the base should have a relatively large cavity and smaller cavities near the outside.

Next time we will talk about nesting boxes for birds, bees, bats, butterflies and amphibians.


Those of you who garden are probably overrun with cucumbers about now. And tomatoes. And bell peppers. One of my family's favourite summer salads is a simple combination of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and sweet onion to which you sprinkle on about a teaspoon of vinegar and salt to taste. Let this sit for about a half an hour before serving.

If you have a bit more time you might like to try slicing your cucumbers into thin slices, place them in the bottom of a bowl then add a layer of red onion rings and a layer of green pepper rings. Then pour about two ounces of apple cider vinegar into the bowl and add enough water to cover the vegetables. Add about a half teaspoon of sugar and salt and pepper to taste. Let the vegetables sit in the marinade for at least two hours.

The Cranky Gardener


19.08.04 Front Page

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1Plant names capitalised for clarity.

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