Top 5 Tips for Creating Biodiversity in Your Yard
This past Christmas I made several insect hotels in my wood working shop for some of the special people on my gift list. They were received graciously and at the same time with the common query: “What IS it? What does an insect hotel do? What kind of insects will it attract? Are they all good for my garden?”
Just when I thought I had covered the bases on this subject I came to the stark realisation that we have a lot of work to do. Clearly this discussion has a long way to go. It started with concern about the decline in the honey bee population and has extended to the general concern shared by naturalists everywhere about the problems with our native population of pollinators.
We are no longer concerned exclusively with the decline of honey bees. Truth is, there are over 700 species of native bees (honey bees are not native) that serve as primary pollinators ‘out there’ in the natural environment, many of which you can attract to your yard with an insect hotel. In addition, there are thousands of other invertebrates that either pollinate over 30% of the plants that we rely on for food or are essential members of the web of insects that make up the whole show. It is complicated.
But luckily I am here to boil this one down for you. Take a mid-winter moment to digest the following and you will be on your way to understanding the whole, big picture.
- Understand the meaning of ‘biodiversity’. The word comes from ‘biological diversity’. WWF defines it as, “The term given to the variety of life on Earth. It is the variety within and between all species of plants, animals and micro-organisms and the ecosystems within which they live and interact.” Biodiversity in your yard is represented by the range of naturally occurring plant, animal and insect life that exists in it. There is much that you can do to increase biodiversity, or the ‘range’ of life in your yard.
- Plants – pack them in. However small your yard or balcony, do not underestimate the impact that you can have on the beneficial insect life in your neighbourhood by planting flowering plants. The longer each plant produces a flower and the more of them, the better. If you have a minimum of six hours of sunshine in your garden you are in luck. The varieties of plants available to you are nearly limitless. If you are dealing with shade you also have opportunities to plant flowering plants galore, but you will need to be more thoughtful about your plan. In either case place your plants densely to attract the maximum number of pollinators.
- Extend the beginning and the end. Here in Toronto we live in zone 6. Our average frost free date is around May 24th. Don’t let that stop you from pushing the envelope on this one. Crocuses are terrific pollinator-magnets and they bloom in March. Same for hellebores, snowdrops, early iris and dandelions. Yes, you read right. If you are blessed with dandelions and view them as weeds, but want to add biodiversity to your yard, you no doubt have some conflicted feelings. Answer: let them bloom and then cut them down or dig them out. While blooming, they are visited by many beneficial insects. In the autumn there are many flowering plants that tolerate the early frosts while blooming, rudbeckia, Joe Pye weed, asters, mums and Japanese anemones to name a few.
- Go Native. Or not. A recent study in England indicated that it is not important to a bug that a plant is native, as long as it produces a blossom that attracts them in the first place. According to the results of ‘The Plants for Bugs Pollinator’ research it is the diversity of plant material that attracts the maximum range of bug species, not whether they are native. To quote the study, “The value of a site can be maximized for pollinators by choosing plants from different regions of the world.”
- Add water and don’t stir. The single most impactful feature that you can add to your garden or balcony where attracting pollinators is concerned is to add a still-water feature. A pond in the yard or a half-barrel on the balcony works just fine. When you add a water feature I can guarantee that you will discover wildlife in your yard that you have never seen before. As dragonflies, salamanders, frogs, toads, water beetles, amphibians, mammals and bugs discover your new drinking hole they will grow, thrive and breed. There is no downside.
We are only beginning this discussion. I hope that you will stay tuned to my column for more as we explore the importance of creating biodiversity in our yards and gardens. As I look in to the crystal ball I see the interest in attracting pollinators and creating biodiversity in Canadian gardens as growing steadily. Within a generation the average Canadian garden will have little to do with the plant collections and formal, clipped and manicured gardens made popular after the Second World War.