Published in the Toronto Star August 6, 2016
Take a moment to think of your property, even your condo balcony, as something much greater than the boundaries indicated on a survey. Think of the piece of real estate that you live on as a pearl in a necklace that extends down your street, around the corner and beyond. Note that this necklace is a circle or oval that has no end. Round and round it goes.
You are beginning to think like a bee. Or a hummingbird. A visit to the flowering plants in your yard leads to more on the other side of your fence, which leads to permanent tree cover where birds and insects build nests (habitat) which leads to a nearby source of water.
There is much that you can do in your yard and garden that impacts on the beneficial wildlife in your entire community. Here are a few ideas that might spark your interest and your desire to play a bigger role in the world of pollinators that exists right outside of your back door.
- Plant a hedge. The aforementioned fence is a fine thing for creating privacy in your yard. A fence provides privacy while sunbathing or reading quietly. However, a permanent hedge can provide so much more, while offering privacy and quiet (MORE quiet, as it absorbs noise more effectively than a fence). A living wall – or hedge – is often home to birds nesting and having babies, shelter for insects and small creatures that are part of the natural web. I prefer native white cedar as a hedge in a sunny position for fast growth and a permanent vertical delineator between neighbours. Other great hedging plants include the classic deciduous privet (up to 2 meters high), boxwood (up to a meter high), alpine currant (2 meters high, great for the shade) and for an informal approach to the project, virtually plant any flowering shrub that you like.
- Lift a slab. Do you have a flagstone, interlocking or patio-slab walkway or patio? Consider lifting some random pieces out of the puzzle and fill in with low growing ‘stepables’. These are ground hugging plants that attract pollinators while in bloom and provide safety for small, ground dwelling insects. Look for creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) for a great show of colour early in summer, Irish or Scotch moss or any number of low growing sedums and sempervivums. All bloom at one point in the season and tolerate a moderate amount of foot traffic. They cool down an otherwise hot area in the yard too.
- ‘Cut and come again’. This weekend I will cut my veronica (about 50 of them) in half. They bloomed in July and now they are ready to bloom again, but only if you take the time to remove the first flush of flowers. The same is true for many early summer flowering perennials including Sweet William, Echinops (globe thistles), lavender and delphiniums. While the second coming of bloom is generally not as dramatic as the first, it is worth the effort. Pollinators will thank you for it. Many annual flowering plants enjoy a mid-season trim as well. Petunias respond with an abundance of late season blooms when you cut about 1/3 growth off now. Deadhead your geraniums and marigolds to encourage more bloom. Pinch the main flower out of Butterfly bush after it has bloomed to encourage more lateral blossoms late in August and September.
- Plant a wall. The fences and walls around your property come alive when you plant a vine up them. I can’t imagine anything more beautiful than a clematis and climbing rose planted together against a fence or on a trellis, secured to the garage wall. Or a flowering hydrangea clinging to shaded support. Birds nest in vines and enjoy the fruits of many like pyracantha (firethorn), native Virginia Creeper and even grapes (and you thought the grapes were for you). Cool an area down. More details in my recent article https://www.thestar.com/life/homes/2016/07/16/vines-dress-up-outdoor-spaces.html.
- Leave it standing. Ornamental grasses, rudbeckia, Echinacea (purple coneflower), monarda (bee balm) and Shasta Daisy all produce a seed head, once they finish blooming, that attracts foraging song birds: don’t cut them down. The flocks of yellow finches that invade my garden from now through winter are testament to this. Come autumn, resist the temptation to sanitize your garden and let these perennials stand.
Speaking of autumn, far off as it seems now, one of the best choices you can make when considering beneficial wildlife in your yard is leaving the fallen leaves in it. Rake leaves off your lawn as they can do damage there. Moving them under hedges, onto perennial beds and even the veggie garden where they will rot down before the next growing season, adding much needed organic raw material to the soil and habitat for ground dwelling insects.
Less work for you: more beneficial to the ‘beneficials’.