Creating Welcoming Habitats

Question: How can I upgrade my garden to provide a welcoming habitat for pollinators and other wildlife, while keeping some of the nuisance wildlife, like deer, out of my yard?

What a very timely question! In fact, June 21 – 27 is National Pollinator Week. We hope your interest in providing habitat for pollinators and other wildlife will also energize others to take similar action.

Pollinators include butterflies, moths, bees, wasps, beetles, flies, and other species. Did you know that 80% of all flowering plants depend on pollinators for reproduction? They help transfer pollen to female plants to enable them to produce seeds, nuts and other fruit. Pollinators account for one in every three bites of food we eat. As Pollinator Partnership reports, “in addition to the food that we eat, pollinators support healthy ecosystems that clean the air, stabilize soils, protect from severe weather, and support other wildlife.”

A welcoming habitat for pollinators can be in the ground or in containers on your home landscape. To thrive, pollinators need a habitat that provides food, water, and shelter. They like the food and water to be close to where they live, and that typically includes a particular type of shelter. Gardeners in Central Virginia will soon be able to visit the new Rose and Pollinator Demonstration Garden being established at The Center at Belvedere. Visitors are encouraged to stop by Fridays (9-11 am) when Piedmont Master Gardeners are present for weekly maintenance to learn about rose care and native plants for pollinators. Containers of native plants to attract pollinators are being added to the Demo Garden during this year’s National Pollinator Week! The pollinator bed is currently being designed and will be planted this fall.

Creating a Habitat for Butterflies
Let’s focus on one type of pollinator: butterflies. Butterfly larvae feed on plant leaves, while the adults rely on nectar-producing plants. Many of their larva forage on only a single species of plant. A good habitat for butterflies must contain host plants both for larvae and adults, a water source (birdbath, mud puddles or other water feature), and shelter from strong winds (evergreens, bushes or other wind screen).

For example, monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed plants, their larvae feed only on milkweed leaves and adults feed on numerous nectar-producing plants.

The National Wildlife Federation cites these additional requirements for attracting butterflies to your landscape:

  1. Include native plants for your plant hardiness zone.
  2. Include plants with colorful flowers (red, yellow, orange, purple, pink, blue and white) with flat or clustered flowers and short flower tubes.
  3. Provide nectar-producing plants in a location with direct sun mid-morning to mid-afternoon.
  4. Plan for continuous blooms throughout the growing season.
  5. Avoid use of insecticides.

Choose plants from these lists of common butterflies and the plants their caterpillars eat or the host plants for some common Virginia butterflies.

In addition, consider planting trees! As author and longtime University of Delaware professor, Doug Tallamy has reported a large number of butterfly species rely heavily on trees to serve as host plants for their caterpillars. For example, black cherry trees support swallowtails, painted ladies, and luna moths. Of the ten most valuable woody native plant genera that support Lepidoptera, oaks support 557 species.

Keeping Nuisance Wildlife Out
While it is possible to implement some methods to keep wildlife, such as deer, out of your garden, there are no foolproof methods.

Some recommended techniques for controlling nuisance wildlife are:

  1. Do not feed wildlife.
  2. Keep trash in animal-proof containers.
  3. Do not leave pet food outside.
  4. Do not provide animals an opportunity for dens/habitats on your property.
  5. Clean fallen fruits or other potential food sources, including bird feeders, if they become a problem.
  6. Add fencing (an 8- to 10-foot-high fence to help to keep deer out; a chicken wire fence to prevent entry of smaller wildlife).

Deer tend to cause the most problems in the home landscape. Tactics to reduce damage include choosing deer-resistant plants, installing scare devices (audio or visual devices or motion detectors) and fencing, or applying deer repellents. However, if the deer are hungry and your garden looks tasty, they will probably take a few bites!

Deer repellents can help alleviate undesirable wildlife from your garden. These repellents can contain both natural or chemical ingredients; both types deter deer by affecting their sense of smell or taste. Some may not be safe to use on plants you plan to eat. Consider using a pepper-based product, but keep in mind that some chemicals will also kill or repel pollinators. If you do choose to use chemicals, follow the recommendations of the 2021 Integrated Pest Management Guide: Home Grounds & Animals from Virginia Cooperative Extension.

Keep in mind that wildlife is a part of any habitat and were here long before humans arrived on the scene.

Happy pollinator gardening!

References

“Backyard Wildlife Habitats,” Greg Eaton et al., Virginia Tech, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Publication 426-070, 27 Oct. 2020.

“Building a Backyard Habitat,” Ask A Master Gardener, Piedmont Master Gardeners, 25 Nov. 2020.

“Deer Resistant Plants for Pollinators,” Clare Walker, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, 1 May 2018.

“For the Birds, Butterflies & Hummingbirds: Creating Inviting Habitats,” Mary Free, Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener, Publication HORT-59NP, 2013.

“Habitat Gardening for Wildlife,” Carol A. Heiser, Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, Virginia Habitat Partners, 2015.

“How to Prevent or Resolve Conflict with Wildlife,” Nuisance & Problem Wildlife, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

“National Pollinator Week,” Piedmont Master Gardeners, Timely Topic, 24 June 2020.

“Planting Pollinator-Friendly Gardens,” Constance Schmotzer, Pennsylvania State Extension, 26 Apr. 2018.

“Pollination: Flowering Plants, Pollinators, and the Wonder of it All,” Ralph Morini, Piedmont Master Gardeners, The Garden Shed, Vol. 5, No. 7, July 2019.

“The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees,” Douglas W. Tallamy, Timber Press, ISBN 978-1-64326-044-0, 2021.