Blue Ridge Naturalist: In Month of Giving, Give to Nature

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Don’t worry about the sap wells that Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers make on your woody plants. It’s a myth that the shallow holes will kill your trees and shrubs. These winter visitors have been feeding on my plants for almost 33 years! Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

Although I stopped participating long ago in the frenzied, commercialized commotion of holiday gift-giving, I think this is a good month in which to suggest that folks consider offering a present to nature. Humans can’t help impacting the natural world as they go about their lives, but folks can certainly adjust many of their activities to impact it less—and that would be a gift to all of us!

It’s crucial to be kind to the planet upon which we live. There’s a lot of talk these days about living on Mars, but does anyone really want to reside where he is a prisoner? You would need to remain inside the “living” quarters, or you would need to inhabit a spacesuit. No fresh air to freely breathe, nor fresh water to drink—it would be recycled from fuel cells, urine, personal hygiene, and by condensing each person’s breath and sweat from the air. 

When you give some thought to how perfectly the Earth is suited to providing us with everything we need to exist, and that it is the only planet available to do that, you can more easily understand why we should take care of it in the best manner possible. To keep the environment working properly, it is imperative that everyone make his property as nature-friendly as possible. 

It’s not difficult to provide wildlife with the same things we need for life: food, water, and shelter. However, you need to look at your landscape as wildlife habitat instead of as a showcase of plants.

Start by considering the amount of lawn you maintain around your home. If you had to stay “out there” 24/7 as our critters do, would it provide you with shelter from the weather, a place to reproduce, food, and water? If it won’t do that for you, it won’t do much for wildlife either. It’s simple to minimize lawn area.

Keep the amount of lawn you use for recreation and as a pathway to walk around the yard, but start considering where you can plant shrubs, trees, and flowers. You do not need to rip out the lawn; you simply need to replace some areas of grass with different kinds of plants, and you can do this at whatever pace suits your available time, abilities, and pocketbook.

Let’s say you want to grow flowers, but you don’t have much experience with gardening. Start with a small area, just a few feet square or a bit larger, and grow “failproof” plants, such as zinnias, marigolds, or cosmos.

These plants sprout easily from seed in sunny areas, are not particularly fussy about soil, and will grow until frost if provided with water (by you or Mother Nature) once a week. All of them are attractive to butterflies and other insect pollinators that fertilize the blooms so they can make seeds for birds (especially American Gold-finches) to eat. 

Ignore the advice often given to “deadhead” (remove the seeds of) these plants to prolong blooming. Plants exist to feed animals, and annuals (plants that live only one growing season) are quite capable of continuing to bloom while in the process of making seeds.

Deadheading wastes your time and partially defeats the whole purpose of growing the plants in the first place, which is to help your local critters. Just be sure to leave the plants standing after frost kills them so that the seeds are available to birds and small mammals throughout the cold months. The plants will also then be able to reseed themselves so you don’t need to make the effort next spring!

Many kinds of shrubs are useful to wildlife and easy to grow and care for. Although there is a big push nowadays for folks to grow only native plants, the reality is that a mix of non-native and native flowers and shrubs works best in today’s changing climate. And when deer numbers are high, it can be almost impossible for most short native plants to accomplish their “mission” of providing for any wildlife other than those hoofed browsers!

I highly recommend native viburnum shrubs because they produce flowers for insects, and fruits for birds and small mammals. However, you will need to protect them from deer with a wire cage if these animals are numerous in your area.

Another, albeit non-native, wonderfully useful shrub for hummingbirds and pollinators of numerous kinds is the Glossy Abelia (Abelia x grandiflora). Drought-tolerant and evergreen, it also provides shelter year-around for a variety of critters.

Trees, on the other hand, should always be native species because there are so many kinds to choose from, and they can be bought at a size that makes them resistant to the ill effects of deer. They are important for butterfly, and especially moth, caterpillars and other kinds of insects that feed upon foliage. It’s best not to plant these trees too close to your house to avoid problems with leaves in the gutter and branches (or even the entire tree) falling on your house when it gets tall.

If your yard is small, stick with trees that are less than, or do not get much more than, 30-40 feet tall. Common Shadbush (Amelanchier arborea) blooms are hugely attractive to bees, with the resulting fruits fed upon by a variety of birds and mammals.

A favorite small-medium tree of mine is the Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboretum). Its spring flowers provide nectar for bees and other insects, as well as hummingbirds. The seeds are taken readily by both Gray Squirrels and American Goldfinches, and in the fall, its leaves turn a bright red (which I love!) or burgundy.

Shrubs and trees of any size are useful for sheltering animals from weather and avian predators (hawks and owls), and they provide nesting sites for mammals and birds.

Lastly, you can provide water for wildlife by simply placing a shallow pan of fresh water on the ground daily, or putting in a little pond. Your wildlife haven is now complete! 

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