Home & Garden

Small spaces can still attract wildlife

In the wintertime, American goldfinches can often be found clustered around feeders.
In the wintertime, American goldfinches can often be found clustered around feeders. AP

Among the many wonderful things about wildlife gardens is how they can be tailored to reflect the needs of individual gardeners and the soil/energy/space available.

My woodsy, 1/3-acre suburban lot is a mostly-shady haven dotted with dogwood trees and a mix of medium to tall perennials that produce berries and provide habitat for wildlife - from rabbits to snakes to voles and families of wrens.

Someday, however, I expect to move into a more compact living arrangement, such as a condo or semi-detached house, and may only have a patio area or small patch of grass to work with. No doubt this will require a change in my approach.

With so many enthusiastic and talented gardeners in the Piedmont (and with the number of apartments and condos going up all around), I can imagine hundreds of exciting gardens being tended daily behind neatly painted fences or shrub rows.

I called landscape designer Gail Ingram, who works with customers at Logan's garden center in downtown Raleigh, to see if there are many wildlife gardeners working behind the scenes in small outdoor spaces in this region.

Not exactly, Ingram said. Turns out not too many people - or their homeowners associations - are eager to entice a raccoon, snake or fox into close proximity with the back door.

"We do have customers who want to bring in the three B's - bees, butterflies and birds - but not so much the other critters," she said.

Narrowing the focus to the three B's could seem restrictive, but it actually leaves plenty of opportunity to support and nurture wildlife with dozens of lovely plants still to choose from.

According to Ingram, a major concern for a small garden is a design that takes into consideration the the ultimate height, depth and width that all plants will reach upon maturity.

"The biggest request I get is for something low maintenance," she said. "People don't want to have to spend a lot of time pruning overgrown plants, so it's important to select plants that don't want to outgrow the available space."

Other considerations for small-lot landscaping include the desire for sun or shade. "Any tree you plant will do a lot to limit light conditions," Ingram explained.

A sign that many gardeners are indeed focusing on a smaller spaces is the availability of compact varieties of popular species. Reacting to increased demand, nurseries have developed a number of these, Ingram said.

For example, someone interested in blueberries might consider Sunshine Blue or Bountiful Blue (Vaccinium corymbosum) blueberry plants bred by Monrovia to grow just 3 to 4 feet tall and wide.

"The bees will pollinate them, and the birds will eat them if you don't get to them first," Ingram said. "Birds like any kind of berry."

Ingram also recommends Eupatorium dubium Baby Joe, a small version of the more familiar Joe Pye weed. At 3 feet tall, the late-summer bloomer attracts butterflies with its large flowers and may even be grown in a tub or other container, according to the Perennials.com website. The blooms' dried seed heads also can be left intact throughout the winter, providing birds a bite of food and a bit of cover.

And as always, seeds are a plus.

"With black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) and coneflower (Echinacea), as the flower fades, seeds develop. It's not unusual to see goldfinches sit on them and feed. They are so pretty and such a wonderful bird to bring in, with their vivid yellow and black."

Annual and perennial versions of milkweed (Asclepias) are other good bets for smaller gardens. They provide food for butterfly larvae (the caterpillars) and serve as a nectar source for butterflies and bees.

Panicum, or native switch grass, and Schizachyrium, native bluestem, are low-profile grasses that are easy to grow and offer food and shelter for wildlife, Ingram said.

Also consider vines. The native crossvine bignonia (Bignonia capreolata) is an evergreen in this region with large tubular flowers that bloom in spring.

"It looks like a trumpet vine, but is much better behaved," Ingram said. "They bloom just when the hummingbirds get to the area."

Finally, don't forget to add water. All wildlife need water, so be sure to include small pond or birdbath if you want to support birds, bees, butterflies, lizards, and other small animals.

After talking with Ingram, I realize anyone can enjoy wildlife gardening as long as they have access to the outdoors.

More tips

From the National Wildlife Federation:

• Avoid a mess by limiting quantities of bird seed. Consider a feeder with a tray to catch the seed hulls or use shelled sunflower.

• Remember that plants in containers and baskets will need more frequent watering than those planted in soil.

• Keeping a shallow pan or small birdbath filled is an easy way to offer water to wildlife visitors.

• Pick plants that do not require long periods of sunlight if your garden is surrounded by a tall fence or by trees. Small hollies are evergreens that can support birds and live in little sunlight.

• Consider hanging baskets of blooming plants to attract hummingbirds.

• Plant vegetables and herbs such as broccoli, cabbage, parsley and dill. These attract butterflies. Oregano and thyme support a number of species of insects.

Elder: wildlifechatter@gmail.com