We gardeners, whether we grow ornamentals or vegetables, often run into conflict with wildlife that wants to eat what we grow. To share methods that we can employ to overcome critter issues in a humane way, my guest this week is Nancy Lawson, the founder of The Humane Gardener as we discuss how to nurture a backyard habitat for wildlife.
Nancy blogs at HumaneGardener.com and her book is “The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife.” She previously worked in animal protection for the Humane Society of the United States, and it was during that time that she became interested in gardening and native plants. She continues to write a column on ways we can be friendlier stewards of land for the Humane Society’s magazine, All Animals.
Nancy says a humane gardener is someone who goes beyond just trying to attract butterflies or certain birds. A humane gardener realizes that all the animals in the ecosystem are playing a role. Those animals could be predator, prey, pollinators, or dispersers of seed and fungi. And those animals have been here long before civilization. “It’s important to think about the fact that it’s the only home they have,” Nancy says. When we move into their space — as small as two acres for a box turtle — we should respect their space and their home.”
Bridging Native Plant People & Animal People
Nancy says she noticed that animal protection people were interested in protecting wildlife from afar, but not really interested in protecting the wildlife in their own backyards. Meanwhile, native plant people were into their plants and caterpillars but not thinking about wildlife more broadly. Nancy says she created The Humane Gardener to bridge that gap and bring people together.
In addition to providing food for caterpillars — which, in turn, are food for baby birds — native plants provide foliage and berries for mammals and other wildlife. For example, Virginia creeper provides food for the Virginia creeper sphinx moth as well as food for rabbits, which eat the leaves, and birds, which eat the berries.
Pokeweed is a native plant that is often thought of as a weed, but Nancy points out that it provides food for deer in spring and fall and is an incredible berry source for migrating birds along the eastern corridor. American burnweed is another native that even native plant enthusiasts often have no love for. Nancy says if both pokeweed and burnweed are left alone and allowed to grow, gardeners will see just how much wildlife they feed.
Because of Nancy’s book, I have decided to allow some pokeweed to grow on my property to feed bluebirds. Nancy notes that pokeweed will spread out and take over if grown in a constantly disturbed area, such as a vegetable garden, but if grown among other native plants, its spread will be limited.
Human Geese Control Through Plantings
In 1999, when she was writing an article on humane goose control, Nancy realized that turf will ceaselessly create conflict between people and animals. Because grass at pondfront properties is often mowed right up to the shoreline, lawns create a very inviting environment for geese, Nancy says. The geese like to have an unobstructed sightline into the water while they are molting, which allows them to fly off quickly to escape from predators. But landscape designers, after some experimenting, realized they could deter geese by planting a native plant buffer of tall grasses and flowers.
Living Out Native Plants Dreams
When Nancy moved from an apartment with a balcony full of potted plants to a 2-acre property, she could live out her gardening and landscaping dreams. Still, she had work ahead of her: The property was mostly covered in grass, Bradford pears, burning bush and other invasives that the previous owner had planted. “I thought it was just such a waste of space,” she recalls.
She began to plant perennials from seed, including butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and eventually saw her first monarch butterfly caterpillar feeding on that plant. This is important because the monarch butterfly population has dropped dramatically in the past 20 years by 90%, and needs our support. Likewise, the bird population in North American has declined by nearly 3 billion since 1970. It can’t be stressed enough that plant choices matter to the ecosystem.
She visited a native plant nursery in Maryland in 2004, took a tour, and bought a woodland sunflower. Her interest grew from there. Gradually, she allowed more and more of her property to become woodland. It started when she allowed sassafras to take over her vegetable garden. She knew she could garden in another area while the native sassafras trees thrived in that original location. As she continued to watch and observe, she noticed all of the native plants that birds and squirrels planted, and she let those plants grow. Even deer spread native plants’ seeds on their fur.
Nancy rejects the attitude that any plant is “evil,” including invasive plants. She finds that attitude corrosive. A plant that is invasive where she lives is native someplace else, where it likely serves an important ecological function. However, she does not want invasives in her landscape because they crowd out other plants and are not as useful to wildlife as natives are.
Let Them Eat Plants
For the first time in my gardening life, I recently encountered a groundhog. It came into my garden and mowed down bean and edamame plants. I have no intention of trapping or killing the groundhog, so I thought of another solution. Outside of my garden, on the path the groundhog appears to be coming from, I planted a buffet of plants that groundhogs prefer to eat. There, he can munch away.
Nancy points out that groundhogs are good climbers but will be deterred by a wobbly fence. She adds that they also love certain native plants, including fleabane and sumac.
Be Mindful of Turtles
Once a year, I mow down a weedy area of my property, but before I proceed with the mower, my daughter walks ahead of me with a stick and scouts for turtles. We have found a number of turtles by patrolling this way, which likely saved their lives.
Similarly, Nancy and her husband have found baby turtles before while weedwhacking. One trick Nancy employs is to start her mower and let it run for a minute before she begins mowing. Many animals will hear this sound and know to get out of there.
If you do find a turtle on your property or crossing the road, don’t relocate it. You can help it cross the street, but you should not take it someplace that you think is safer. Turtles removed from their territory and brought someplace unfamiliar become disoriented. They may stop eating and die.
Install Window Well Covers
Houses with basement windows often have window wells, which lower the grade of the property just outside each window. These wells can be cavernous drops for animals — anything from snakes to baby raccoons — that fall in and can’t get back out. Nancy recommends a simple solution: window well covers.
Window well covers are generally made out of clear plastic. They are designed to let in light in while keeping rain and snow out — and they also keep animals from falling in. Another solution Nancy recommends is to provide a plank a window well that will act as a ramp an animal can use to get out.
Escape Routes in Water
Pools and artificial ponds can be very dangerous for wildlife. They tend to have vertical sides that animals cannot climb up. When crafting a pond, design sloping sides. If using a prefabricated pond, put ramps in or rocks along the side so critters can get out.
In a pool, you can install a FrogLog. This is a ramp that floats on the water’s surface and has a ramp out of the pool. Frogs, salamanders, ducklings, turtles and more critters can use the FrogLog as a means of escape.
Choose Better Birdnetting
Birdnetting and other fencing can wreak havoc for wildlife. Nancy says because birdnetting is so flexible, birds and snakes often get caught in it. The best option is to use no fencing at all. You could do what I do and plant more of a crop than you plan to eat, so there is enough to share with wildlife. Another option is to choose a stiffer barrier. Animals are far less likely to get caught in rigid fencing.
Refrain from Tree Trimming During Nesting Season
Mother squirrels, if they survive a tree trimming, may not be able to find their young afterward. Nancy shares a story of a biologist who heard baby squirrels in distress after a tree was taken down on a neighbor’s property. The biologist amplified the babies’ cries so their mother could locate them. Sure enough, the mother arrived and relocated her offspring to another nesting site.
If you plan on trimming a tree yourself or hiring a company, schedule the work some time other than nesting season. Squirrels and birds will thank you.
Dead trees provide habitat for birds and other wildlife. For instance, many owls prefer to nest in tree cavities. A dead or dying tree that’s still standing but missing many branches or its top is known as a snag. Snags are naturally occurring in forests but you can also create a snag on your property by leaving the trunk of a tree standing after removing dead branches that pose a safety hazard.
Don’t Be Too Quick to Rescue Young Animals
People who love animals want to intervene when they find a young animal in distress, but intervening is not always the best thing. For instance, a mother deer may leave a fawn unattended for hours and come back only at feeding time. Animal rescue centers field many calls about fawns that appear abandoned, and those rescuers will tell callers to monitor the fawn but leave it alone. The mother, in all likelihood, will return at dawn or dusk.
Baby birds can also seem abandoned when really they are fledgling and learning to fly. If a baby bird on the ground has feathers, chances are its parents are nearby. But a grounded baby bird with no feathers may have actually fallen from a nest and be in need of a hand.
Don’t Use Sticky Traps for Rodents
Sticky traps are non-discriminatory. A trap put out to catch a mouse can very well catch a bird too. But even when sticky traps catch their intended targets, they are inhumane, causing a slow death. Snap traps for mice, which kill quickly when used correctly, are much more humane.
Rodenticides are also troublesome. A poison that’s put out for mice and rats will also attract squirrels. Not only that, but the owls, foxes and other predators that eat rodents can die acutely or from the cumulative effect of eating prey that’s been poisoned.
Voles, mice and chipmunks can be viewed as nuisance animals, but they spread mycorrhizal fungi in soil, Nancy points out. That fungi makes the soil food web work and helps plants grow.
Relocating Is Not a Good Solution
Animals have a map of where they live. They know where the food sources are and where the predators hang out. They know where there is cover is to escape under. It would be like taking a person’s wallet and dumping them in a country where they don’t speak the language.
One study showed that 97% of squirrels that were relocated from urban and suburban environments to forests either disappeared or died within the first four weeks.
I hope that my conversation with Nancy Lawson gave you a greater understanding of what it is to be a humane gardener. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.
Do you practice humane gardening? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
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joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Tomato expert Craig LeHoullier joins me in leading this course on how to grow healthier, productive tomato plants and how to overcome tomato-growing challenges.
The Humane Gardener – Nancy’s blog
“The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife” by Nancy Lawson
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