Gardening For Wildlife

by Betsy Washington

Here in Lake Barcroft we are fortunate to live amidst a venerable oak-hickory-beech forest because the single most important factor in attracting wildlife to our gardens is the presence of large, native trees. They protect our soils and watersheds, moderate our climate, filter pollutants, and harbor an astonishing variety of wildlife from microorganisms to eagles. The Audubon at Home in Northern Virginia guide to preserving the natural heritage of Northern Virginia states that, “There is nothing more important we can do for the health of our natural environment and wildlife than preserving or planting trees”.

Oaks are the quintessential wildlife plant and top the list of all plants that support wildlife. They attract over 500 species of butterflies and moths and thousands of species of insects (critical food for baby birds) and soil microorganisms. Oaks, along with hickories and beeches, supply the bulk of the nuts eaten by deer, turkeys, raccoons, mice, bear, squirrels, flying squirrels, wood ducks, bluejays, and even beavers. They provide nesting sites for dozens of species of birds including chickadees, wrens, woodpeckers, owls, and bluebirds. Other native trees that top the list of wildlife plants include: the black cherry and willow, birches, hickories, maples, and poplars. Preserve your existing trees at all costs and consider planting a new one for your children.

Supplement your large trees with several understory trees, shrubs, and groundcovers. One of the most effective ways to do this is to plant hedgerows along your property boundaries. If neighbors followed suit, we could create wildlife corridors along the edges of our properties that linked our community to larger parks and natural areas, providing critical food, shelter, and safe passage for wildlife.

Among understory trees, Serviceberries are a top choice, producing sweet berries in June that attract over 42 species of songbirds including cedar waxwings, orioles, and tanagers. Our native dogwood attracts over 53 species of songbirds and supports over 117 species of butterflies! Redbuds provide seeds for songbirds and nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies. Fringetrees produce small blue fruit in fall that attract numerous species of songbirds and small mammals. Other excellent choices include hawthorns, sassafras, and native plums.

Be sure to add several native shrubs that flower and fruit at various times of the year. Blueberries have extremely high wildlife value and their summer berries attract orioles, flycatchers, titmice, kingbirds, as well as many small mammals and even turtles. Native viburnums produce prolific crops of showy fall fruit that attract a multitude of songbirds including: flycatchers, cedar waxwings, woodpeckers and cardinals. Winterberries and hollies produce showy berries that persist through the winter, sustaining winter residents. Other shrubs with high wildlife value include: the American hazelnut, spicebush, Virginia Sweetspire, Sweet Pepperbush, Buttonbush, New Jersey Tea, and native azaleas.

Be sure to add groundcovers or perennials to your wildlife border. Goldenrods and asters top the list by providing nectar for hundreds of species of butterflies and pollinators, and seeds for songbirds. Sunflowers and Joe-Pye-Weed attract dozens of species of butterflies and pollinators. Spring and summer Phlox attract butterflies as well as hummingbirds. Our milkweeds are the larval host of the beautiful Monarch butterflies and violets are the sole host food of larvae of the beautiful but increasingly rare Fritillary butterflies. Other perennials with high wildlife value include coneflowers, black-eyed susans, verbenas, beebalm, and Mountain mint.

Once you have created your wildlife border, prepare to enjoy the wildlife that will surely come. After only one year, experimental gardens planted with only 10 species of native plants attracted 14 times more butterflies and moths than adjacent gardens planted with exotic ornamentals like Japanese cherries, Bradford pears, Japanese azaleas. They supported 35 times more birds. Many of these birds even nested in the garden, including several rare species, not previously recorded in the area! As Doug Tallamy so eloquently states in his groundbreaking book, Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, “The costs of increasing the percentage of natives in our landscapes are small, the benefits are immense. As gardeners and stewards of our land, we have never been so empowered-- and the ecological stakes have never been so high.” Everyone can make a significant difference in protecting our dwindling wildlife, by merely adding several native plants to their gardens.

If you are interested in learning more about the vital connection between native plants and wildlife, and how to help support wildlife in your own garden, check out Doug Tallamy’s book. It will change the way you garden and think about plants, wildlife, and insects! Or check out: