Where the Wild Things Are

Garden HabitatHome gardens provide habitat for birds, butterflies, and wildlife.

All of us organic gardeners know the value — the necessity! — of attracting pollinators and beneficial insects. We know that making our landscapes friendly to birds can decrease the trouble we have with problem insects. Why, we’ve even come to see bats as beneficial creatures that will devour multitudes of pests in a single night.

But we also know the damage that insects and wildlife can do to our vegetables. Aphids, cabbage loopers, slugs, tomato hornworms, and so many others can destroy our plants before the harvest. Deer will eat our lettuce and raccoons our corn before we have the chance. Crows might pluck the seedlings from our soil just for fun.

We co-exist with all of nature’s creatures. In fact, in a world in which natural habitat is shrinking and poisons are sprayed with abandon, our landscapes can become wildlife sanctuaries of sorts. Our gardens are natural places full of the kind of flora that provide shelter and, yes, food for nature’s creatures. Good or bad, what’s the best way to provide for the wildlife of all types and sizes that inhabit — or want to inhabit — our growing spaces? And what’s the best way to discourage those who do more damage than good?

Tammi Hartung, a certified organic gardener who grows medicinal, rare, and native plants in addition to vegetables at the Desert Canyon Farm in Colorado (her previous book is Homegrown Herbs),  has just come out with The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardner: How To Grow Food in Harmony With Nature (Storey Publishing). In it , she talks about co-existing with the wildlife that live in and around our gardens. She emphasizes the benefits that many creatures bring to our gardens — some that surprisingly we might not consider beneficial — and ways we can encourage the most helpful among them to take up residence and reward us with their presence.

Pest Problem SolverHartung’s book has the expected chapters on attracting pollinators and beneficial insects, on understanding and benefiting from the creatures that inhabit our soil right down to the tiniest microbes, and on making our landscapes friendly to birds that will serve as our own private pest control service. She also discusses facets of gardens that welcome wildlife and in doing so points out the service we provide them as they (usually) provide benefits to us. She talks about creating wildlife habitats, the strategies for coexistence and how to design wildlife-friendly food gardens.

Of course, she acknowledges that not all wildlife are beneficial and that some can cause damage to our gardens. So, yes, she includes a chapter about blocking access, as she puts it, to unwelcome guests. Some of those methods are classic — there’s a page-long tutorial on building effective scarecrows (“in addition to being useful, scarecrows should also be fun!” she writes). She’s also realistic. In an anecdote about protecting a koi pond where a heron was making a meal of the fish, she recommends black plastic netting of the sort used to cover fruit bushes, to discourage the bird. But she lets us know that the plastic netting doesn’t work to protect plants from raccoons — they chew right through it — and recommends wire netting instead.

Hartung also has a chapter on the strategies she uses to keep the inevitable wildlife damage to a minimum: crop rotation, use of aromatic plants that wildlife don’t like, and repellants, like hot chili pepper and garlic sprays. She gives tips for trapping insects and, not surprisingly to some, offers a short-term tactic to protect your corn crop by blasting talk radio or rap music through a strategically placed, battery-powered boom box (what will the neighbors think of that?).

Something Hartung recommends, and we find most fascinating, is observation. Who doesn’t love gazing out at their garden. She recommends pulling up a chair from a suitable distance and watching. Which birds, and animals come to visit? Are they truly doing harm or are they there to help? This kind of knowledge goes a long way towards aiding and protecting your garden from what’s present in your natural world.

The book is full of delightful illustrations by Holly Ward Bimba (who often goes as “Golly Bard”) and enough informative boxes, on subjects ranging from “Growing Your Own Organic Material” to keeping squirrels from chewing through drip irrigation lines, where every gardener, no matter how experienced, will find something new to learn. A comprehensive reference chart of remedies for creature problems that covers everything from ants, aphid and antelope to squirrels, wasps and wireworms is included at the book’s end. May we say we’re flattered that Planet Natural is listed on the “resources” page as a source for organic gardening supplies, wildlife aids and beneficial insects?

What’s most likely to change after a read through this informative text, is attitude. Co-existing with wildlife, especially the largest of creatures that might visit our gardens, requires some tolerance (and occasionally planting a surplus). Some of those critters are more valuable than harmful. And none of them are more harmful than spraying strong pesticides.

We’ve all had problems with creatures in our gardens. How do you deal with them. A buddy, tired of losing corn to raccoons, bought an electric “cattle puncher” (PDF) and strung a couple wires snoot-high to a raccoon around his entire gardens. It worked for a night or two. Another night, with the back porch light on, he watched the bandits steal across the top of his shed where the electric box was, and drop into the garden. Others, apparently burrowed under the wires, but not so far that they escaped the charge. My buddy’s wife noted that even if the fence didn’t keep out the raccoons, they sure looked cute with their hair standing up like that.

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