Garden for Everyone

by Karen Kirsch
June  – July 2020
Why do I garden for wildlife? It’s not that I’m misanthropic. I’m just happiest in the company of birds, bugs and bunnies, so to speak. But perhaps “gardening” isn’t the right word because sometimes the best way to attract wildlife is to leave things as nature intended or to restore what used to be. When I bought this circa 1821 farm, my vision for the overgrown property with its dilapidated house and barn was that it would become my home and a sanctuary for wildlife; I would live in the house and they would live outside. But over the years, I’ve learned to expect surprises; not all critters recognize boundaries.
sunflower patch
Last years sunflower patch made the finches happy and me too!
Gaps in the dry-stone foundation of the house had invited several big rat snakes to the cellar before I moved in. After relocating the squatters to more suitable outside habitat, field rats and mice took their place. Those unintentional housemates challenged my ideas of peaceful coexistence, and, while mortar work hadn’t been on my agenda, it quickly became a priority. Then my efforts focused on making their natural habitats more appealing than my house.
farm house and pond
The tree-bridge at the end of the pond is used by birds, squirrels, chipmunks and even the occasional duck.
This small farm is a fragment of a former hundred acre homestead, but, around 1950, American agriculture underwent dramatic changes that wrought devastating effects upon wildlife. A study published in Science magazine found that since 1970 North America has lost an incredible three billion birds, but it’s not just our feathered friends who are in peril. Birds are considered “indicator species.” Habitat loss and copious herbicide and pesticide use are displacing and killing many species. The good news is that there are ways to mitigate the crisis by protecting what remains or restoring what has been lost. Wildlife will be grateful, but humans are the real beneficiaries.

pollinators snake habitat
Pollinators choose from a wide varitety of wildflowers.

Snakes like a rock pile, but a rock wall serves the same purpose.
Psychological studies confirm that connecting with the natural world has a direct correlation to our mental well-being and happiness. Spending time in nature significantly increases our powers of observation and our physical vitality. I couldn’t agree more, which is why I’ve dedicated this tiny bit of America’s two billion acres as a safe haven for furred, feathered and even slinky friends. Every species has an ecological function, and we are all part of nature’s web.

windfall wall
My windfall wall serves not only as an over 300-foot-long brush pile used by rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks and more, but also as a barrier between my property and the one adjoining.
It thrills me to fall asleep to the singing spring peepers on the pond or the December mating calls of a great horned owl. Seeing a fox running through the woods or deer meandering along my nature trail brings the rest of life into perspective. Nature is a steadfast friend to whom I just offer a helping hand. Wildlife doesn’t just randomly appear. It appears where three basic needs are met: food, water and shelter. An early inventory of the plants and creatures that were here when I arrived has guided me in accentuating the positive and eliminating negative components.

The property was severely overgrown with invasive plants like multiflora rose, autumn olive and brambles of all sorts, some of which grew right in through the kitchen door. Clearing the skin shredding invaders is a never-ending task as invasives are prolific and need to be physically removed. It’s hard work, but replacing them with native species is important. Native plants are inherently acclimated to specific zones, so they thrive with little or no fuss just as the wildlife common to that area also thrives. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service site is a good starting point to learn which plants are native to any state.
dead tree habitat
Dead trees, or snags, are used by an variety of birds.

The property was severely overgrown with invasive plants like multiflora rose, autumn olive and brambles of all sorts, some of which grew right in through the kitchen door. Clearing the skin shredding invaders is a never-ending task as invasives are prolific and need to be physically removed. It’s hard work, but replacing them with native species is important. Native plants are inherently acclimated to specific zones, so they thrive with little or no fuss just as the wildlife common to that area also thrives. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service site is a good starting point to learn which plants are native to any state.

Since 1950, America has lost 96% of its species-diverse meadows, but native grasses and wildflowers can mimic lost meadows while attracting the pollinators crucial for food crop fertilization. Wildflowers might not be showy, but they’re loaded with nectar and pollen unlike fancy double-flower cultivars which contain little or no pollen. Replacing a lawn is one way to create a “meadow.” It takes time and labor to establish, but a mowed footpath through my mini-meadow is delightful.

A good model for wildlife habitat is a fencerow; yet another vanishing part of rural America. In the 1930s, farmers were encouraged to plant woody vegetation along fields for erosion control, but much wildlife benefited from those ecosystems. Fencerows provided nesting sites, shelter and forage for avian species, mammals and deer that browsed young shoots.

Undisturbed fencerows had trees, shrubs, groundcovers and grasses at the edges. Field rocks were often piled along the fencerows and used by small mammals and reptiles. (I’ve built stone walls to host the latter outside.) Brush piles are also important shelter and nesting sites for assorted wildlife. I have the dubious local reputation of being “that tree fanatic” — a label I’m proud to acknowledge. To paraphrase Joyce Kilmer, I think there is no poem as lovely — or as beneficial — as a tree, dead or alive. An old orchard here feeds a plethora of wildlife as do the walnut and oak trees, but even dead trees, called snags, serve a purpose.
bird house muskrat
Birds prefer natural looking man-made houses rather than lodgings designed to please peoples' aesthetics.

Mike the muskrat who is building a lodge in the middle of the pond. Progress is slow, but steady.

Snags host insects, mosses and fungi that more than 80 North American birds depend upon. I love the ratta-tat-tat of woodpeckers; some of 40 primary excavators that need snags. Their abandoned holes are then claimed by secondary cavity nesters like chickadees, titmice and bluebirds. Nature is the original recycler. ^^While birdbaths are nice for birds, ground dwellers need water too. A dug pond will attract many species, but even small receptacles can be surprisingly adequate. Shallow ground-level containers will draw small mammals, insects and amphibians, but must be kept clean and fresh. Stagnant or dirty water can harbor disease.
nature trail
Part of my nature trail.

As I write this sketch of my "wildlife garden," chainsaws and heavy equipment noise pierce the air. A corporate farmer with over 1,000 non-contiguous acres is obliterating a beautiful nearby woodland. It will be replaced by a few more rows of corn or soybeans. The fate of the wildlife and environment is of no concern to him.

Over my years on this old farm I've seen countless woodlands, fencerows and zones zones destroyed. It breaks my heart each time but confirms the importance of my small efforts. I won’t live forever, but I’ve taken legal steps to ensure that this home for wildlife will remain even after I am gone. Conservation easements or trusts require a minimum of 15 acres, but a land conservation attorney can protect smaller holdings. In my opinion, it’s a meaningful legacy.
Author

Karen Kirsch gardens for wildlife conservation at her Louisville, Ohio, farm.
This article appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of Rural Heritage magazine.

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