Indeed, some gardens are famous all over the world, and people travel great distances to see them. Sissinghurst Castle in England has a series of garden “rooms,” each with its own theme or color. The “rooms” and their “doors” are arranged so that visitors can enjoy one room while also getting to peak into several others. The most famous “room” is the white garden. Closer to home, the British Broadcasting Company just named our very own Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden one of the top 10 gardens in North America worth travelling to visit. Lewis Ginter is perfect for an afternoon ramble through several different gardens or for taking classes to learn the latest gardening techniques. Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania is equally renowned for both its beauty and ability to teach visitors about plants.
While these traditional garden objectives are still valid, scientists are urging us home gardeners to consider a new one – using the home garden to support beleaguered wildlife, particularly birds and pollinators, which are under increasing pressure from urbanization. The Chesapeake Bay Watershed, where we live, has lost 100 acres of forest every day since 1985 and that loss has put tremendous pressure on both plants and animals. Here in Virginia about 28 percent of our flora and 36 percent of our vertebrate species are now considered rare. Since the 1960s, songbirds have declined by 40 percent, while birds that breed in meadows are in even more trouble. Our beloved bobwhite has declined by more than 80 percent.
Pollinators, which are important to both home gardeners and commercial farmers, are experiencing major environmental threats too. Honey bees are responsible for about 80 percent of all pollination by insects. Unfortunately, they are experiencing major issues, some of which are related to the increasing use of herbicides and the loss of habitat for foraging. Monarch butterflies are facing similar problems since they’re highly dependent on milkweed plants. They only lay their eggs on these plants, and the caterpillars that emerge only eat milkweed. Unfortunately, much milkweed has been eradicated by the use of herbicides, and home gardeners have been reluctant to plant it.
What can we do to help? Some things are easy. Just breaking up our typically vast expanses of lawn with islands of mixed plantings is a great first step, if they are planted with a variety of species that offer both food and shelter to birds and pollinators throughout the year, not just in the spring. An island should include a combination of plants of varying heights, as well as both evergreens and deciduous plants. In other words, everything from small trees to native perennials and groundcovers.
Another simple change that we can make is to provide a source of water in the garden. A small pond would be lovely, but isn't necessary. Birdbaths and shallow containers that are kept clean and full of water are inviting to both birds and butterflies. Just be sure to put them in a location that is protected from predators. Even a dish of wet sand or a spot on the ground that is kept constantly wet will attract butterflies. Large clouds of butterflies will visit to suck moisture and minerals from the wet soil, an activity called puddling.
If you really want a water garden, there are many different possibilities. While an in-ground pond is beautiful, it’s possible to start on a smaller scale with just about any water proof container. A half barrel makes a great miniature water garden that can be placed on a deck or other area where you're likely spend time observing the visitors that use it. Fill the barrel with water and several aquatic plants, such as water lilies. You'll be surprised at the number of visitors that your mini world attracts.
If you have lots of space, another option you can explore is the addition of natural areas, such as wildflower meadows to your property. Some gardeners like to treat the soil to eradicate all weeds and then scatter the area with seed balls. These interesting, truffle sized seed “bombs” are easy to make by combining clay, compost, and various types of seeds. Many gardeners like to use a mix of asters and sun flowers. Whatever you like and is appropriate for your growing conditions.
It’s also important to create paths among your islands and other plantings. The paths let you wander through the garden and observe wildlife, while also providing more hiding places for ground dwelling birds. Another easy to implement change? Pile brush on the edge of your property so that ground dwelling birds can use the piles for shelter.
What to plant in the new home garden? Consider natives whenever possible since they're well suited to our local growing conditions and less likely to become invasive. Native plants are also known sources of food and shelter for our wildlife. There are lots of small trees, such as serviceberry, redbud, and dogwood, which provide nectar for early pollinators and, then later in the season, fruits for birds. More than 40 species of birds eat the fruit of the serviceberry, while the dogwood provides nectar for about 17 species of butterflies and moths.
If you need low growing plants, such as ferns, consider the Christmas fern or the more unusual cinnamon fern. Both require some shade and provide cover for birds that spend time on the ground. Partridgeberry is an interesting creeping plant for the home garden. It’s slow growing and well behaved, not at all aggressive. If you want vines, passionflower is a lovely choice that provides nectar for butterflies, seeds for birds, and serves as a larval host for some butterflies. It’s very easy to grow and readily available.
For more traditional flowers, there are also many choices – black eyed Susans are beautiful and tough and provide nectar for many butterflies. Turtleheads grow well in moist conditions and are important energy sources for migrating hummingbirds. Butterfly weed, of course, is an excellent choice. It’s highly adaptable to just about any growing condition and supports many different butterflies, birds, and bees. An added bonus? Deer don’t particularly like it.
So much to think about in the garden these days. Fortunately, we don’t have to change everything, just consider making modifications here and there as the opportunity arises. Happy gardening!