By Laura Coffee, Marketing & Owner Services Manager, Co-op Owner
In part one of Grow a Living Garden we talked about why you might want to create a habitat for helpful creatures and insects, and building toad houses. But toads aren’t the only pest controllers you can attract to your garden. Another very beneficial garden resident is the common Garter Snake.
There are several types of small harmless snakes commonly referred to as garter snakes. In general, they like to be near a water source, and need places to hide. A snake house can be as simple as a large rock or stump placed directly on the soil in your garden. A log, board, or flat piece of metal laid on the ground will also do just fine. These snakes will happily eat mosquitoes, ants, slugs, snails, and mice, keeping your garden safe for those tulips and tomatoes! Of course they’ll also happily eat frogs and toads, so it’s not a bad idea to make sure the entrance to your toad house is nice and wide. You could even include a second exit, giving your amphibian friends a better chance to escape.
Not all insects are pests though. Gardens need pollinators, and native bees and butterflies are some of the best in the bunch! Pollinators are also the easiest creatures to attract to small apartment gardens on balconies or in borders. The most efficient way to attract pollinators is to plant a variety of flowering plants. Try to choose a mix of different colors and flowering times when possible. Popular native plant varieties in mid-Michigan include Milkweed, Columbine, Butterfly Weed, and Black-eyed Susans. (You can order blends of native seeds here.) Many popular garden plants, like oregano and basil, will also do the trick if allowed to flower. Just try searching “attracts bees” on your favorite seed supplier’s website. As a general rule, flowers with a single row of petals surrounding the center will attract more pollinators than those with multiple rows of petals.
Of course, no living garden would be complete without those fierce air-born predators, birds. These feisty little creatures love to feast on some of the garden’s worst pests; including grasshoppers, aphids, and caterpillars. (This is an excellent resource if you’re looking to attract a particular species of pest-eating bird.) Broadly speaking there are three things that will attract birds to your garden. Water, shelter, and supplemental food.
Birds need water for drinking and bathing. You can opt for a traditional standing birdbath, but be sure to refill it frequently and don’t allow it to become clogged with leaves and lost feathers. Moving water, provided by a small fountain, is particularly appealing to birds. When placed at ground level fountains can also provide a welcome haven for toads, snakes, and frogs.
For many birds, shelter doesn’t just mean birdhouses. They also need a quiet place to hide from roaming predators, such as the neighborhood cats. The easiest way to do this is to place your garden near a wooded or reedy area, or to allow a small portion of your space to grow naturally, with tall grasses and small shrubs that can be used as a hiding place or nesting area. As a bonus, slightly over-grown areas with patches of bare earth in-between also provide excellent habitat for ground nesting bees.
Supplemental food is a big plus for birds. If they have six gardens in a few blocks to choose from and only one of them has a bird feeder, they will pick the garden with the feeder. Seeds and suet (AKA beef fat) are big favorites, though what type of food you provide will help determine which birds you attract. Keep the feeder elevated and away from trees and tall fences if possible, as these things provide access to hungry cats and squirrels.
Finally, keep in mind that no matter what type of garden wild-life you are playing host to, the fewer chemicals you use, the more natural, living, pest controllers you will be able to attract. If you wouldn’t want to spray something in your home, chances are your little helpers don’t want you spraying it in theirs. If all the creatures in your living garden still can’t get rid of those pests, here’s a handy guide to dealing with some of the most common bugs naturally.
If you have any suggestions that we missed, or if you try any of the techniques in this article, we’d love to hear about it! Feel free to share your tips, questions, and photos in the comments!