Category Archives: Natural Food for Wildlife

Pocket Humane Gardens: No Yard, No Problem!

Image of Balcony garden with hummingbird
Above: A humane garden in the sky: Five floors up, a hummingbird finds sustenance in a pot of lavender grown from seed. (Photo by Kelly Brenner/Metropolitan Field Guide) Top: Wild bergamot grows well in containers and is bee-approved. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

The distant view from Kelly Brenner’s Seattle living room was enviable, a testament to the engineering marvels of modern human habitat.

Image of balcony garden with ladybug larva
A ladybug larva makes her way across the balcony. (Photo by Kelly Brenner/Metropolitan Field Guide)

But much closer to home were sights even more spectacular than the Space Needle rising hundreds of feet in front of the Olympic Mountains. Against the backdrop of one of America’s prettiest cities, ladybugs quietly made their way into the world, growing from eggs to adulthood in the small space just outside the sliding door. Hummingbirds sipped from potted lavender, and bees, butterflies and hoverflies feasted on native flowers such as sea thrift, nodding onion and red-flowering currant.

“I got so well-acquainted with every little plant and every little nook and cranny that I got to experience really intimately the life cycle,” says Brenner, the blogger behind Metropolitan Field Guide. She even grew some plants from seed on her sixth-story apartment balcony. “It was very rewarding watching the seed grow and become a flower, and then the bee came to see it.”

Image of insect hotel
A spice rack mixed with twigs creates a B&B for insects. (Photo by Kelly Brenner/Metropolitan Field Guide)

What was magical to Brenner was life-sustaining to the species who ate and bred in the mini-habitat. Creatures such as caterpillars, crows and scrub jays took advantage of the gourmet feast offered by native plants and herbs, the watering hole made from a shallow container filled with rocks for perching, and the shelter provided by clumping plants. The space even included a spice-rack-turned-insect-hotel filled with natural materials like twigs and seedpods.

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A bumblebee visits chives grown from seed. (Photo by Kelly Brenner/Metropolitan Field Guide)

As the number of Americans living in urban areas has grown—an estimated eight out of every 10—so has the need to make room for our fellow species. According to the global 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, we’re already degrading or using unsustainably 60 percent of the planet’s ecosystem services that benefit humans. That’s not good news for wildlife either, as fragmentation and contamination of habitat diminishes biodiversity and threatens further extinctions.

Fortunately, the opportunities to make a difference are limitless, whether you have a patio, balcony or, like urban farmer Annie Novak, rooftops. Novak’s experiences are a testament to the power of adding plants to all levels of the concrete jungle: She’s spotted the same migrating bird species in vastly different gardens, from a site rising more than 30 stories above the city to the ground-level New York Botanical Garden where she works.

Connecting these green archipelagos into contiguous habitat supports overwintering animals as well. People often emphasize the
importance of such efforts in rainforests and other distant places, says Novak, but nature needs our help in downtown New York, too. “We live in an ecosystem that has lots and lots of wildlife.”

While conventional small-space gardening advice is easy to find, making a mini-habitat requires a slightly different approach. Here’s how to channel other species’ perspectives when creating pocket gardens for wildlife.

Learn who lives among you.
Image of Tiger swallowtail on wild bergamot
It doesn’t make a difference to this Eastern tiger swallowtail whether this wild bergamot is in a pot or not. Many such natives grow well in containers, and some even come back year after year. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Research the fauna and wildlife-friendly flora in your community, recommends Novak, by observing animals and their plant preferences at parks and gardens. Learn what grew naturally in your region in the past. If you see small gardens that attract animals, including insects, find out the names of the plants and consider adding more. Creating strength in numbers enhances habitat corridors and draws pollinators, who are attracted to mass plantings.

“It’s about a narrative,” says Novak. “It’s not like you hang up a Christmas tree and it’s Christmas. It’s not a cookie-cutter kind of project. You really have to think about who you want to attract, when are they in your area, what do they like to eat.”

Plant natural food for wildlife.

If squirrels, pigeons and other generalist species proliferate in your neighborhood, be prepared to welcome them. “I try and emphasize that connectedness of the space,” says Novak. If a hummingbird feeder attracts squirrels, who also love sugar water, rejoice in the knowledge that you’re providing food for any hungry creature who happens to pass by.

Image of hummingbird on zinnia
Zinnia is among the tried-and-true old-fashioned annuals attractive to hummingbirds and pollinators — and is easily grown in a pot. (Photo by Will Heinz)

Just because the habitat is manmade doesn’t mean the food has to be. Instead of just hanging feeders, plant native species that provide berries, seeds, pollen, nectar and foliage for wildlife. Include spring-, summer- and fall-flowering plants that offer a succession of blooms; several species with red trumpet-shaped flowers can sustain hummingbirds throughout the season. Make the most of your space with multipurpose plants; Novak likes sunflowers, which feed pollinators while in bloom and birds after going to seed.

Think: What would nature do?
Image of the High Line in New York
Plants grown on the High Line in New York City can withstand wind and other extreme conditions. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Urban environments can swing more quickly among extremes of heat, drought and flash flooding. Look to the natural world for clues about what will thrive. “While you’re thinking about wildlife, you’re also thinking about what the plant can handle and finding the right plants for the right spot so you can do as little maintenance as possible,” says Anna Fialkoff, a horticulturist at the New England Wild Flower Society.

If your balcony is exposed to sun and high winds, choose plants that grow on ridgetops or on the coast, she suggests. Consider moisture needs, and avoid planting drought-tolerant plants with ones that like to keep their feet wet. Use contrasting microclimates as opportunities to experiment. Situated between two pillars, Brenner’s balcony provided both sun and shade, enabling her to shift plants around.

Give them shelter.

Animals visiting your freshly planted balcony or patio bring along with them evolutionary behaviors developed over many millennia. A mama bird who claims a hanging pot for her nest may preclude you from watering your plant for a while, but you’ll gain far more in return: a close-up view of nature at work and a chance to help your wild friends. Watch carefully for such comings-and-goings so you don’t inadvertently remove, flood or otherwise destroy little lives in the making.

Image of the High Line in New York
Small spaces can even support berrying plants, like this winterberry holly. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Add vines, bushes, small trees and grasses that offer cover and nesting areas, planting straight species rather than cultivars when possible. While some cultivars bred for compactness can be useful, some may have lost nutritional value for wildlife in the process, Fialkoff notes.

Be adaptable.

Small adjustments to existing structures can accommodate the needs of both human and wild neighbors. Brenner laughs at the memory of seeing aphid honeydew—a sticky but unobtrusive substance that likely went unnoticed by anyone else—on the railing below her. She recalls sleepless nights worrying that her terra-cotta pots, even as heavy as they were, would blow off the balcony. But she took care to prevent dousing the people downstairs with water, covering the metal slats of her balcony floor with wood decking atop an outdoor rug.

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(Photo by Kelly Brenner/Metropolitan Field Guide)

In spite of its challenges, Brenner still misses her mini-habitat even after relocating to a single-family home. Small spaces have benefits (“almost no weeding!” she says) and their own kind of magic—a chance to connect with nature in places that, in many cases, previously had none. Through her continued outreach, she hopes to engage more city dwellers in the biodiversity right outside their doors.

Maybe they’ll even be inspired to help. “If everybody had at least two or three containers of plants, that could be … equivalent to a meadow for pollinators,” Brenner says. “If all the buildings through the whole city did that, you couldn’t even imagine.”

Regional inspiration and guides

Pollinator Container Gardens: A 5-minute video packed with tips from the New England Wild Flower Society for creating a small-space garden for bees and butterflies.

Captivating Containers with Native Plants: A comprehensive guide from the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia that includes recommended species for attracting wildlife, along with tips for planting, design, and maintenance.

Container Gardening with Native Plants: A primer on small-space gardening with wildlife-friendly plants from the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas. The organization also has recommended plants for containers in central Texas.

Patio Gardens: Experimenting with Native Plants for Containers: A tip sheet on the California Native Plant Society site that includes recommended plants. The author, Pete Veilleux, also has a Flickr page, Container Gardening with California Native Plants, that includes more than 500 photos.

Gardening with Nature: Container Gardening: These tips from the Habitat Acquisition Trust in Victoria include information on growing and maintaining plants for different site conditions in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest.

An earlier version of this article originally appeared in the Sept/Oct 2015 issue of All Animals magazine. To see what Kelly Brenner is up to now, check out this Humane Gardening Heroes profile.

A Winter Backyard Buffet

Image of goldfinch on bergamot
Native plants are the best winter food for goldfinches and other wildlife.
Image of goldenrod seedhead in snow
Goldenrod seeds feed birds, and the stalks shelter insects the birds eat.
Image of cardinal in tree in snowstorm
But in snowstorms, it’s harder for animals to reach natural food sources.
Image of echinacea seedheads
Even the seedheads are less accessible.
Image of cardinal in snowstorm
It was so cold yesterday this cardinal took refuge under the eaves.
Image of cardinal in snowstorm
He liked the warm water we put in birdbaths for feather cleaning.
Image of Will feeding birdfeeder
My own male cardinal, Will, helped the birds through frigid temperatures.
Image of squirrel eating birdseed
The squirrels were also grateful for his assistance.
Image of rabbit near front steps in snowstorm
A rabbit came to visit but quickly left for the chokeberry grove.
Image of rabbit under chokeberries in snowstorm
To survive, rabbits eat their nutrient-rich droppings and woody plants.
Image of rabbit footprints
This one left only footprints, but I’m sure we’ll meet again.

The “cardinal” rule of bird feeding? Don’t feed when it might cause harm. That’s the recommendation from my friends at The Humane Society of the United States. While they and other experts believe it’s generally safe given proper precautions, some evidence points to negative impacts. Based on the research, a moderate approach is wise. Provide as many native plants as possible, ease up on feeding in warmer seasons when natural food is abundant, and supplement when sources are scarce or buried in snow. If you feed birds in a remote, cold region such as rural Maine—where there may be little natural food and few feeders for miles around—ask someone to fill your feeders if you leave town. This helps birds who may have become dependent on your supply, says HSUS senior scientist John Hadidian. Read more tips here.

From Nectar Robbers to Border Police

Food for my human family or food for my wildlife friends? For years I grew both, but now I focus most of my gardening energy on helping other creatures get the sustenance and nesting grounds they need. It wasn’t a difficult decision to make. Unlike us, birds and bees and frogs can’t just hop in the car and head to the grocery store. They can’t lobby for an end to habitat destruction. And most critically, they can’t restore what’s already been lost.

While it’s possible to do both types of gardening humanely and well, my overriding passion for animals meant that, as a vegetable gardener, I was a mess. To me, tomato hornworms chewing up the harvest were not pests; they were hummingbird moths in the making. Queen Anne’s lace taking over the dill bed may have been a nonnative weed, but the bees were certainly enjoying it.

Though an editor of words by trade, I couldn’t follow all the traditional horticultural advice to “edit” my landscape unless my life depended on it. And that’s largely because I was hyper-aware that sometimes others’ lives depended on my willingness to let nature take its course. So plot by plot, I let the carefully divided beds go to seed—literally. If the sassafras trees that fed spicebush swallowtail caterpillars and provided songbird habitat started to grove into the tomato bed, more power to them. If the volunteer evening primrose took over the herb garden, much to the carpenter bees’ delight, who was I to stop it?

The animals on my property have responded in kind, spreading the seeds of native plants throughout the gardens and introducing me to a different way of looking at harvest time. Though I used to work hard for my tomatoes and peppers, I was not nearly so creative or industrious as these backyard friends who’ve visited over the past week.

The Nectar Robber
Carpenter bee and common evening primrose

Carpenter bee drilling into evening primrose
Planted by birds years ago near my patio, our patch of night-blooming evening primrose is especially tasty to moths. Last Sunday, this little guy couldn’t resist it either. But when it became clear that the flowers weren’t the right shape for his own anatomy, he did what any self-respecting carpenter bee would do, climbing down the stem and drilling into it. This, it turns out, is a much-studied behavior called floral larceny, which occurs when insects steal nectar from a plant without pollinating it.

The Contortionist
Goldfinch on echinacea

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Goldfinches descend on our echinacea seedheads every August, performing acrobatic feats worthy of the Cirque de Soleil. They work quickly and efficiently, paying it forward by dropping their leftovers all over the property and guaranteeing more food for even more animals in the coming seasons.

The Border Patrol
Hummingbird resting on branch

Hummingbird and wild bergamot

Hummingbird on zinnia
Rather than hang hummingbird feeders, we rely on a proliferation of native plants and a few potted nonnatives to sustain hummers throughout the season. This year’s smash hits with our tiny foodie friends were lavender wild bergamot, orange zinnias, and a red bee balm patch that’s now gone to seed. So taken with these plants were our little hummers that the feistier species—the rufous hummingbirds—chased away much larger songbirds who dared to come near their territories. The coloring of this week’s visitor indicates that she is likely a young or female ruby-throated hummingbird. (Thanks to my husband, Will Heinz, for capturing the zinnia series shown in the photo above and in this blog’s featured image at the top.)

The Opportunist
Wasp on Rudbeckia nitida

Fiery skipper on rudbeckia nitida

Bumblebee on Rudbeckia nitida
While many insects are specialists, meaning they’ll eat only certain plant species, bumblebees and others dine on a wide variety. Less than 24 hours after I’d added these Rudbeckia nitida to the garden, the pollinators showed up in full regalia.

The Lawn Mower
Rabbit

Rabbit in grass
A bit like the opportunists, our rabbit friends have an uncanny ability to find a smorgasbord around every corner. While they do occasionally eat the buds right off our prize plants, they are just as content to dine on the weedy grasslands. And we are equally happy to invite them to the table.