Your pretty patio garden or backyard urban farm can yield a lot of pleasure — as well as delicious herbs, fruits and vegetables for the kitchen. That small garden can also make a huge difference to the survival of threatened native plants and animals — especially if you include the right plants.

Wildlife is disappearing from urban and suburban areas at alarming rates, and the diversity of the remaining wildlife is shrinking as well. Naturalist David Mizejewski of the National Wildlife Federation works to reverse these trends. He will be speaking at the Northwest Flower and Garden Festival in Seattle in February, bringing the message that individual gardeners, whether they landscape a large yard or cultivate a small balcony garden, can play a key role in supporting wildlife.

“It’s easy, fun and rewarding to make a difference,” Mizejewski says. “When you are planning your garden, think about how to provide food, water and cover for native wildlife to reproduce and raise their young. The best way to do this is by planting native plants. Their seeds, nuts, fruits and nectar will feed everything from butterflies to songbirds and also many insects.”

Native plants also provide shelter, ranging from trees for bird nests to plants that can safely support a butterfly’s eggs. While we tend to favor close-trimmed lawns and neat arrangements of plants, the ideal environments for wildlife look, well, wilder. “Plant densely, mimicking Mother Nature,” Mizejewski advises.

See “Fleurs de Villes” at the Northwest Flower & Garden Festival.
See “Fleurs de Villes” at the Northwest Flower & Garden Festival.

What to plant

Sages, lavenders and other popular flowering plants are known for attracting hummingbirds and insects. However, they don’t always meet the needs of our native wildlife.

“When it comes to supporting native pollinators, plant choice matters,” says Eric Lee-Mäder, an insect ecologist. He codirects the pollinator conservation program at The Xerces Society, an international nonprofit organization often described as “the Audubon Society of insects.”

He explains that pollinators thrive in open, sunny flower-rich landscapes. Unfortunately, most of Western Washington’s meadows, including clearings once maintained by Native American communities for harvesting camas, are developed or commercially farmed. The farmed land lacks the mix of wildflowers that support rare native butterflies.

“Western Washington has become one of the poorest parts of North America for pollinators and insects,” Lee-Mäder says.

The good news is that native wildflowers can be grown from seeds, and those seeds are available to home gardeners through regional seed companies. For the Pacific Northwest, look for seeds and seed mixes that include camas (common and giant), Douglas aster, Oregon sunshine, Canada goldenrod, Western buttercup, Oregon iris, springbank clover, tomcat clover, and annuals like the meadow foams.

“These are very easy to grow,” Lee-Mäder says. “They are exactly what you can grow in a container on a parking strip.”

You’ve probably seen honeybees and yellow-faced bumblebees clustering around your lavender plants. But expect something more exotic when you grow a container full of native plants.

“The less common native species of insects and butterflies can and will materialize,” Lee-Mäder promises.

Water and shelter

Food from plants — seeds, nuts, fruits, nectar and sap — is important. But a well-designed garden will also provide animals with water, shelter and safe places to nest and raise young.

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Often people worry that having a water feature, such as a bird bath, in the garden will attract mosquitoes that carry disease. Mizejewski offers reassurance. He notes that it is relatively easy to prevent mosquito larvae from hatching by use a hose to clean the bird bath every few days and adding fresh water. You can also add “mosquito dunks,” available from hardware and garden stores. The small disks contain a natural bacteria (bacillus thuringiensis) that is deadly to mosquito larvae but safe for people, pets and wildlife.

“Water’s important,” Mizejewski says. “Birds need to drink and bathe to keep their feathers clean. Different species use water in different ways.”

Wondering how to shelter birds? In many cases, this just means including some trees and bushes in your landscape and then being careful not to disturb any nests in the spring. Birdfeeders supply supplemental nutrition, especially in winter months when berries and seeds may be in short supply or covered by snow.

Resources

You’ll find advice, and wildflower seeds, at the Northwest Flower and Garden Festival Feb. 26 through March 1. Both Lee-Mäder and Mizejewski are giving seminars and the Washington Native Plant Society, the Highline Botanical Garden Foundation and the National Wildlife Federation will have educational booths.

The Northwest Flower & Garden Festival runs 9 a.m.- 8 p.m. Feb. 26-29, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Mar. 1. Early Bird admission (purchased online through Feb. 25) $20; adult (at the door) $25; student $10; 12 and younger free.