Sykesville author's tips on gardening in harmony with wildlife

For The Baltimore Sun

Nancy Lawson and her husband transformed their two-acre property outside Sykesville into a wildlife-friendly oasis. Now, Lawson is teaching others to do the same.

The former Humane Society editor is the author of “The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife.” Published last spring, the book is a guide to gardening in harmony with the insect and animal kingdoms.

Here, Lawson offers advice for Marylanders who want to welcome critters into their backyards.

How do we approach changing our gardens?

I don’t advise ripping everything out. There could be insects and animals using the plants you already have. It’s a gradual process. You can keep those rhododendrons and azaleas, but you can add the elderberries, the serviceberries, the spicebush. [Native plants] are generally the most nutritious for wildlife.

You say a good habitat offers food and shelter through the year. What should we be planting?

I really like tall wildflowers like joe-pye weed, boneset and senna. I plant flowers that are pretty so my neighbors will see them and they will plant them too.

Oak trees, because they feed more caterpillars than any other plant — they’re a good bird feeder. Trees that flower early are good for bees.

If you have the space, [add] an eastern red cedar, beloved in the winter by birds. Redbuds, sassafras, staghorn sumac — they’re smaller.

Virginia creeper can be a great nesting site for birds. It can grow up trees [and] be a great ground cover. And plants with berries for migrating birds.

How do we create these habitats?

Assess what valuable volunteers you may already have, like violets that feed bees and caterpillars. Then focus on adding more seasonal diversity, like milkweeds for summer, asters for fall.

I would line a bed with logs. You might be creating habitat for red-backed salamanders or toads and beetles. Then woodpeckers will come.

How can we improve pollinator gardens?

If we are only planting wildflowers and not ground covers and small trees, we are not supporting the whole life cycle of the butterflies.

If you are using thick mulch, you could be covering the bees — many are ground nesters. Add ground covers like robin’s plantain, golden ragwort. They provide a year-round buffet and shelter for so many insects.

What about city gardens?

There are animals everywhere in the city. A single opossum can eat thousands of ticks in a week. Snakes are great: They eat rats; they eat mice. They are one of nature’s checks and balances.

What’s missing in places is that middle shrub layer that’s so important to nesting and so that birds and other animals can escape predators. Carolina and Virginia roses can make a thick, shrubby patch.

Should gardens be cleaned up for spring?

Decay is good for the soil. It is good for the plants. We need to leave the leaves as natural mulch for beetles, butterflies and moths.

If you help nature, nature will help you.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Quick tips

  • If your outdoor space is a small balcony or deck, you can still attract hummingbirds and bees with potted and hanging plants.
  • Help critters find their way out of ponds or pools with a slope or wildlife ramp.
  • Know where wildlife live in your yard; skunks, for instance, have poor vision but won’t bother people or pets unless they feel threatened.
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