Nova Scotia is blessed with many unique habitats and rare and special species that inhabit them. Many of these sensitive species are at risk, but helping them may seem overwhelming to the average nature-lover. Luckily, there are many small (or potentially BIG!) changes that landowners can make in their very own gardens to help out!
One of the best and easiest ways to make your garden more appealing to wildlife is embracing the bugs. There are many perks to not fighting the bugs in your garden. Many insects are excellent plant pollinators. We all know that wonderful little bumblebees are the champions of pollinating our veggie patches, but did you know that many other bugs also perform this important role? Wasps are one that often get overlooked because of their bad reputation! You might think that embracing wasps sounds unpleasant and downright dangerous, but the good news is that many wasps are not aggressive, and a lot of species don’t even have the ability to sting. The majority of these solitary, gentle wasps are also parasitic wasps that, along with pollinating your garden, also prey on garden pests, which can be a lovely bonus for any gardener. So how can you tell which wasps are friends and which are foes? Most of the wasps who build nests and live in colonies, such as yellow jackets, are very aggressive, while solitary wasps tend to be gentle. A good rule of thumb is that if you see a solitary wasp visiting your garden, and it seems more interested in your flowers than you, leave it be and it will leave you be. Of course, maintaining the safety of your garden is very important, so if you find an active wasp nest, or wasps that are showing aggressive behaviour, it is a good idea to investigate their removal.
Another wonderful pollinator is the green lacewing. In its larval stages it also voraciously eats many common garden pests, such as aphids, thrips and mealybugs. It is undeniably a welcome visitor to any garden. Ladybugs, while they may seem cute and dainty to us, are absolute thugs in the garden (in a good way!) They will happily chomp on common pests, including mealybugs, mites, and aphids. Other beneficial insects include dragonflies, damselflies, assassin bugs, and robber flies. Spiders are also incredible mosquito catchers. Worms are also big helpers in the garden, as they are experts at recycling nutrients by eating waste in the soil and making compost. A fun and helpful activity is building bee hotels, for bees to rest in while visiting your garden.
Aside from pollinating plants and dealing with pests, insects also play the important role of feeding birds, amphibians, reptiles, and other critters. Insects are some of the first available food sources to migratory species and species coming out of winter hibernation. If you decide to not wage war on the bugs in your garden, you can expect to see more wildlife visiting!
The easiest way to make your garden more bug-friendly is probably the most obvious: lay off the pesticides! Insecticides will do what their name suggests, and harm insects, but a body of research is developing showing that herbicides (used to combat weeds) can also have a harmful effect on insects and other wildlife. For example, amphibians, such as salamanders and frogs, are extremely sensitive to harmful chemicals commonly found in gardens, such as insecticides and herbicides. This is because of their sensitive, porous skin. Pesticides can affect future generations, by harming or killing their spawn while in eggs or in their juvenile stages.
Another fantastic way that you can attract beneficial insects to your own garden is by planting lots of pollen-producing plants. Bonus points if you use some of our beautiful native species, like yellow blue-bead lily, blue flag iris, and bunchberry. Many of these species have the added benefit that their fruit provide food to many birds and mammals. You can also help by leaving dead plants standing as you’re getting your garden ready for the winter, rather than cutting them back, until you’re ready to do your planting in the spring. Many insects use the stalks of dead plants to house their eggs in over the winter, and cutting them down may diminish the next generation’s chance of survival.
You can also take easy steps to preserve or build insect habitats. If you have an inactive wasp nest (meaning not currently occupied by a colony), you may want to consider leaving it in your yard. The aggressive, social wasps that we want to avoid, like the yellow jackets, build a new nest every year, and abandon their old nest before the winter. Many species of parasitic wasps (which, just to remind you, are either reluctant, or completely unable to sting humans) are secondary nesters, which means that they will nest in old colony nests. If you have observed an old nest that you know does not have a colony in it, consider leaving it for gentle, beneficial wasps to camp out in. Again, safety first! If you’re unsure about the nest’s status, consider its removal. Other ways to protect and encourage beneficial bugs include using shredded leaves as mulch over the winter in your garden to provide nutrients to critters living in the soil.
There are other ways that you can maintain and even build wildlife habitat in your yard. One of the most common ways that this is done is by building bird boxes and feeders. Bird boxes can be an easy way to attract birds to your property. While they can provide shelter for birds to build nests in, bird boxes can also play host to other animals, like bats and squirrels. Setting out bird feeders is a common way of attracting birds, and while it may seem like a good idea to put them out, it is important to note that there have been recent Nova Scotian instances of trichomoniasis, a fatal disease caused by parasites spread among seed-eating birds at feeders. If you do choose to have a bird-feeder in your yard, clean and disinfect it regularly, and take it down completely if you learn that there is a current trichomoniasis outbreak. Another great way to provide food and shelter for birds and mammals is to plant “mast-producing” plants. “Mast” is essentially the fruiting body on a plant that is edible. Birds and small mammals love to snack on huckleberries, serviceberries, and chokecherries in the summertime. Overwintering species rely on hard mast to survive the winter, so planting species like mature beech and red oak can make your yard a lovely place for animals to settle in for their winter rest.
If landscaping is an option, building a rockery, loggery, or pond can attract many wild friends. Many small critters, like snakes and salamanders, are drawn to rock piles and old logs. These are easy to make a beautiful centerpiece in the garden: old logs house beautiful fungi, and rockeries can be arranged in a lovely formation and interplanted with native plants! Leaving standing dead trees (as long as they are sturdily rooted and don’t pose a risk of toppling over) can be very helpful to many species. Woodpeckers excavate dead trees, using them both as a bug buffet but also as a place to dig out nesting cavities. Not only is this helpful for woodpeckers, but many animals are known as “secondary nesters”, which means that once the woodpecker is done with the cavity, they will move right in! Some notable secondary nesters are flying squirrels and saw-whet owls. With a little bit of creativity, these standing dead trees can make an attractive centerpiece in a garden.
Ponds are a great addition because they attract a variety of insects, which can encourage many beautiful birds to visit your garden, and maybe, if you’re lucky, even build a nest there! Ponds also encourage reptiles and amphibians by providing mating and spawning areas and places to live where they are protected by predatory fish. They will also love to snack on the bugs drawn to the pond. If you want to have a really beneficial pond, resist the urge to fill it with fish. Some of the most popular ornamental pond species, koi and goldfish, are actually pond predators that will happily feast on young frogs and salamanders, as well as bugs that would otherwise help native species.
You can also help birds by reducing the number of hazards in your yard. One of the unexpectedly treacherous features of our yards are windows. According to a 2013 study, 25 million birds die from window collisions per year in Canada. Some easy ways to reduce the risk to birds is making them obvious by marking them with something showy, like hanging CDs, ribbon, window decals, or anything that flutters in the wind or is shiny. Closing curtains and blinds and shutting off the lights at night also greatly reduce the risk of collisions.
If you want more information on how to make your yard more wildlife-friendly, a great resource is the Canadian Wildlife Federation website’s “gardening for wildlife” page (http://cwf-fcf.org/en/explore/gardening-for-wildlife/).
Izzy Clarke has a BA in Sustainability from Dalhousie University, and is completing a diploma in Natural Resource Environmental Technology at NSCC Lunenburg. She recently completed a student internship with the Halifax Northwest Trails Association, working on water quality assessment, wilderness stewardship, and invasive species management. She led the Coastal Discovery Wild Weekend Hike for the HLC at the beginning of July 2019 and has continued her support of our small but mighty organization by authoring this guest blog post for us!