A few weeks ago I was poking around in out what I call the “back 40” of my garden. This is the part of my garden, for better or worse, where I kinda just plant something and then forget about it for the rest of the year.
The “back 40” is, as you have probably guessed, in the farthest part of my yard alongside my apple and pear trees. I hardly make the trek back there unless I am going to visit my neighbor who lives behind me. And when I go visiting, I have to wade through dense pokeweed, volunteer sunflowers, nutsedge, and a whole bunch of rather aggressive plants that appreciate my lack luster management.
This year, I planted sweet potatoes back there and few weeks ago when I was out there simultaneously digging them up and cutting back the overgrown weeds, I came upon the closest thing to a living garden gnome: a toad. This was quite exciting for me, and less so for the toad. I think that I might have squealed upon the discovery, and then called out to my husband that I found a toad. He wasn’t that impressed, which makes no sense to me.
Amercian toads, like the one I found, are one of the most common toads in Missouri, and for someone like me, are a great find in a vegetable garden. Toads eat crickets and slugs, both of which enjoy high populations in my garden. My hope is that I can create such an Eden for this toad, and future mates of this toad, that my garden is host to a whole colony of cricket and slug eating toads. That is my whole gardening mantra distilled into this one specific example: I want to create a landscape that is “wild” enough to lure a diversity of birds, reptiles, and insects, and then plant my vegetables within that landscape. I would like to imagine a future where the suburbs aren’t just chemical sucking lawns, but backyards that are diverse ecosystems which also produce vegetables.
Why is it important to increase diversity in our yards? Well, in a nutshell, a diverse ecosystem makes for a stronger, more resilient ecosystem. This means less watering in the summer, and less need for herbicides and pesticides. This is true for vegetable gardens as well as lawns. As a gardener, a diverse ecosystem might mean that I have toads in my garden that eat the slugs, so that I personally don’t have to do anything maintain the slugs. In short, it makes things easier.
Less work? Yes please.
Let me step up on my soapbox for a second. People complain to me a lot about how there aren’t as many lightening bugs as there used to be decades ago. The monarchs, everyone is sad about the monarchs. But, this isn’t out of our control: we have the power to do something about it. Let’s stop spraying toxic chemical on our lawns, let’s stop raking up every single fallen leaf and putting bags and bags of leaves on the curb for the trash truck to pick up. Let’s do something about it. We can do something about it. There are a few simple ways that you can bring the toads, the lightening bugs, and the monarchs back to your yard.
First, everything in an ecosystem builds on the plant communities present. Let’s plant native wildflowers, native flowering shrubs, and native trees. Planting native flowering plants is the fastest way to welcome nature back into your yard. Insects see in a different light spectrum than humans do, so when a bumble bee sees a yellow flower, it doesn’t see a bright, sunny flower, what is sees would be more akin to the glowing lights of an airplane runway at night. Or a sign in Las Vegas. Can’t miss it.
Certain colors, especially yellow, are infinitely attractive to insects. So step one, plant native flowers. Plant lots of native flowers that have different flower colors and different bloom times. The more native flowers you have the more insect diversity you will get. A final note on the importance of native flowers- native flowers are suited to our climate. If you choose the right flower for your backyard, you will hardly have to care for it- it have evolved to grow in these conditions, which means less work for you.
Moving along the ecosystem food web: once you have flowers, you attract insects who like to drink the nectar of the flowers, and maybe some birds who like nectar, too. Once you have resident populations of insects, you attract things that eat insects, like certain bird species, bats, reptiles and amphibians maybe. The fact that you have created an area where their food source is present- that is, insects- these predators will start stopping by on a routine basis to get their snack on. Especially the animals with wings, who have an easier time moving about our neighborhoods, than my toad friend does.
So, at this point, you have essentially set up a diner for animals to come by and eat nectar, seeds, and insects. Restaurants are great, but you know what’s better? A boardinghouse. Creating nesting spaces for birds, cozy nooks for bats, and undisturbed log piles for toads will encourage these animals to stay closer, because now your home (or your backyard) is also their home. And home is a lovely place to be. Different birds prefer different nesting environments and a bat box is very different than a bird house, and the type of logs used will determine the ground nesters you are trying to welcome to your backyard, so do some research on the type of home environment these animals prefer, and copy that for your yard.
Shelter: check. Food: check. What else in needed in near constant supply to make us animals happy? Water! Get the bird baths out, and fill them up. Get two and marbles, pebbles, and rocks to one so that tiny insects have landing pads when they want a drink of water. I drink water even in the winter, and this goes for wild animals, too! Make sure to provide water all throughout the year to the wild animals living in a visiting your yard.
One final, easy step to encourage wildlife in your backyard is to do less mowing, less pruning back of dead branches, less killing of dandelions. This will probably be the hardest step for many folks, but is a crucial one. The more “wild” your yard is, the more animals will call it home. You don’t have to give up mowing altogether- just mow on the highest setting. Or, do what my husband and I do, only mow half of your yard and alternate which half you mow. Don’t cut down dead flower stalks until the following spring: lots of things live and hibernate in those dead stalks. I encourage you to cultivate a shabbier yard aesthetic.
If this is like pulling teeth for you, maybe just do a corner of the yard, not the whole yard. Or, just incorporate native flowers into your current landscaping. Just mow your fallen leaves to chop them up instead of sending them to the landfill. There are a lot of small steps every one of us can do to encourage nature to come back to our neighborhoods.
Let’s get out there and start at the beginning: lets plant native flowers and plants. Join me in welcoming nature back to our yards and gardens, it is never too late to start. To learn more about gardening, gardening with nature, and small scale food production visit the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture's website or our Facebook page. And even though it is November, and the season is coming to a close, I wish you and all of the wild things in your yard happy gardening!
Carrie Hargrove is the Director of Urban Farming for the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture.