Container Gardening with wildlife in Mind

Planting for wildlife

Because of development, natural environments are disappearing at an alarming rate. Housing developments, a new speedy-mart, another strip-mall,  they all begin by clearing the land. Native vegetation is replaced with concrete and the cherry on top of the cake is when the landscapers arrive to transform the property into “nowhere special” USA by installing exotics from around the globe.

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You don’t need to have a big expanse of land to garden with wildlife in mind.  Native plants, plants that attract pollinators, butterfly’s and feed birds, can be grown in containers which are easily maintained in small spaces.  Even the smallest wildlife garden is important.  Planting for wildlife takes responsibility and there is a learning curve but the return on investment is well worth the effort.  Watching a butterfly sip nectar, lay its eggs, or seeing a honey bee try to navigate its way into some tiny bloom is way more exciting than watching a Ti plant grow (imo).

Garden centers are full of plants that attract wildlife 

I know how much fun it is to go in to a nursery and get some new plants!  When our goal is to restore, we want plant responsibly and this may call for a little restraint and possibly some research (YUCK).  Just because it’s for sale doesn’t mean you should plant it.  Keep updated on your areas invasive species.  For Florida, check the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council.  I used to buy whatever plant caught my eye.  Now that I am planting with the environment and wildlife in mind, I have had to part with some of my earlier purchases. I know first hand that it’s easier to leave a questionable choice on the shelf as opposed to taking it home and possibly having to part with it later.

If your new to wildlife gardening, relying on plant tags or a sign designed to move stock isn’t to your advantage.  Plant tags are vague and sometimes plants are  mislabeled.  I don’t shop for plants at big garden centers anymore.  I have found a couple local native nurseries in our area.  Smaller nurseries really need my money and if I do have questions, they are more knowledgable.  Another plus is that it can become a more personal shopping experience when you get to know the staff.

I’m in Sarasota and I frequent Sweetbay Nursery in Parrish and Florida Native Plant Nursery.  I’m not affiliated with them or promoting them in any way, just providing the links to native plants in our area.  You are not limited to natives for wildlife gardening and I know Florida Native Plant Nursery sells Florida friendly also.  They have those selections clearly marked.

Container gardening

Providing the necessities

A wildlife garden is different because you are not gardening for appearance, you have a purpose in mind. This is not to say your garden wont be pretty, you just need to remember that your plants are providing lunch.  You want your plants to get chewed on… it means you’re doing something right!  You don’t want to offer a lunch served with a side of chemicals.  That means no spraying.

Most often I am out at first light to visit my containers.  I look for new butterfly eggs, and caterpillars.  I also check for pests.  If you are aware that a pest is there, you can monitor it and make sure it doesn’t get out of control.  When my milkweed gets aphids, I let them be because other insects like aphids.  On the other hand, I have a Spinach tree that continually gets white fly.  Out of control white fly.  Since the Longwings love the blooms, I don’t even use Insecticidal soap on it.  Monitoring, spraying with the hose, nothing works to control the white fly.  When it’s a big problem like this and it is reoccurring, you can either get rid of the plant or prune it back.  This particular plant is the thorn in my side.  I can’t bring myself to get rid of it so it gets pruned back often.

Don’t forget the water 

I have a bird bath and I also have a puddle area for the butterfly’s.  Butterfly’s love the nectar provided by flowering plants but they also need minerals and they get them from the ground.  You can either make a puddle in the ground or use a large saucer.   Spread a layer of rich soil on the bottom of the saucer and add some rocks so they have a place to land.  Place it in a sunny spot next to your containers.  You want enough water to keep the soil moist but you don’t want standing water.

When considering shelter… go for layers

A single specimen tree in a container provides shade and resting spots for birds and butterfly’s, many can be kept in containers quite a few years.  Any tree can give shade but take it a step further.  Look for varieties that area multi-purpose.  Shelter, food and maybe a larval host.  You may have room for only one large container so make it count.  If your container is large enough you can add smaller selections in the container as under-plantings.

When you decide on your upper-story specimen, look for some shrubs to incorporate around it.  I have various containers planted with Beautyberry, Coral honeysuckle, Hamelia patens, Firespike.  All these will attract wildlife.

Planting with layers in mind replicates what we see in nature. Layers will provide hiding places, resting spots and even nesting areas.  It also makes your space more interesting.

To be most effective in attracting wildlife, there is research involved but anything worthwhile doesn’t come without effort (at least it hasn’t for me!).  There is so much more involved with container gardening and gardening for wildlife, I could go on until this post becomes way too long but I will stop here.  We have covered the basics.  Part II will follow so until then, happy planting.

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