Help create plant and animal diversity in your garden

Traditionally, we have looked toward the countryside, the unsettled areas and the fields as the places where more kinds of plants and animals live.

Where agriculture is still important, monoculture is the rule rather than the exception. Farmers grow corn, maize or cotton in their fields and poison every other volunteer plant that comes up. We are lucky to live near the Hill Country, where open spaces still make room for native trees and animals to grow, but civilization is encroaching rapidly, and hilltops and hillsides are becoming covered with huge houses and landscapes featuring non-native plants such as palm trees.

City gardeners are now providing more natural diversity than the countryside.

Not only are gardeners in cities and towns making their world more beautiful, they are making it more sustainable and healthy. The diverse plants that gardeners add to the cityscapes provide refuge for native insects and larger animals by making space for them to forage for food, find shelter and hide from predators. Not only do healthy organic yards look good, smell good and sometimes taste good, they encourage all kinds of life.

Butterflies, birds, lizards, frogs, lightning bugs and so many more animals are being crowded out of the countryside by development and factory farming. City gardens provide a refuge and are fun for the gardener in the process.

The point is not to add a burden to the shoulders of gardeners but to celebrate the benefits of gardening wherever you are. When you add native plants, heirloom plants or food plants to your landscape, you are creating a collection of diverse plants and helping maintain biodiversity in the world. Planting wildlife-friendly trees and other plants can make a huge difference. Oak trees, for example, benefit everything from caterpillars to songbirds. Even fish prosper because the invertebrates they feed on favor oak leaves on stream bottoms. Oaks are said to accommodate 537 species of wildlife. Imported trees from China generally host fewer than five.

Adding specific plants like milkweed will encourage the butterfly population. Food and flowers in the garden will draw pollinators and keep them healthy and active. Simply having green spaces keeps stormwater in the soil rather than adding to flooding and runoff that overwhelms neighborhoods and sewage treatment plants.

Now is the time to add new plants to your garden. Instead of choosing one variety of flower, chose several. Zinnias, daisies, coneflowers and any flower with a flat-topped landing pad will draw in butterflies. Flowers like salvia, Turk’s cap, bee balm and others with tubular flowers will delight hummingbirds. Flowers that provide sugary nectar and protein-rich pollen are the favorites of bees. Bees love almost all flowers, but their favorites include yarrow, sunflowers, asters and goldenrod. Birds love flowers that produce easily accessible seeds such as sunflowers, coneflowers and milkweeds, as well as oak trees, trees that produce nuts and berries and those that provide a broad canopy for nest building.

Combining flowers, fruit, vegetables and herbs in your garden serves several purposes. The diversity makes for an attractive garden and one that is constantly changing over time. Different scents and tastes encourage pollinators and discourage pests who often find their favorite snack by smell. This casual approach to companion planting can help all your plants flourish.

In addition to vegetables in my vegetable beds, you’ll find poppies, calendula, mullein, basil, garlic and occasional volunteers. The tomatoes and peppers grow steadily as the poppies come and go, meanwhile attracting pollinators and looking great. The onion and garlic discourage pests, and when it is time to harvest the garlic, other veggies are beginning to sprawl and need more room. Pulling out the mature beets encourages me to pull some weeds too as well as making room. Later in the summer, seedling zinnias will come up to add color and attract some butterflies as the veggies finish their round. It is a cycle of growth and decline and, in the process, serves as my little patch of biodiversity.

There is a lot of information on the internet about how biodiversity works and how home gardens can provide crucial habitat for endangered and threatened species. The Audubon Texas page is full of information about choosing plants to encourage birds. They point out that Texas provides critical habitat for about a 632 of North America’s 914 bird species. By choosing one native tree to replace an exotic, you can make a huge difference in the lives of birds that pass through. It’s not just the branches of the tree that provide shelter and nesting, but the caterpillars that chew on the leaves and the other creatures that live in the garden. Birds need it all. It’s all connected.

Gardeners are important contributors to those connections. Whatever frustrations we suffer with heat and drought and tomato hornworms, the pleasure of knowing that we are doing our part to contribute to sustainability and nature’s vigor makes it all worthwhile.

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