Creating a wildlife garden is an enormously appealing endeavor. You begin by poring over gardening books and catalogs, making lists of exciting new plants to try. It doesn't take much to imagine yourself sitting in a yard transformed into a peaceful oasis filled with bird song, the stresses of the day slipping away as you watch a hummingbird sipping nectar from a clump of scarlet penstemon.
But before you grab your plant list and head out to your local nursery to load up on wildlife-friendly plants, take time to develop a design for your new garden. A good garden design can mean the difference between a yard that's a chaotic, albeit colorful, tangle of plants, and a lovely nurturing outdoor space where both birds and people feel welcomed.
Oregon Grape: A native evergreen shrub with four-season interest in the garden. Fragrant yellow flowers in spring, and berries in the fall and winter that are much beloved by robins, thrushes and waxwings.
Penstemon: A perennial at the top of the list of hummingbird favorites. Long (May to October) bloom season, many different varieties with colors ranging from pinks and reds to blues and purples.
Liquidambar: A deciduous shade tree. Nice grouped in small groves, great fall color, and the seeds are relished by goldfinches and siskins.
Butterfly Bush: Not just for butterflies! Hummingbirds love it, too. Sturdy and fast-growing, with a long bloom season. Lynn Funk recommends the dwarf varieties for smaller yards, "They're a much more manageable size for town gardens." Make sure you purchase a named cultivar from a nursery. Some older varieties are so vigorous they made Oregon's noxious weed list.
Coreopsis: Long-blooming perennial. The flowers are a popular nectar source for butterflies, and the seeds are used by a variety of birds during fall and winter.
Flowering Currant: Native deciduous shrub with rosy pink blooms in early spring that hummingbirds enjoy, and berries in the summer and early fall.
"One of the biggest challenges in designing any garden is walking the fine line between unification and diversity," says Medford landscape architect Bonnie Bayard. "Too much unification and your landscape looks drab and boring. But if there's too much diversity, the landscape tends to look jumbled and chaotic, not restful and peaceful."
Bayard teaches garden design classes to homeowners in Jackson and Josephine County, and she says, "My students are used to hearing me say 'unify your landscape first, then add diversity.' I like to use trees and groundcovers as the unifying elements in my designs." In a wildlife garden design, explains Bayard, trees establish the overall pattern of your design. Bayard also recommends using a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees. "People and wildlife both need this kind of diversity. Birds need different types of trees for food and nesting places, and people just really enjoy the way the different types of trees look when combined in a landscape."
If trees are the bold brush strokes of your garden design, perennials, shrubs and annuals are the bright accents that introduce diversity into your wildlife garden. These plants are the most common sources of food for wildlife visiting your garden, and you'll want to provide a variety of plants to meet their food preferences. Hummingbirds and butterflies drink nectar from brightly colored flowers, goldfinches and sparrows are seed eaters, and birds such as robins, thrushes and orioles love berries and fruit. It's worth noting that almost all songbirds feed insects to their young during the nesting season when insects are most abundant in your garden, so your wildlife garden design will come with its own built-in pest control system, without ever having to resort to using pesticides (a big no-no in any wildlife garden).
While you're planning your mix of shrubs and perennials, remember that birds are hungry all year, not just during the spring and summer months. Look for plants that provide some type of food — flowers, seeds or berries — year-round. Bayard also suggests buying multiples of shrubs and perennials, and using these plants in groupings throughout your yard to establish a rhythm and repetition in your design.
One thing that humans and wildlife readily agree on is the importance of including a water feature in your wildlife garden design. Lynn Funk, of Lynn's Living Designs in Grants Pass, says she makes a point of including water features in her garden designs. "The sound of moving water is a wonderful thing. It's soothing to people and it really draws wildlife into your yard," says Funk. "Even small yards usually have room for a pond or a small waterfall." Funk also recommends placing a garden bench near your water feature, so you can sit quietly in your garden, enjoy the sound of the water and watch the birds as they come to drink and bathe.
"I also like to put a lot of winding paths in my gardens," says Funk. "I think it's really important for people to enjoy wildlife gardens as much as the wildlife does. Paths encourage you to stroll slowly through your gardens, and with a little advance planning, there's room for a path in even the smallest garden."
Follow these basic garden design tips and you'll be well on your way to creating the wildlife garden you've imagined; a welcome sanctuary for both you and your wild neighbors.