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How to Garden in Step With Nature

Catherine is a proponent for responsible stewardship of our natural resources and covers topics of plant life and sustainable living.

A gulf fritillary butterfly is attracted to the bright orange and pollen-rich tithonia in my summer garden.

A gulf fritillary butterfly is attracted to the bright orange and pollen-rich tithonia in my summer garden.

The Garden Is an Active Ecosystem

A garden may be a small sensible plot or a grand display of majestic trees, sweeping lawns, and flower displays like a city's arboretum. Despite design and scale, they all have one thing in common: these spaces are teeming with life both visible and unseen.

We use these spaces to give our homes curb appeal, to grow our victory gardens, or to provide places of beauty and fragrance for relaxation and outdoor entertainment. Birds, insects, reptiles, and small mammals use them for food, shelter, and reproduction. Whether we notice or not, our gardens are sustaining a host of living things.

In the soil are teams of decomposers at work breaking down organic matter to create nutrients for the plants we enjoy. The whole garden is an active ecosystem, and it is deeply satisfying to work alongside nature!

Plant a Garden for All Seasons

A canopy of trees and a birdbath attract many visitors, but it is the selection of plants with their pollen, seeds, and berries that will keep them returning day after day and season to season. On the next nursery visit, think of the wildlife that depends on your choices.

  • To attract gnat-catching hummingbirds, select red and orange plant varieties with trumpet or bell-shaped flowers.
  • Berry-producing shrubs and the spent seed heads from summer blooms will attract songbirds and help keep them away from edible produce.
  • Butterflies and bees are drawn to pollen-rich flowers and will help pollinate the garden for more bountiful blooms and fruits.
  • Nocturnal pollinators such as moths and mosquito-eating bats prefer plants which release fragrant scents at dusk.

Attracting Pollinators

garden-sustainability
garden-sustainability

The Importance of Birds as Insectivores

In a 2018 Science of Nature publication from Springer, researchers from the Swiss Ornithological Institute and the Institute of Avian Research "Vogelwarte Helgoland" in Germany provided data that estimates insectivorous birds worldwide consume 400-500 millions tons of prey annually. The forested biomes account for the highest numbers.

In the article written by Martin Nyffeler, Çağan H. Şekercioğlu & Christopher J. Whelan, the following is noted:

"Birds, represented by nearly 10,700 species, are found across the world in all major terrestrial biomes. Accordingly, they exhibit a large variety of life styles and foraging behaviors. While some birds depend predominantly on plant diets, such as seeds, fruits, and nectar, others feed as carnivores on animal prey, or as omnivores on a mixed diet of plant/animal matter. Most bird species are insectivores that depend for the most part on insects as prey.

The estimates presented in this paper emphasize the ecological and economic importance of insectivorous birds in suppressing potentially harmful insect pests on a global scale—especially in forested areas.

Birds provide many ecosystem services, which by and large are invisible and underappreciated."

It has thus been suggested that “quantifying the services provided by birds is crucial to understand their importance for ecosystems and for the people that benefit from them."

Our backyard populations may seem insignificant, but we can't dismiss the importance in the overall global collective.

Foraging birds, from the top left going clockwise: mockingbird with rosehips, cedar waxwings on toyon, sparrow on seed head of grass, goldfinch on a coneflower.

Foraging birds, from the top left going clockwise: mockingbird with rosehips, cedar waxwings on toyon, sparrow on seed head of grass, goldfinch on a coneflower.

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Encourage Natural Garden Helpers

  • Add a birdbath. This will attract birds and will help to keep areas naturally pest-free. Squirrels will enjoy a drink too.
  • Consider natural habitats. Toads and frogs like to rehydrate in shallow water and then retreat under logs, rocks, and low leafy plants. Place a saucer of water or a toad house in a shady spot.
  • Lizards and skinks prefer warm surfaces for lounging such as rocks, concrete, and terra cotta. They hibernate under leaf-litter and find shelter in overhanging vines, and ground cover.
  • Bees and butterflies also need water but prefer shallow bowls. Fill a pot saucer with gravel or pretty marbles, add water, and set it in the garden.
  • Include native plants in the garden. Our native fauna has co-evolved with our native flora. They provide familiar foods, nesting materials, and shelter throughout the seasons.

"It is deeply satisfying to work alongside nature rather than against it."

Don't Be Too Tidy

Gardens are not meant to be flawless. They are places to witness the cycles of life. Be willing to sacrifice a bit of your personal Eden. Take off your glasses and step back. Do you really need to be concerned about a few chewed leaves and earwigs in your roses?

Insects bring hungry birds who will linger in search of tasty tidbits like tomato horn worms and other caterpillars. Finches love the tiny seeds in spent flower heads, and those they disperse will sprout next season.

Fallen leaves create a natural mulch that attracts earthworms, conserves moisture and discourages weeds. They also provide shelter for lizards, skinks, and salamanders which eat garden pests.

A Southern Alligator Lizard prefers rocks or walls for warmth and leaf litter for shelter. They are a great benefit for the pest control of grasshoppers.

A Southern Alligator Lizard prefers rocks or walls for warmth and leaf litter for shelter. They are a great benefit for the pest control of grasshoppers.

Be an Observer

Look carefully, and you'll notice how our natural predators are busy at work. Parasitic wasps have "mummified" aphids. Braconid wasps have laid their eggs inside those nasty green hornworms on the tomatoes. Woodpeckers listen for borers in our trees, then peck to remove them. Helpful praying mantises have attached their egg cases to the branches of our shrubs. Lizards feast on crickets and grasshoppers. Hummingbirds are beautiful gnatcatchers, and songbirds have keen vision for caterpillars.

There are many beneficial predatory insects which help keep bad bugs in check. Relying on nature's insectivores rather than chemical ones protects these populations, so they can work as nature intends.

top left clockwise: mummified aphids, Braconid wasp on hornworm, Nuttall's woodpecker, praying mantis ootheca

top left clockwise: mummified aphids, Braconid wasp on hornworm, Nuttall's woodpecker, praying mantis ootheca

Practice Integrated Pest Management

Before reaching for a pesticide, remember the delicate balance in our natural world. Even organic controls like soapy water can alter a plant's natural defenses.

Know your pest and opt for selective rather than broad spectrum controls. This will help to preserve our beneficial insects.

Apply controls early or late in the day when bees and pollinators are least active.

Always start with the mildest deterrent. Blast aphids with water. Hand-pick caterpillars and snails. Apply diatomaceous earth for ants and hang pheromone traps for flying insects.

For larger problems, opt for biological controls. Those safely designed for the home landscape are effective at targeting many garden nuisances, beetle grubs and lawn pests. Several varieties are available in local nurseries or online for home delivery through .

Use natural mulches to encourage earthworms and natural decomposers. Build healthy soil with compost and worm castings. Reduce tillage.

For specific garden pest problems and safer solutions, contact https://www.epa.gov and scroll for IPM.

Daniel Gruner, an ecologist from the University of Maryland, advocates for more studies on natural predators and sums up his findings to date:

"Things like habitat loss, disease and climate change are affecting the future of these insectivore species. Some of them are thought of as vermin and are killed off by humans. Preserving these creatures will be an important part of keeping ecosystems in check."

Encourage kids to create crafty and functional habitats for our garden helpers. Here is a ladybug house.

Encourage kids to create crafty and functional habitats for our garden helpers. Here is a ladybug house.

Get the Family Involved

  • Grab a local nature guide book and learn to identify new garden visitors.
  • Learn how nocturnal animals like raccoons, skunks, and possums visit gardens at night to forage for grubs, snails and slugs.
  • Involve your family in fun craft projects like making feeders, birdhouses, and shelters.
  • Be curious. What value do squirrels and mice have in the urban garden? Besides providing food for snakes, hawks, and owls, they clean tree canopies of unpicked nuts and fruit, and their caches of seeds often help with propagation of new plants.
  • Kids enjoy watching wildlife and often develop a life-long appreciation of nature from early observation.

If we provide the appropriate conditions, our "helpful armies" will come and stay. In these times of reduced habitat areas, it is more important than ever that each us do our part in attracting these pollinators and insectivores to our gardens.

Share time outdoors with the family, observe, and learn some new facts. It's nice to relax in the knowledge that our efforts make the world a better place and that our beautiful gardens are sustaining a lot more than just us!

References

© 2011 Catherine Tally

Comments

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on July 20, 2014:

Gray water usage makes SO much sense! It is challenging to keep a garden going in drought esp. since lawns and lush flower beds are ever popular. I am a big believer in reseeding perennials, native plants, bulbs and tubers, container gardens, deep less frequent watering, and lots of mulch!

Thank you for the kind comments.

Cat:)

Audrey Howitt from California on July 20, 2014:

Always amazed at the beauty here. We are in drought in CA right now, so am using a gray water system to keep my plants happy!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on July 13, 2014:

Hello Mary, Isn't it fun to watch the Monarchs colorfully flit around the garden and to have them lay eggs for the next generation on your milkweed? We are awaiting the next pupae stage as the latest caterpillars grow fatter and are amazed that the milkweed can recover so quickly after being stripped bare! Thank you for the nice comments and for sharing my hub. I wish you happy days in your garden!

All the best,

Cat :)

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on July 13, 2014:

Hi Phyllis,

Container gardens on a patio make so much sense because it's easier to control watering, and they can be planted up in so many creative ways to attract wildlife. It's great to heat that yours draw the birds, bees, & butterflies! Thanks for the thoughtful comments:)

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on July 13, 2014:

Hello thumbi7, Thank you! I appreciate your stopping by to read and hope that you are also enjoying some time in your garden :)

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on June 24, 2014:

Hello Audrey,

Isn't it wonderful to see the bees on our flowers? I just get so excited!

Many thanks to you for the thoughtful comments and your ongoing kindness in sharing my hubs. I appreciate you so much! Bless you,

Cat:)

Mary Hyatt from Florida on June 24, 2014:

My eye was immediately drawn to your photo of the Monarch butterfly on a Milkweed plant. One of my hobbies is planting milkweed, and then watching the Monarchs lay their eggs then hatch out!

I would much rather have a beautiful yard like this than a lawn! I don't have a large yard now that I downsized, but I do grow plants in pots.

Beautiful Hub. Voted up, etc and Pinned to my gardening board.

Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on June 24, 2014:

Catherine, this is a beautiful and very informative hub. I do not have a yard, but my small patio allows me to grow flowers and herbs that attract hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. I love gardening.

JR Krishna from India on June 24, 2014:

Enjoyed reading the hub. You have some beautiful photos as well.

Audrey Howitt from California on June 24, 2014:

I thought I would revisit this one--I see bees by the lavender every time I am out there watering or hanging around--it is a wonderful thing

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on May 22, 2014:

Hello Nancy,

I know what you mean about those bird seed sprouts! It does take a bit more effort but is well worth it for the company of birds in the garden and their cheerful songs and chatter. Spending time in the garden and seeing nature at work gives me a healthier perspective overall. Thanks for stopping by!

Cat:)

Nancy Owens from USA on May 19, 2014:

Hello, Cat! I love the beautiful photos here. I left my sunflowers out all winter last year for the birds to feed on and now I have them coming up everywhere! Pulling them out as I go along. Always so much to do in the garden, but I look at it as my exercise routine, my serenity time, and my grocery bill reducer. P.S... I like Burt's Bees, too!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on May 15, 2014:

Hi Nancy,

Thank you! I appreciate the kind comments.

I hope you are enjoying a beautiful Spring.

Cat:)

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on May 15, 2014:

Hi Thelma,

There are few things as satisfying as a summer evening in the garden watching the bird activity and feeling the cool breeze from the trees. How nice that you can spend time each year in the wild garden of your country home! Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

Take care,

Cat:)

Nancy Owens from USA on May 15, 2014:

What a beautiful photo. I love watching the birds and squirrels.

Thelma Alberts from Germany on May 14, 2014:

I love wild garden and I have one in my home country where I enjoy a few months of being there. Thanks for the tips and for the video you have posted. Have a nice day!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on May 14, 2014:

Hello Anna,

Thank you for the positive response! I'm so happy that you loved the content. I appreciate your stopping by to read and comment.

All the best,

Cat:)

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on May 14, 2014:

Hi Audrey,

Glad you enjoyed this! Thank you for the thoughtful comments.

My best,

Cat :)

AnnaCia on May 14, 2014:

Love it, love it!!!!

Audrey Howitt from California on May 14, 2014:

I love beautiful wild gardens--your pictures are wonderful and give me a sense of your love of flowers!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on February 18, 2014:

Hi Rebecca,

Thank you! I'm so glad you've been inspired by this and are looking forward to your Spring garden. I appreciate your stopping by.

All the best,

Cat:)

Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on February 18, 2014:

You have me so eager for spring and making a garden and little ecosystem. This is a good guide to use with helpful hints. I love lots of birds too, I think I will add sunflowers. Thanks!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on January 31, 2014:

Hi Dave,

I'm delighted to hear of a program that encourages the preservation of local habitats and the creatures within. I will continue to edit this hub as new thoughts and experiences apply. Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful comments.

My best,

Cat :)

Dave from Lancashire north west England on January 31, 2014:

Hi Catherine,

sorry to have only just found this great hub and all your advise to gardeners is spot on. two years after you have written this hub, the RSPB here in England have just started " Give nature a Home" project which incorporates most of your suggestions. Your a head of your time. lol.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on March 03, 2011:

Thank you, followers, for the encouragement!

gajanis from Pakistan on February 27, 2011:

Good informative hub.....keep it up and welcome to the hubpages community.Thanks.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on February 25, 2011:

As someone who loves to garden, thank you for this informative hub!

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