Grit Blogs >

Going Native

Living In a Wildlife Garden

Going NativeTrying to create some sort of order in my wildlife garden is futile. For a person who likes a place for everything and everything in its place, sharing a garden with the local birds and other assorted critters is downright frustrating. 

For instance, I fill the bird feeders for the birds and find them empty a day later. There is no way the local bird population can consume that much seed in a 24-hour period. I sneak a peak when least expected and find squirrels, deer and raccoons helping themselves to the bird food.

Racoon at the feeder

I tried to strategically place the feeders where I think only birds can reach them, but alas, I am outsmarted and still find empty feeders at the end of the day. So along with eggs, milk and butter, birdseed is a food staple on our weekly grocery list.


Providing shelter for birds was my next goal. I love bluebirds and wanted them to be part of the garden. So, I put up a bluebird house. The first year, we raised a batch of bluebirds and I was thrilled.


The next spring, sparrows found the bluebird house to their liking and they chased the bluebirds away. I put up a second bluebird house hoping for the return of a bluebird pair, but alas, we ended up with a second pair of sparrows. As you can probably guess, the sparrow population is now quite healthy around here.

Sparrow taking over the purple martin house 

Purple martin in the garageA few summers ago, purple martins set up their home in our garage. We left the garage door at least partially open all day and night until the purple martins decided it was time to move on. To keep them out of the garage the following year, we put up a purple martin house, well condos really. Remember all those sparrows we have been raising? Well, they decided they needed to expand into the condos. The purple martins still hang out in the garage.

The vegetable garden, if you want to call it that, is more of a community buffet and I am left with the scraps. I have yet to find a fence that keeps my fruit and vegetables protected until I can harvest them. I seem to be the last to know when food is ready to be eaten. 

Last year, I planted a container garden on the back deck. I was able to actually enjoy fresh tomatoes and I harvested enough to freeze a few bags, though I needed to cut away the portions that were nibbled on by the chipmunk that found itself in a food paradise.

Container garden

Even with all that being said, I have a stack of seed catalogs next to my reading chair. I am ever hopeful that this year I can gain some control over the goings on in the garden. It may not work out as I plan, but life in my garden seems to find a happy medium, albeit skewed more to the wildlife, but I did choose to live in a wildlife garden.

Let Fallen Leaves Lie

Autumn has traditionally been the time to put the garden to bed.  As a wildlife gardener, I look at my gardens as living ecosystems.  My gardens provide shelter, food, and water for the local wildlife as well as provide me with food, lovely flowers, and interesting foliage.   So putting the garden to bed means creating a place that can support wildlife during the winter and improve the garden’s health and yield in spring and summer. 

Fallen leaves

Probably the most important thing you can do this autumn is add a deep layer of fallen leaves to the garden.  If you use oak leaves, chop them up a bit because they take longer to break down and you will get more matting than aerated mulch.  If you have a shortage of easy-to-access fallen leaves, you can always pick up the filled leaf bags from your friends and neighbors.

Leaf mulch adds organic matter to your garden soil, protects the roots of your perennial plants, and keeps the soil from heaving if your winters include times of freezing and thawing.  In winter, leaf mulch also provides shelter for spiders, ladybugs, toads and salamanders.  These beneficial creatures feed on harmful insect creating a more balanced ecosystem.  This means you will have less insect pests eating your plants during the growing season.

Native bees, like bumblebees, hibernate under leaf litter.  If you can support hibernating bees in your garden then they will be out pollinating that much earlier come spring.   Leaf mulch also attracts birds in the spring as they search for insects to feed their fledglings or themselves after a long flight north.

Some butterflies hibernate in the north, though in different forms.  Your leaf litter provides an environment in which they can survive the winter.  Coral Hairstreak butterflies pass the winter as eggs.  Viceroy and Red Spotted Purple butterflies hibernate as larvae.  Gray Hairstreak and some swallowtails hibernate as pupae.  Mourning Cloak, Question Mark, and Comma butterflies hibernate as adults. 

So in the winter, your garden can be a wildlife haven if you let fallen leaves lie.   But as it true for us northern gardeners, we will not see the fruit of our labor until spring.

Favorite Native - Joe Pye Weed

The first native plant I planted in my garden was Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum) and it is the perfect plant to introduce gardeners to native plants.

Joepye weed

There is currently controversy in the plant and gardening world on what makes a plant native to an area.  I am going to follow the 80-20 rule here in my definition.  A plant that was in an area before European settlement is considered native and I would argue that is correct eighty percent of the time.

The reason I have a fondness for native plants is that I get more than interesting foliage and pretty blooms.  I get to observe nature at work just by going into my garden.  Native plants and local wildlife evolved together so I am sure to see local wildlife up close doing their thing.  This may mean watching a Monarch butterfly lay eggs on a milkweed plant or bluebirds feeding their young caterpillars from a white pine.

Every native plant offers something different to the local wildlife community.  Joe Pye Weed offers late season blooms for the bees and butterflies that need that extra fix of nectar before hibernation or before they migrate south.   Joe Pye Weed blooms from August until the first heavy frost.  It forms clumps with sturdy stems that get to about four feet high and they do not flop over.  The very pretty pink-to-mauve blooms attract butterflies, such as Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Great Spangled Fritillary, Pearl Crescent, Monarch, and the Tawny-edged Skipper, and bees.

Joe Pye Weed is native to the eastern North America.  Supposedly, it got its common name from Joe Pye, a healer in colonial New England who used Eupatorium purpureum to cure fevers.  The American Indians used Eupatorium purpureum to treat kidney stones.

Joe Pye Weed grows best in full sun and moist soil.  Since it blooms late in the season, I am able to get closer to having three seasons of bloom in the garden.  Plus it adds height to the garden as well as movement as the tall stems sway in the wind.

Country Walks

One of the joys of living in the country is taking walks with my dog.  We have three dogs but our yellow lab is the one who loves to walk.  When she walks, she does not chase critters and she rarely puts her nose to the ground.  She simply walks.  She will greet other walkers then move on.  And it astounded me that when a fellow dog walker offered her a treat, she refused it.  She wanted to walk.  Labs are rather single-minded.

 On our walk 

We walk in a local, county park.  Unfortunately, the country roads where we live are rather busy and it is safer for us to walk in the park.  Walking in the same areas gives me the chance to notice seasonal changes.  I especially like this time between summer and autumn.  It is quieter on our walks.  The ducks, geese, and swans on the lake are much more docile.  The visiting songbirds have headed south.  Since this is not mating season, the chirping of the local chickadees and blue jays signify scuffles and warnings rather than songs of love.  I noticed a white egret in a wetland the last few days.  It will be making its way south shortly.

 All smiles 

We come across a snake sunning itself on the warmer dirt path.  It looks like a stick and my dog walks right over it.   I hear the rustling of chipmunks and squirrels in the undergrowth. 

The leaves have not yet changed but the wildflowers give us late season color.    The grey, overcast days of winter are not yet upon us here in Michigan, so we can still enjoy the sunny, clear blue skies of summer without the heat and humidity. 

Late summer swim 

A cold front blew through last night so our highs will be in the 60s and the lows in the 40s for the next week.  Our yellow lab thinks this is perfect weather for a walk in the country.  I tend to agree with her.

In Praise Of Goldenrod

A profile pic of MaryLate summer is the start of allergy season for me. Waking up with goopy eyes and stuffed sinuses is the norm. I would look out the front window and curse the yellow flowers growing in the field. As I went about my gardening chores, I noticed monarchs and bees enjoying late-season nectar from the goldenrod flowers and figured the plant wasn't all bad.

I started to do some research on goldenrod and learned that this native plant is not the cause of my cursed allergies. Ragweed is the culprit.

For allergy sufferers, wind-pollinated plants are the bane of our existence (in spring and autumn at least) and ragweed is wind-pollinated. Using the wind to fertilize its flowers is not very efficient so each ragweed plant can produce a billion grains of pollen a season that can remain airborne for many days and travel many miles. This helps ensure the some of the pollen grains find their way to a female flower and produce seed. 

Goldenrod, on the other hand, is insect pollinated. The first time I ever thought of goldenrod in a positive way was when I was on the shores of Lake Erie in late summer. A single goldenrod plant was covered with Monarchs as they stopped and fed after a flight across the late.  Ranchers use goldenrod as an indictor that their pastures are being overgrazed since goldenrod is common in heavily grazed areas.

In addition to butterflies, goldenrod flowers feed bees, wasps, moths, and flies.  Predator (beneficial) insects, like Praying Mantis, lay their eggs on Goldenrod so their babies can feed on visiting insects when they hatch.  

There are 17 animals that use goldenrod as a food source from Monarchs to white-tailed deer to Carolina Chickadee. Fifteen animals use Goldenrod as shelter including the Goldenrod Gall Fly, Goldenrod Spider, Northern Cardinal, and White-footed Mouse.

Goldenrod plays a necessary role in native ecosystems as summer turns into autumn.  It feeds many migratory species as they make their way south.  It also provides much needed nectar for native hibernating bees.  The next time you are taking a walk, take time to stop and smell the goldenrod.

Why I Chose Wildlife Gardening

I love the outdoors.  I love hiking, backpacking, biking, fishing, skiing, and snowshoeing.  One reason I garden is to be outdoors.  I started by creating cottage gardens and a kitchen garden.  As I weeded or sat on the front porch with a cup of coffee, I noticed the wildlife visiting my gardens.  Bees and butterflies.  Birds and bats.  Deer, rabbits, groundhogs, frogs, turtles, and snakes.  I found I was more fascinated by the wildlife in my garden than by the plants I grew.  I wanted my garden, my property, to be home for the local wildlife. 

 Robins enjoying a bath 

My travels introduced me to many different kinds of landscapes and ecosystems and I gained an appreciation for native plants.  As I read up on wildlife gardening and native plants, I became fascinated with insects and their roles in the ecosystem.  Having bugs in the garden is a good thing, a necessary thing if we want healthy ecosystems and plentiful food.  Insects love wildlife gardens.

 Snapping turtle making its way to a wetland 

I am lucky that our 2.5 acres has a variety of natural habitats—open areas, wetlands, and woodlands.  All three areas attract all sorts of wildlife, especially the wetland.  I could have turned one wetland area into a pond but that would have destroyed a valuable ecosystem.  We have a lake across the street so there is open water readily available for local wildlife.  Also, a pond requires maintenance and I want low-maintenance gardens.  I want to spend my time enjoying the outdoors, not weeding, fertilizing, and deadheading. Since I am just starting on this journey of creating wild gardens, here are the few small steps I took this summer:

  • Planted more native plants.  Native plants survive winter cold and summer heat and can flourish without watering or fertilizing.  They require no soil amendments, pesticides, or herbicides saving me money and creating a much healthier environment.  They also attract local wildlife making for a more diverse ecosystem.
  • Reduced the size of our lawn. We let a portion of the lawn become overgrown and it is now a field.  We mow the remaining lawn to three inches and do not use any weed killers.
  • Kept rakes and saws away from the woodland.  The woodland floor is covered with leaves and fallen limbs.  We let the insects and fungi take care of returning them to the soil.  We leave some dead trees standing to provide homes to native bees and birds.
  • Enjoyed the wetland.  I created a few paths to the wetlands so we can get an up-close view of the habitat.  I see something new every time I pay a visit.

 I have many ideas on how to enhance my wildlife gardens, but for now, I am simply enjoying being part of the natural world around me.

Goings On At Marshview - August

As I walked around Marshview (the name I gave my home and garden) this morning, I spent some time around the last remaining flowers in the garden.  The pumpkin flowers were full of bees.  Native bumblebees do the best job of fertilizing squash flowers since they are able to vibrate the pollen free.  Honeybees cannot do that. Native bees also seemed to be enjoying joe-pye weed and goldenrod flowers.  The Russian sage, though not native, was covered in bees as well.

Bumblebee makes it way out of pumpkin flower
 Late-blooming flowers are important to wildlife.  This time of year, native bees need to prepare for hibernation and migrating butterflies need fuel for their flight south.  Next year I want to plant some Blazing Star and Obedient Plant for the hummingbirds, but for now I have a hummingbird feeder on the back deck.  I need to fill it every three days since it is very popular with the resident ruby-throated hummers.  I have counted three that regularly visit the feeder.  One hovers as it eats.  One sits and drinks and drinks and drinks.  The female is quite friendly and curious.  When I sit on the screen porch, which is next to the feeder, she hovers on the other side of the screen and visits for a while. 

 Bumblebee hangs upside down to get some goldenrod nectar 

The deer ravaged my rather small kitchen garden so there is not a lot to harvest this year.  I stopped by the orchard down the street and the owner said ten percent of their peach crop survived the early hot weather in March followed by killing frosts in April.  The apple crop was severely damaged as well.  I will be making fewer peach crisps and apple pies this year.

This week I will be doing the final (I hope) weeding of the perennial flower gardens.  I do not deadhead the flowers since local and migrating birds feed on the seeds as long as the seeds are available.  I have gotten used to rather messy gardens.

 That is what is happening at Marshview this last week of August.  I think we are in for more of the same weather wise in the coming weeks. Warm day, cool nights, and a rainy day now and again.  Perfect weather to enjoy Marshview.