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Gardening for wildlife — how to help native species thrive

What is gardening for wildlife?

In wildlife-friendly gardening, individual gardens and backyards can become havens of food, water and shelter for birds, pollinators, insects and other wild animals. 

Creating a garden that supports wildlife can be as simple as providing a water source for thirsty birds in hot weather to as comprehensive as planting a garden full of native species to support native pollinators, with just about every level of involvement imaginable in between. 

But the crucial bit is that with wildlife-friendly garden, you provide vital food, water and shelter for (often displaced) wild creatures.

Laura Thomas is the owner of Hidden Habitat, a native plant nursery and garden design business. She and her team create gardens that are oases for wildlife and humans alike. 

We spent some time with Laura to learn about what she does, how her gardening and garden designs support wildlife and how they help people reconnect with nature.

Meet Laura in the video below. Then, read on for more information about gardening for wildlife, plus links to a couple of handy resources.

Why is gardening for wildlife necessary?

Wildlife habitats are becoming more fragmented all the time, thanks — in large part — to human activity. Housing developments, ever-expanding urban areas and roadways, timber harvesting and land clearing remove or dramatically alter areas that would have formerly been homes for a range of species. 

When habitats are destroyed or radically altered, wild animals have to move on. They have to find new spaces with the food, water and shelter they need to survive and thrive. When they have to travel long distances, it becomes even more challenging to find a new habitat.

How can we help displaced wild species?

By gardening in ways that benefit wild species, we can create stepping stones between areas of natural habitat, in which these creatures can fuel up, rest and rejuvenate — and move on to their wild environments. 

Anyone who has a garden or a yard can help, by planting species and creating even small environments that provide season-long food sources and shelter for birds, insects, and other wildlife. With literally millions of gardens in the world, there’s the potential for an enormous amount of support for wild creatures. 

Gardening and the food web

In the video, Laura talks about the food web. But how does the food web work, and what does it have to do with gardening to support wildlife? 

Let’s take Laura’s example, the caterpillar. A caterpillar will eat leaves on a plant. Then, a songbird will eat that caterpillar and in turn, a predator will eat the bird that ate the caterpillar. If there isn’t food and refuge for the caterpillar, the interconnectivity of the food web is disrupted — right at the beginning of the chain of food events. 

And where can that caterpillar’s food and refuge be created, in a world of fragmented habitats? You guessed it — in our very own backyards. Or, on our balconies, as the case may be. Plants are the food web’s foundation. So, anywhere we can lay that foundation, with whatever garden space we have, we can support the food web.

Native plants and how they can support wildlife

Native plants have co-evolved with other species to provide the food and shelter they need to thrive in habitats. As a result, planting native species provides the best support to animals that need the specific things native plants provide — nutrients, refuge and shelter. 

The best thing you can do to support wildlife is to plant a native tree. “An oak tree, a cherry tree or a willow tree is going to be the best thing, because they support the most amount of moth and butterfly caterpillars. The oak tree family will support over 500 different species,” says Laura.

Don’t have the space for a tree? As Laura tells us, goldenrods are terrific. (Quick fact: according to The Nature Conservancy of Canada, there are 32 native species of goldenrod. It’s likely you’ll find one to suit your space.) And of course, there’s milkweed, crucial for the survival of the monarch butterfly, as the only food the monarch butterfly caterpillar will eat. 

You would also do well to get in touch with a native plant nursery, like Hidden Habitat. Native plants vary region by region, so a local nursery will know the specifics for where you live. 

How gardening for wildlife can help humans

Eco-anxiety is on the rise, as climate change’s effects are felt in more ways all the time. Creating a garden to support wildlife is a concrete action you can take to help creatures of all sizes affected by the forces at work on the earth today. 

All things considered, gardening for wildlife is an easy way we can all help nature, and that helps us, too.

Resources

Canada: Canadian Wildlife Federation – Gardening For Wildlife  
United States: National Wildlife Federation – Garden For Wildlife

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