Washington Post Gardening columnist Adrian Higgins answered reader questions recently in an online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.
Q: I want nothing more than to have my backyard be a sanctuary for birds and critters. How, though, do you keep them from chewing through your siding and moving into your attic? Right now there is someone who has taken up residence, and on holidays and weekends, he seems to invite the relatives in to party. Help?
A: Animals want to be in your home, and who could blame them? Shelter from the elements and all that. The best practical steps are to physically exclude them with caulking, wire netting and repairs to any holes, paying attention to areas under decks. My general advice is for people to adopt a more relaxed attitude about this problem. I’m not discounting the harmful effects of some wildlife, but we can’t, and shouldn’t, get rid of them all or think that we can. Certain animals, namely rats, require a stronger response.
Q: I want to transform my backyard into a natural-looking hummingbird-, butterfly- and bee-friendly area. What are some good shrubs for a shady, somewhat dry area?
A: Many shrubs will take dry shade, though they need to be watered in periods of drought for a couple of years to get their roots established. I can think of yews, plum yews, hemlocks, box, sweetbox, callicarpa, Cornus mas and Cornus officinalis, viburnums and even hawthorns.
Q: How can people treat their yards as wildlife sanctuaries unless the big-box stores stock the necessary plants for the average person? My yard is filled with native plants that I have ordered, but most people can’t or won’t do that. How can we change the big-box mentality?
A: Mass retailers and, to a lesser degree, independent garden centers will alter what they offer only if they are confident there’s a demand for it. For more unusual native plants, you have to do some more work to find sources, but they are out there on the internet.
Q: We would like to make our backyard garden into a natural habitat for local plants and animals. The neighbors and homeowners’ association are resistant to the idea. They seem to prefer stereotypical lawns and gardens (heaven forbid a weedlike plant be allowed to grow freely). What talking points could we use to sway our critics?
A: Some of the homeowners’ association’s apprehension is warranted because a lot of “meadows” or “prairies” are done inadequately. A convincing wildflower garden does not mean neglected areas; they require care and skill to create and, most of all, to maintain. I would start with a smallish area, define the boundaries neatly and put in native plants that are obviously appealing, such as echinaceas, baptisias, rudbeckias, asters and liatris.