Six Sustainable Ways to Maintain a Natural Garden

The National Wildlife Federation has been educating and empowering people to create wildlife-friendly gardens through the Garden for Wildlife program since 1973. Each of us can help support local wildlife populations by making sure our gardens or landscapes provides the four components of habitat: natural sources of food, water, cover and places to raise young.

But’s there more to creating a wildlife habitat garden than just these four components. How you maintain your garden is also critically important. Creating a wildlife-friendly space that attracts birds, butterflies and other wildlife and then spraying toxic pesticides everywhere or letting your cat catch and kill the wildlife defeats the purpose.

Here are six sustainable ways you can maintain your natural for wildlife beyond just providing the components of habitat.

Plant Native Plants

Purple coneflowers by Jordan Meeter via Flickr Creative Commons.

Purple coneflowers are a commercially available native plant that support pollinators and songbirds. Photo by Jordan Meeter via Flickr Creative Commons.

Native plants are the most environmentally-friendly choice because if planted in the proper place to match their growing requirements, they thrive in the soils, moisture and weather of your region. That means less wasteful supplemental watering and pest problems that require toxic chemicals.

Native plants are also the plants that native wildlife have formed symbiotic relationships with over thousands of years, and therefore the most sustainable way of offering habitat.

Exotic plants that evolved in other parts of the world or native plants that have been cultivated by humans into forms that don’t exist in nature do not support wildlife as well as native plants, and sometimes even escape into the wild and become invasive exotics that destroy natural habitat.

Cultivate Healthy Soil

Photo by normanack via Flickr Creative Commons.

Composting is a great way to improve your garden soil. Photo by normanack via Flickr Creative Commons.

You don’t need to use chemical fertilizers to have a thriving garden. Creating garden beds and landscapes that have active underground ecosystem of earthworms and microorganisms that keep plants healthy can be achieved using composted soil with organic materials that include micronutrients and minerals. Applying compost also provides an aerated, non-compacted base for plant roots to thrive and to absorb water and nutrients, which is key in ensuring plant health. Healthy plants mean better wildlife habitat.

Conserve Water

Photo by Todd Morris via Flickr Creative Commons.

Sprinklers waste a lot of water. Photo by Todd Morris via Flickr Creative Commons.

Conventional lawns and many ornamental exotic plants require an exorbitant amount of clean water to stay green. Choosing native plants that are adapted to regional rainfall and soil moisture content is a great way to conserve this precious resource. You can also collect water in rain barrels for use in the garden.

In suburban and urban areas, much of the water that hits the landscape washes away down the storm drains, often carrying pollutants and soil with it. Reducing your lawn in favor of densely planted garden beds helps minimize runoff, and you can plant a rain garden specifically designed to collect and absorb rainwater to keep if from pouring into storm drains.

Encourage Pest Predators and Parasites

Convergent lady beetle is a predator of aphids and other garden pests. Photo by Gary Chang via Flickr Creative Commons.

Convergent lady beetles are predators of aphids and other garden pests. Photo by Gary Chang via Flickr Creative Commons.

Insects are not the enemy in the garden. In fact, they can be the key in keeping populations of pests down. By planting native plants you attract populations of insects such as ladybugs and other carnivorous beetles, dragonflies, parasitic wasps, and praying mantises that keep the balance in the garden by other harmful plant pests. Spiders, toads, bats and even songbirds are voracious predators of pests too. Creating a diversely planted garden that attracts an array of wildlife is a much better way to control pests and keeping things in balance than spraying toxic pesticides.

Minimize or Eliminate Chemicals

Toxic pesticide use is bad for wildlife. Photo by Peter Organisciak via Flickr Creative Commons.

Toxic pesticide use is bad for wildlife. Photo by Peter Organisciak via Flickr Creative Commons.

Help wildlife by eliminating or at a minimum significantly reducing the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and other pesticides. Going chemical-free ensures that your garden is a healthy, safe place for wildlife as well as your pets and family. There are many tried and true organic gardening methods, from fertilizing with compost to hand-picking pests.  If you must resort to chemicals on tough cases such as removal of invasive exotic plants or some other out of control infestation, use the most targeted product that breaks down quickly in the environment, and always read and follow the labels exactly. Non-chemical, organic gardening practices in your garden or landscape are always the best option for wildlife

Control Pets

Domesticated cats kill billions of wild birds each year. Photo by Barnabas Nagy via Flickr Creative Commons.

Domesticated cats kill billions of wild birds each year. Photo by Barnabas Nagy via Flickr Creative Commons.

Our pets and other domesticated species can have a huge negative impact on wildlife. House cats kill billions of birds and small animals each year and exotic pets that have been dumped into the wild such as Burmese pythons can become invasive exotics hurting native wildlife. They’re just doing what comes naturally to them, but this impact of our pets is unnatural and just an extension of the negative impact that we humans have on wildlife. It’s up to us to protect wildlife from our pets.

Certify NowOnce your garden is sustainable and wildlife-friendly, certify it with the National Wildlife Federation!

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