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Plants for a Garden That Welcomes Wildlife

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First signs of spring are legendary, particularly in places blanketed in snow for much of winter. Where I grew up, near Washington, DC, we eagerly awaited the American robins’ arrival. They usually appeared in March, whistling a hearty tune: “cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up!” The mere sight of Mama Robin bearing twigs for a secret nest was enough to carry us through the last cold, wet weeks of winter and into spring.

American robin

American robin

Maybe it was my family’s aversion to the cold, or our crazed school-year schedule that prevented us from realizing that robins don’t migrate. In fact, most robins, as well as many other native birds, butterflies and bees retreat to nearby wooded areas in colder months. Like their human neighbors, they seek protection in the places they know best and they are most adapted to: their own back yards.

Though they may be hidden in plain sight, harbingers of spring serve as a reminder that landscapes with year-round interest function on multiple levels. Cultivated areas extend wildlife habitat, inviting a host of creatures that both benefit from and support plant diversity. Incorporating native plants that support indigenous wildlife reduces the need for fertilizer, soil amendments and water. Native plants relish the particular environmental conditions in which they’ve evolved, and they provide food and shelter for wildlife that evolved synchronously.

Woody plants
Cool spring nights and warmer days are the perfect combination for planting, just in time for wildlife’s return. With even a small amount of space, it’s easy to incorporate a few wildlife-friendly plants. In early spring, before trees leaf out, take stock of the garden’s bones: the backdrop visible when perennials and deciduous woody plants are dormant. Note areas where more privacy or shade is desirable, and look for understory spaces that could use a little more interest. A layered approach adds texture, color and accommodations for all sorts of wildlife.

Early flowering trees and those with persistent nuts and berries are vital for migrating species, as well as those reemerging in early spring. Maple trees’ miniscule red flowers are barely perceptible in March, but they replenish energy for honeybees and other early nectar-seekers. The showy spring flowers of tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) sustain bees and butterflies, while red squirrels, finches and rabbits enjoy the seeds that follow. Cardinals and grosbeaks seek pine and spruce seeds, while woodpeckers and nuthatches scramble along hickory and oak branches, pecking for insect treats. These trees are among the tallest species, so before planting, consider their mature size. Plant six-foot saplings in early spring, and water consistently during periods of drought. Once established, they need little care, other than pruning.

In smaller spaces, a grove of early-blooming trees or shrubs will provide shelter for ground dwellers, as well as low branches for rapid transit. Clustering shrubs in groups of three to five, particularly when male and female plants are necessary for pollination, creates a cohesive pattern. Many small native trees tolerate some shade and these are perfectly suited to the understory.

Serviceberry’s (Amelanchier arborea) delicate white flowers appear before its foliage in March then morph into delicious blue berries. Also known as Juneberry, it grows throughout eastern North America, reaching 15 to 20 feet. Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a smaller shrub, reaching 6 to 12 feet. It thrives from Ontario to Florida and west to Oklahoma. The fragrant leaves host the spicebush swallowtail butterfly, and 24 species of birds dine on its drupes. Some of the most adaptable and underused shrubs are native Viburnum. Their fragrant spring blossoms give way to high-fat berries and brilliant fall foliage. Turkeys, grouse and songbirds flock to the berries, while numerous butterfly and moth caterpillars dine on viburnum leaves. Though Korean varieties are popular among gardeners, US-native viburnums, such as mapleleaf (V. acerifolium), black haw (V. prunifolium) and arrowwood (V. dentatum), best support local wildlife.

For year-round interest and adaptability, the sumacs are hard to beat. Species of these colony-forming shrubs are native in all 48 contiguous states and they support over 300 songbirds. Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), whose hairy branches resemble deer antlers, produces yellow-green flowers on female plants in spring. Pyramidal spikes of bright red berries follow, glowing throughout winter. In need of a little privacy? Douglas hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii) can provide it, as well as clusters of rose-like blooms that attract butterflies, birds and even ladybugs in the Pacific Northwest. Unique red branches with inch-long spikes ensure protection from less desirable visitors.

Gardeners look to evergreens for winter interest and privacy, but we sometimes overlook their berries. The birds do not! Holly and juniper are among the most valuable evergreens for sheltering and feeding wildlife. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a smaller specimen with bright red fruit in winter and early spring. American holly (Ilex opaca) is a mid-size tree offering both berries and shelter. Junipers are found throughout the continental US. Species range from Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) to eastern red cedar (J. virginiana), whose scented wood and attractive peeling bark creates a beautiful year-round backdrop. The insignificant bluish berries feed birds, foxes, and other wildlife.

Herbaceous plants and more
Save some sunny space for wildflowers and grasses that bloom consecutively, such as a progression of foxglove, sage, native honeysuckle, coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, bee balm, milkweed, goldenrod and switchgrass. Start seeds indoors in early spring, or sow them outside when nighttime temperatures remain above 50˚F. Rake the soil lightly and scatter seeds across the surface, then top them with a thin layer of humus-rich mulch. Soon enough, a rainbow of pollinators will alight on the blooms and birds will visit for seeds when the flowers fade.

Spring is the perfect time to consider installing a pond or birdbath. Even a small water feature sustains birds, frogs and pollinators during drought. In winter and early spring, add a heating element. A heated birdbath is what clued me in to the robin’s winter roosting ground. When we’d been hit with several inches of snow, robins came from every direction to drink from our simple birdbath, the only unfrozen water in sight.

Finally, spot an out-of-sight corner and create a compost pile. Grubs and earthworms will turn dried leaves and kitchen scraps into “black gold,” though some will become snacks for towhees, thrashers and robins. Add a few rocks and bark, and native toads will seek out tasty treats amongst the decomposers. In cooler months, the compost pile shelters ground dwellers.

A garden filled with locally native plants, structural diversity and a few forgotten piles of leaves is a welcome habitat for wildlife seeking shelter through the seasons. A diverse habitat can only enhance our garden's appeal, both for us and for the creatures we invite.

Brenda Lynn is a Virginia-based outdoor educator, beekeeper and Master Gardener. She grows pollinator-friendly plants and raised-bed vegetables year-round.