Gardening With Wildlife: Beefing Up Your Habitat

By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

(Excerpted in part from A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country)

One of the coolest things about being a country gardener is that I am constantly surrounded by wild things.  These creatures are part and parcel of a healthy ecosystem and one of the rarest and most precious gifts that one can have.  However, it goes without saying that on occasion we are forced to butt heads with the very wildlife that we cherish.  Whether it’s the birds eating the blueberries, squirrels in the peach tree or a rabbit in the cabbage patch, we sometimes have to go to war to protect our share of the harvest.  And after years of living and gardening in the backwoods I have learned that all creatures are compelled to survive, and that the best deterrent for pesky garden critters is to create a place for them to do just that.

Among the many methods we have used to ‘control’ pests, our best weapon has been to find and create a measure of balance – half of what we want and need and half of what they want and need. If we can provide some bit of habitat for the wild things as an alternative to our garden, like a particular plant that the butterflies need to feed on instead of my dill, or a place where the deer can find browse in summer instead of my beans, then that’s what we do.

Wild things prefer wild areas. They need them for feeding, sleeping and nesting. Brushy and grassy areas are nurseries for armies of good bugs, butterflies, bees and insect-eating birds. Sometimes simply letting an area grow over for a few years is all that it takes to create enough diversity to distract the wild things from your garden.

If you’re land is totally forested, I suggest cutting down a few trees to create openings for the sun and rain.  A one or two acre ‘meadow’ can support a myriad of plant and animal life.  Conservationists sometimes refer to these as food plots.  Unlike cultivated food plots of clover, wheat or alfalfa, all you have to do is cut a few trees and let nature do the rest.  Within a year, that forested opening will be filled with a robust diversity of plants and animals.

Pasture bordered by woodland.Big open fields or meadows bordered by trees are common in areas where livestock are raised or where two parcels of land meet.  In these instances, taking out a staggered double row of the taller trees along the edge where the meadow meets the forest, encourages new lush undergrowth.   If the trees are not yours to cut, start by planting shrubs and small trees such as elderberry, gooseberry, blackberry, dogwood and spicebush in a band extending roughly 15’ from the hard edge of the tree line.  Doing so creates a more biologically diverse transition between ecosystems, which in turn provides food and shelter.  By avoiding a monoculture of repetitive vegetation, like a big flat continuous strip of lawn, the vegetable garden doesn’t seem like the proverbial oasis in the desert to the wild things we share our space with.

The meadow at our old place was once the site of a two-man sawmill operation that had been cleared and brush-hogged for years and years. When we moved in, there were so few plant species in that area that I could count all of them on my fingers.  Needless to say it was blank and void of any sign of life.  And it was ugly.  Dean and I knew right away that we didn’t want to keep brush-hogging or mowing that area, so we let it go.   Our only maintenance was strategic periodic burning to stimulate or inhibit certain types of vegetation and habitat.

A field transformed into habitat.Over several years of this treatment, the field morphed into an elegant meadow full of wildflowers and unique native plants, shrubs and small trees. But it didn’t take years to see the changes.  That first fall, the new meadow burst with songbirds, butterflies, rabbits, deer and all manner of things that I could spend a lifetime looking at.

We’re doing the same thing here in our new place – converting a former ‘field’ into a meadow.  And because there is now a healthy and diverse habitat in that meadow, the critters around our place seem to find most of what they need out there.  Perhaps this seems a simple, almost naïve, way of dealing with pesky critters, but I believe that all life is valuable and that the wild things have a place in a healthy ecosystem.  So, at our house, the meadow belongs utterly and completely to them.

Miss Part I?  Read it now: Gardening With Wildlife: Natural Deterrents

© 2012 Jill Henderson

A Journey of SeasonsExcerpted in part from A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country

If you long for the country life or love the outdoors, you will appreciate this beautiful and inspiring book. Set in the rugged heart of the Missouri Ozarks, A Journey of Seasons is a beautifully recounted memoir filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor author, naturalist and organic gardener, Jill Henderson.

Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.

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10 responses to “Gardening With Wildlife: Beefing Up Your Habitat

  1. The sheer diversity of “life” in our neck of the “woods” never ceases to amaze us…

    • It’s incredible, isn’t it? And you guys live in an area of even greater biological importance because of the river with all of its springs, streams and caves. Denise wants y’all to come out some day after a heavy rain and check out our gurgling “hole” for the next karst video.

  2. Your “gurgling hole” really illustrates how interconnected our water supply is in the Ozarks. Many folks live a lot closer to “the river” than they realize. 🙂 I imagine Denise was pretty excited about your “karst feature.” Let’s shoot it this fall.

    • That’s a good point, DeAnna. Most people don’t realize that there are rivers flowing beneath them and whatever they do on the surface can affect those water sources – including the rivers and their own wells. The gurgling hole was both wonderful and a bit alarming to find since it’s not too far from the house, but I trust that it’s been there much longer than us and will still be here long after we are gone! Would love to host the gurgling hole shoot! I think you’ll find it most engaging!

      • I would love to see this too – I remember your first encounter!

      • Would love for you to experience it, too! We have only heard it once so far, but it seems to require quite a bit of rain – not sure exactly how much that is just yet. The first and last time we heard it was just after you and Joe were here – remember how much rain we had in those few days?

  3. Silver lining re deer: Felt very sad this spring when they chomped off so many of the wildflowers I was cultivating in my medicine wheel garden. But now I have multiple heads of flowers about to burst into bloom! Nature is ever resilient and inventive. Just hoping the dear deer don’t visit again. Now what to do about the squirrels who are busy making off with not-quite-ripe pears? Trouble is that I am as amused by all these critter antics as I am annoyed.

    • I can totally relate to both of those experiences, Sara! Sometimes it’s a blessing, sometimes a pain, but when all is said and done I’ll take the few irritating experiences over the absence of those animals that bring me a so much joy and laughter the rest of the year. Perhaps you could try a bit of taste repellant on the pears to deter the squirrels – perhaps a spray made with onions, garlic or yarrow? You might also try a squirrel collar around the tree if there aren’t other trees close by.

  4. Tree Pruning Queens

    Hey Jill!

    I think your act to turn these boring bug ridden plains into meadows and orchards is absolutely wonderful!! I wish there was more open area and land here where I could do the same and spend my days in Eden, with nature. The autumn photo is so mystical, please post more snapshots if you have any! God bless, and good luck, you’re doing the Earth a wonderful favor.

    -Carlos Hernandez

    • Thank you so much, Carlos. It’s comments like yours that keep me writing week after week. The photo of the fall meadow was the old sawmill field turned meadow that I talked about in the story. It was definitely a most enchanted area and one in which I spent many of my days. I am blessed to have an abundance of land around me, but even urban folks with small yards can create habitat with little effort. I hope you find your Eden, too!

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