Sunday, February 26, 2012

Gardening for Wildlife

This blog claims to be about nature and garden, but the garden side of it has not had a lot of attention since its first couple of years. And since I shifted my focus primarily to birds and other encounters with nature, any gardening posts I have written seem like an abrupt switch of topic.

But there's a reason I subtitled this blog "Nature and Garden in Northfield, MN." It's because I feel that the garden, in its largest sense (not just a vegetable patch or a flower bed, as in common American usage, but a plant-focused environment that we design and manage for our sensory pleasure and leisure use, as well as sometimes for growing food) is absolutely linked to nature. So are farming and the other ways we use or misuse land, and that's one of the reasons I'm passionate about sustainable agriculture and land use policy. Nature isn't something detached from everyday life and food production; they are inextricably linked, and gardens and farms are two of the main places where nature and culture intersect. (Michael Pollan's book Second Nature is a wonderful exploration of this truth.) I've always been repelled by the notion of a garden as completely under human control, where insects (beneficial as well as destructive) and weeds are ruthlessly poisoned for a more "perfect," blemish-free appearance. That's not perfect to me; that's the antithesis of what a garden should be, and in gardens like that the hum of bees and the singing of birds tend to be silenced.

On the page of this blog called The Bookcase that Became a Blog, I wrote:
Penelopedia, the blog, came to be when I realized I had a cluster of interests that seemed to me fundamentally related. The way I realized this? I had a special bookcase near the kitchen that housed all my cookbooks and food magazines, organic gardening books and magazines, frugal living guides, Mother Earth News magazines, and field guides for birds, insects, wildflowers, trees and regional wildlife. That bookcase was essentially a blog waiting to happen. And then I read Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about the pleasures and values behind leaving behind much of the industrialized food system and eating locally and traditionally raised food, and everything seemed to come together: respect for nature, animals, natural and traditional foods, sustainable food production that preserves biodiversity and doesn't abuse animals, simpler ways of life including growing your own food, and the deep importance of place.
We feed birds year-round and have added to our feeding program over time to invite a greater variety of birds to our feeders. Watching birds and learning more about them so I can explain what I've seen have been an easy focus for my interest in noticing the intersections between our daily, distracted human lives and the natural world around us. It seems to me now that the natural evolution of our birdfeeding program is to take what we have learned about birds' needs to make our generously sized yard more of a garden: a place where nature and culture intersect for the benefit of both, where birds and other small creatures can find shelter and sustenance while we humans can enjoy a pleasing view, a peaceful respite, and some home-grown food.

So this year, while planning our most extensive vegetable garden in several years, we're also starting to think more creatively about how we might use our outdoor space in support of the birds I love to photograph and write about. We're already well along that path. There are good features in place, from purple coneflowers and some other native plants, to a few established shrubs (good shelter for birds); to medium-sized and mature trees (and more nearby). We've been using a heated birdbath to provide welcome water for wildlife throughout the winter. And we garden organically for the most part and we never use pesticides in our garden. But there is more we can do.

We're going to get some advice from our friend Mary, a master gardener, editor of Northern Garden magazine, and author of the My Northern Garden blog. And we've been looking at websites like Ecosystem Gardening and the National Wildlife Federation's Garden for Wildlife. I've also been collecting landscaping-for-wildlife ideas (and other gardening and birding links) on Pinterest.

We're leery of taking on a larger project than we can manage in a growing season, so our steps will be modest. But I'm feeling energized by this vision, and I look forward to reporting on our progress.

And so here at Penelopedia, along with plenty of continued birdwatching and phenology and the rest of my typical fare, I hope to weave in a greater focus on gardening for wildlife -- thinking purposefully about how to make our little portion of the outdoors more hospitable to birds, butterflies and other creatures that may pass through. I also welcome hearing about your experiences and any advice you have on creating a more nature-friendly garden.

1 comment:

Carole Sevilla Brown said...

Thanks for the shout-out for Ecosystem Gardening! I came to gardening for wildlife from my love of birds, too. And I realized that each of us could make a huge difference for these birds when we created welcoming habitat for them in our gardens. It's my way of giving something back to wildlife because we've destroyed so much of their habitat. Can't wait to see more photos of the wildlife garden you're creating!