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Habitat Gardening – Make a Meaningful Difference in Your Own Yard
Dec 26, 2022
Here at Virens, we’re always looking for great guest writers to join our blog. This time we’re excited to welcome the work of Tricia Striker. Tricia is an Ecologist with the Parks Department in Calgary, Canada. She is also the human behind @backtowildyyc on Instagram, where she shares her passion for the human-nature connection with useful tips and advice for great ecological practice in your garden. So, please enjoy…
Growing up in Calgary, Alberta and spending time at the family cabin near Invermere, B.C., I have always had a passion for and special connection to nature. The prairie environment of Calgary as well as the stunning forest, lake and wetland ecosystems of the Columbia Valley were both so inspiring to me as a child and now as an adult.
Working as an Ecologist for The City of Calgary and starting @backtowildyyc has taught me so much about the environment and the importance of protecting and restoring nature for the health of humans, wildlife, and the planet.
Habitat gardening is one way that we can all do our part to conserve nature and make our yards amazing places, while contributing to the greater network of natural spaces in our local areas.
I hope this blog about habitat gardening helps you in your gardening journey - to not only enjoy nature but to make a difference for the environment as well!
Movement towards habitat gardening
Call it what you want – habitat or native plant gardening, pollinator or naturalistic gardening, rewilding, and so on – whatever you label it – gardening with wildlife in mind has become a movement in North America and beyond.
Habitat gardening involves using plants adapted to your local environment, so that native pollinators, insects, birds, and other wildlife can benefit from them. By doing so you are also helping to compensate for the natural ecosystems in your area that have been lost or disturbed due to development.
The movement towards this kind of gardening has been championed by different groups including the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife Habitat Certification for gardens and Doug Tallamy’s Home Grown National Park initiative.
These programs encourage a focus on plantings with a greater range of native materials to improve and regenerate the biodiversity of local areas. Which can include the use of a variety of native trees, shrubs, wildflowers and grasses, to provide year-round food and habitat for an array of wildlife.
Sustainable gardens also include water sources and shelter for birds, insects and other wildlife while focusing on reusing rainwater and improving soil nutrients. It is a way of gardening that allows the caretaker to be in tune with nature, watching how it plays out and changes within their yards from one area to another, from day to day and season to season.
Native plant gardens can also be calming, aesthetically pleasing and enjoyable spaces for people. In fact, studies have shown that getting out into nature can reduce stress levels and improve mental health. When nature is recreated in your own yard, the health benefits are both physical and mental. We are a part of the environment after all, not separate from it.
“Plants are not simply brushstrokes on a canvas. They are hubs of life for countless species above and below the soil line. They are community centers. They are places of freedom and refuge. Rethink pretty.” –Benjamin Vogt
To understand what to plant in your native garden, it’s important to know what natural region you live in. As an example, Calgary is positioned in a unique geographic area, where many land types and subregions converge. As a result, the city’s ecology is influenced by several zones including the Rocky Mountains, Foothills, Parkland, and Grassland Natural subregions. You can find the regional zones of the province described in a document developed by the Alberta Government titled Natural Regions and Subregions of Alberta (Natural Regions Committee, 2006).
Source: natural-regions-subregions-of-alberta-a-framework-for-albertas-parks-booklet.pdf (albertaparks.ca)
Source: ABMI - Biodiversity in Alberta
Other related links:
Natural Regions Overview (abmi.ca)
If we look closely, you’ll see that the northwest and southwest of Calgary are in the foothills parkland natural subregion characterized by rolling hills with aspen woodlands, willow shrublands and rough fescue grasslands.
Alternatively, the northeast and southeast areas of the city fall into the foothills fescue natural subregion that consists of flat expanses of rough fescue grasslands and pothole prairie wetlands.
The central parkland subregion features rough fescue grasslands and open aspen forest woodlands. This land type is more common in the north end of the city and covers a much smaller area of Calgary than the other subregions. Along the Bow and Elbow Rivers that run through the city you’ll find balsam poplar riparian forests.
These are the environments and ecosystems in the city that we can work towards recreating in our own habitat gardens. Aspen forests in Calgary’s northwest and southwest, grasslands in the northeast and southeast, and balsam poplar riparian areas along the river edges.
You can try searching for your area’s natural regions and what each areas unique ecosystem characteristics are too. And don’t worry, even if the information isn’t readily available, you can go for a walk through your local natural area parks and use plant apps such as Picture This. That way you can identify what indigenous vegetation exists around you and see what kind of wildlife depend on it.
Doing some research and partnering with local suppliers that grow plants adapted to your area, you too can recreate a native ecosystem in your own yard. This will help contribute valuable wildlife habitat that has increasingly disappeared across Canada due to development and human disturbances.
Biodiversity or biological diversity is inherent in natural ecosystems and better supports a variety of native pollinators, birds, and wildlife.
By planting a variety of native wildflowers, grass species, native shrubs and trees, you are helping to provide habitat for an array of species. As well as contributing to the long-term health and viability of your local ecosystems.
In turn, these gardens also help us. Healthy and diverse ecosystems contribute a variety of services to humans such as:
• water retention
• flood mitigation
• improved water quality
• better mental health
• passive recreation
• clean air
• carbon sequestration and many more!
Habitat gardens also provide us with a beautiful, aesthetically pleasing oasis in our yards to relax in nature in our own backyards.
Today one of the largest threats to biodiversity is the fragmentation of natural areas. Large scale clearing of forests, expansion of agricultural operations and city development all contribute to this divide.
Any habitat garden that you create will not only be a haven for pollinators, birds, and other wildlife, it will also add to your local ecological network.
Ecological networks consist of core areas, corridors (or stepping stones) and buffer zones (see diagram). Corridors create a permanent connection between core areas which helps to reduce fragmentation, allowing wildlife to move more freely across the landscape.
The establishment of ecological corridors is important to counteract fragmentation. By connecting neighboring natural green spaces (core areas) as well as yards with habitat gardens (stepping stones) through corridors an 'ecological network', is created.
By interlacing fragmented habitats, the viability of animal and plant species is improved. Ultimately enlarging habitats; facilitating the search for food, aiding dispersion of young animals and improving re-use of "empty" habitats.
There are three types of corridors:
• linear corridors: long, uninterrupted strips of vegetation, such as hedges, bands of forest, and vegetation growing on the banks of rivers and streams.
• steppingstone corridors: a series of small, non-connected habitats which are used to find shelter, food, or to rest – habitat gardens fall into this category.
• landscape corridors: diverse, uninterrupted landscape elements which offer sufficient cover for a safe journey from one core area to another.
Source: Ecological corridors and biodiversity | Sicirec
Source: The Heart Gardening Project (Melbourne Pollinator Corridor)
A native plant garden in your yard acts as a steppingstone for wildlife to move between larger core natural areas.
Recreating Nature in our own Yard
There are many wildflowers, grasses, trees and shrubs native to your local area that you can purchase and plant. Although indigenous plants have been difficult to source in the past, the growing demand for them means that many nurseries are now offering a wide variety of native plant material.
If you do not have any local nurseries that provide native plants or seed, you can find ways to harvest your own seed (with permission) from lands that have native vegetation.
Your local government may have information on what indigenous plants you can grow in your yard. For example, The City of Calgary has a Be Yardsmart webpage that includes plant and garden bed design guides on planting and cultivating native plants.
You can start a list of plants that you might want to grow in your yard. Be sure to include a variety of species for biodiversity and plants that offer habitat and food sources in more than one season. You can also create a design/drawing to help you plan it out. Some things to think about include:
• Knowing the conditions of your soil and the where the sun shines at certain times of the day in your yard.
• Determining what to add to your soil and what kind of cover/mulch it needs.
• Choosing the style and color of flowers that you want as well as the structure of the trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses that you want to create.
• Looking at the overall shape and texture of the plants in your design.
• Best time of year to seed or plant
• Making sure you have the space to accommodate the mature height and spread of the plants that you will be growing in each space in your habitat garden.
Source: The Heart Gardening Project (Melbourne Pollinator Corridor)
There is a lot of information online about how to design a beautiful naturalistic garden including wildflower meadows, shaded forested area, water features and so on. You can also check out my Instagram page @backtowildyyc for a ton of useful guidance. There are so many wonderful books out on this type of gardening to read with more on the way. Local nurseries are also a great source of knowledge if you have questions about gardening and planting or seeding in general.
Do what works best for you and your yard. It will always be evolving and changing from season to season and year to year and you will be continuously learning as you go. Even in winter, your habitat garden will take on new structure and life.
One quote I like for getting started is,
“You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Keep it simple. Although it’s good to have a diversity of plants, the simplest schemes are often the most effective. For instance, you might start by choosing up to 10 different wildflowers, two or three native grasses and groundcovers, two to three shrubs, and one or two native trees. And like magic, you are on your way to creating an amazing wildlife garden.
As an example - here is a list of a few species that generally work well in the grassland and foothills environment of Calgary (zone 3b-4a):
• Gaillardia (blanket flower) Gaillardia aristate
• Common yarrow Achillea millefolium
• Blue flax Linum lewisii
• Purple prairie clover Dalea purpurea
• Smooth aster Symphyotrichum laeve
• Canada goldenrod Solidago canadensis
• Fireweed Chamaenerion angustifolium
• Showy fleabane Erigeron speciosus
• Canada anemone Anemonastrum canadensis
• Three flowered avens Geum triflorum
• Prairie crocus Pulsatilla nuttalliana
• Golden bean Thermopsis rhombifolia
• Prairie sage Artemisia ludoviciana
• Saskatoon Amelanchier alnifolia
• Shrubby cinquefoil Potentilla fruticosa
• Buffaloberry Sheperdia canadensis
• Wolf willow (silverberry) Elaeagnus commutata
• Wild rose Rosa woodsii or Rosa acicularis
• Chokecherry Prunus virginiana
• Bearberry (kinnickinnick) Arctostaphylos uva-ursi
• Aspen poplar Populus tremuloides
• Balsam poplar Populus balsamifera
• White spruce Picea glauca
• River birch Betula nigra
Remember to make sure your species do well in the conditions that you have – do they like shade, part shade, or full sun? Are they adapted to wet soil conditions or very dry? How much organic material and compost do you need to put down for them to thrive? Every plant has different requirements, but native plants are generally very hardy.
You can make a difference!
Hopefully this blog has helped you to understand the basics of what habitat gardening is, why it is so important to our ecosystems and how great it can be for humans and wildlife. And, how much of a difference you can make by creating one in your own yard.
Even if it isn’t perfect and you don’t have all the components of your garden in place, it doesn’t matter. You’ve made a start and can learn as you go. It will be yours and your family’s natural refuge where you can watch nature in all it’s beauty, perfection, and imperfection.
You may still have to water it, at least while it establishes, and tend to it periodically, but that is what can make gardening even more fun. Most of all enjoy it and your time spent in it. The pollinators, insects, birds, and other wildlife will love you for it.
Source: City of Calgary
“Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better” – Albert Einstein
-Tricia Striker @backtowildyyc
We hope that you’ve enjoyed Tricia’s article as much as we have, please don’t forget to follow the link to her @backtowildyyc feed on Instagram and hit that follow button. There are so many great tips and reminders for anyone that’s interested in gardening, ecology and wildlife that you won’t want to miss!
-Sara-Jane & Alicia at Virens Studio
Virens is a studio located in Vancouver, Canada, that specializes in Ecological Planting Design, Urban Greening Consultation and Horticultural Writing.
© Virens Studio 2022 (all photos are used for demonstration purposes and do not necessarily belong to us.)
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