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The Wildlife-Friendly Garden

July 31, 2018

patio border late JulyI garden in a clearing in the woods in rural Maine. I cultivate perennial gardens pretty intensively in the cleared area adjacent to the house and leave the forested areas around my house wild. This means that much of the wildlife that is at home in and around the forest also makes its way into my garden.

For the most part, I welcome wildlife into my garden. I garden organically (no pesticides or chemical fertilizers), I include many native plants that have co-evolved with native wildlife, and I am tolerant of some damage to plants. I was charmed one day recently to find a small toad hanging out in a blossom of daylily ‘Sarah Scally’ (right). Sarah Scally with toad

I’m thrilled that my garden is busy with pollinators all season long, from the first bees visiting the crocuses blooming through the snow in April to bumble bees snoozing on aster blossoms in October.

crocuses with pollinator alma potschke with bees

monarch caterpillar 2018They are accompanied in their pollinating rounds by flies and hummingbirds and hummingbird hawkmoths and butterflies. While I was working in the garden one day last week, I followed a glimpse of fluttering orange to find a monarch butterfly, the first one I have seen in my garden in at least five years, flitting from milkweed plant to milkweed plant, possibly choosing a place to lay eggs. This morning, I found a monarch caterpillar feeding on milkweed near the back door, a very welcome sight.

I am entertained by the sight and sounds of the birds that visit my garden. One day while I was working at my desk, I looked up to see a pair of robins busily eating the tiny jewel-like fruits from the little pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) tree that grows outside my study. Phoebes are a common sight in my garden, as they busily hunt insects. Especially in the morning and evenings, I relax on the porch to the flute-like songs of thrushes.

A number of mammals also visit my garden. In early summer, when the red maple (Acer rubrum) trees drop their abundant seeds, the chipmunks scurry around sucking them up like little vacuum cleaners. And I am always happy to see foxes in the garden, as they help to keep the rodent population under control.

woodchuck pruned violetsOf course, sometimes my wildlife-friendly garden is a little too friendly, attracting animals that I would prefer to keep at a distance. That has been particularly true this year, when I have been plagued by a woodchuck (or possibly two). The woodchuck is a large herbivorous rodent, a close relative of the marmot, and often called a “groundhog.” I became aware of the woodchuck’s presence several weeks ago. At first, it was mostly eating violets, and I hoped a good pruning at this point in the season might help rein in the exuberant violets. But then the animal moved on to eating my garden phlox and the New England asters in the porch border, and I suspected that it had dug a den under the porch. woodchuck pruned phloxAfter four or five woodchuck-free years, I had forgotten just how frustrating it can be to walk through the garden and find plants that were just beginning to bloom broken and stripped of flowers and foliage. Fortunately, woodchucks tend to have very particular tastes, and only a few plants have been eaten. However, any hope I had that the woodchuck was not making its home in my garden was erased this week when I discovered a large pile of soil beside an entrance to the woodchuck den in my side slope garden.

Just in case my adventure with the woodchuck wasn’t enough wildlife contact for me, my garden has also been visited by deer this summer. Usually the deer come through in the spring when they are very hungry and browse heavily on some favorite plants. But I don’t usually see any sign of them during the summer; deer dinneras long as I walk around the garden every day and leave my scent, they stay away. But one morning recently, I discovered this clump of leafless stems. This is what a hosta looks like after it has been turned into deer dinner. A few days later, the Serenity Garden at the edge of the woods was hit hard, with most of the foliage stripped from goatsbeard, bowman’s root, and viburnum, and other plants (including hosta and astrantia) eaten right down to the ground.

I have two theories about why deer and woodchucks are making themselves at home in my garden this year. First, the populations of both rodents and deer are up. This is most likely because our red oak trees (Quercus rubra) have “masted” two years in a row, meaning that they have produced an exceptionally large number of acorns. All the animals that use those acorns for food (including rodents and deer) have been more likely to survive the winter, creating population pressure on available habitat.

The second reason for more wildlife damage in my garden is loss of habitat. A new house is under construction on my dirt road, and the cutting of trees and excavation of soil has driven out animals that were living there. This includes the fox family that were using a den right beside the construction. They decamped as soon as the commotion began; and although I know they are still in the neighborhood because I occasionally hear them barking during the night, I haven’t seen a fox hunting on my property in many weeks. I believe it was the intimidating presence of the fox family that kept the woodchucks away for the past several years; now that the foxes are gone, the woodchucks feel free to move back in.

Although it is frustrating to walk around the garden in the morning and find damage to plants from these unwanted guests, this is the nature of gardening in my rural woodland setting. Unless I want to fence my garden against the woodchucks and the deer (I don’t), I need to understand that my wildlife-friendly garden will attract some wildlife I would prefer not to have in the garden along with the wildlife that makes gardening in this setting special.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. janesmudgeegarden permalink
    August 1, 2018 2:08 am

    What a lot of visitors you have. I’m guessing a phoebe is a bird? I can’t recall seeing a monarch butterfly or caterpillar since I left my native NZ decades ago, although I do know they are present in Australia. It sounds as though you live in a very special place, Jean.

    • August 2, 2018 7:21 pm

      Jane, Yes, I do have a lot of visitors, especially of the non-human variety, and that is part of what makes this a special place. A phoebe is indeed a bird. It’s a smallish flycatcher that likes to build its nest under the overhangs of buildings and that is comical to watch because, when the birds perch watching for flying insects, they wag their tails up and down.

  2. August 1, 2018 3:25 pm

    I got a chuckle out of some parts of your article. I, too, have been frustrated by the nibbling of deer and rabbits. But, I had a special surprise one day when I lifted some ground hugging branches of a bush to find a baby rabbit hiding. He/she didn’t move so I gently lowered the branches and walked away. I had a Monarch butterfly here last year, but much to my disappointment, no sign of any this year. We love the animals that visit our property and try to make it as friendly as possible and just look the other way at the nibbling!

    • August 2, 2018 7:24 pm

      Kathy, I would find it a bit easier to ignore the nibbling if my garden club wasn’t scheduled to visit my garden in mid-August. I imagined that the big show at that point would be summer phlox; but, oops, the woodchuck has eaten most of the phlox. Oh dear.

      I lost sight of my monarch caterpillar today, but I’m hoping that’s because it has crawled off to a not-obvious location to pupate. Maybe in a few days, I’ll have a fresh new monarch butterfly.

      • August 3, 2018 1:02 pm

        Oh Jean, I can relate. We had a dinner party last week and I wanted to show off my garden. I had several pots of marigolds and annual salvia. Overnight my furry friends ate the salvia right down to a nub and sampled the marigolds. Finding them wanting, they spit the marigolds out leaving dangling plants in their wake. I do hope something blooms to impress your garden club. Maybe the Monarch will have taken flight! Now that would be a special treat.

  3. August 1, 2018 3:38 pm

    Jean, you are officially a Much Better Person than I am. I admire your zen-like attitude toward garden decimation and am working toward achieving something resembling it. I fear that Acceptance is beyond my reach.

    • August 2, 2018 7:37 pm

      I do try to cultivate the attitude of the serenity prayer, asking for acceptance of the things I cannot change, but acceptance of woodchuck raids has taken some work. It helps to remember Doug Tallamy’s dictum that “A plant that has fed nothing has not done its job.” Before I read Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home I used to worry about my plants being eaten; now I worry about the ones that never get eaten. 😉

  4. August 1, 2018 7:07 pm

    I hope another fox family moves in and the balance in your garden is soon restored. While raccoons have been a constant presence (pest) in my garden, I’d counted myself lucky I didn’t have rabbits – until they showed up for the first time this year. A neighbor who’s lived here 20+ years says she’s never seen rabbits until this year. I’m not certain what’s thrown off the local balance but I speculate that, as the coyote population has become more aggressive, more people are keeping cats and dogs inside, opening the territory up to rabbits. How long it’ll take the coyotes to re-set the balance is an open question. But at least the peacocks have generally kept their distance thus far!

    • August 2, 2018 7:49 pm

      Kris, Rabbits are one garden pest we don’t have here, and although there are raccoons in the neighborhood, so far they haven’t raided my garden. (Have you read Michael Pollan’s description of the raccoon raid on his corn patch in Second Nature? He ends by saying, “Compared with the cat burglaries of deer and woodchucks, this looked like the work of the Manson family.”

      I expect the foxes will be back. The owner of the house under construction tells me that he has seen them down on the lower part of the dirt road; they just haven’t been venturing up to this end. They’ll probably be back after all the construction commotion dies down, and I hope to see a vixen with new kits using the den along the side of the road across from my next-door neighbor’s house next spring.

  5. August 2, 2018 6:27 pm

    We have an arum lily frog (not that I’ve ever actually seen one)
    I wonder if your toad is similar, living in flowers by choice.

    • August 2, 2018 7:49 pm

      Diana, I have no idea. I’ve never noticed a toad hanging out in a flower before, but maybe I just wan’t paying attention!

  6. Laura Ouellette permalink
    August 3, 2018 12:13 pm

    Jean – For the first time ever we have had a serious problem with deer and rabbits eating all of my violets and hostas. I went to Lowe’s and found a Deer and Rabbit Repellent. I bought both the granular type, which I sprinkle around the hostas, and the spray, which I applied to the violets. The formula apparently resembles coyote urine, which keeps the foraging animals away. It worked pretty much right away. I applied it once a week for four weeks, just to make sure that the animals know that the salad bar is now closed. Then I am applying it about every three to four weeks to maintain. i know that you don’t want to use chemicals, but this stuff is not harmful to pets or plants, even vegetables. It just makes a “stink” with the deer and rabbits. The odor dissipates rather quickly to the nose, but apparently remains detectable by the animals for a while. Hope this helps!

    • August 4, 2018 7:14 pm

      Laura, Thanks for the suggestions. At this point, I am much more concerned about the woodchucks than about the occasional nibbling of the deer. And I’m more concerned about the large excavation under my garden that the woodchuck seems to be engaged in than in the plants being eaten. Today I called the wildlife S.W.A.T. (Specialized Wild Animal Trapping) team to get the animal (or possibly multiple animals) trapped and relocated. The wildlife control specialist is coming tomorrow with traps.
      On the brighter side, I’ve seen more monarch butterflies in my garden, including one that I saw laying an egg on a milkweed leaf today.

      • Laura Ouellette permalink
        August 5, 2018 3:15 pm

        Jean – Sounds like you really do have a major issue. Good luck with the S.W.A.T. team. And thanks for the beautiful pic of the monarch caterpillar! We’ve never seen one. Laura

  7. Gary permalink
    August 3, 2018 1:05 pm

    I have the same problem Jean. I did spray my hostas with Liquid Fence deer repellent which is rotten egg and garlic based. I try to say as natural and organic as can be. Without that my new hostas wouldn’t survive at all. Voles destroyed my prize coneflowers that I had for decades. I was so disappointed. Heather McCargo from the Wild Seed Project told me that we are all fighting for food. You have to stay philosophical about it. It’s tough sometimes.

    • August 4, 2018 7:18 pm

      Gary, My condolences about your coneflowers. That would be hard to take. At the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, they actually put snap traps out in the fall to catch voles. I try to be philosophical, but as the mound of soil being excavated from the woodchuck mansion has grown larger every day, I’ve decided to have the woodchuck (woodchucks?) trapped and relocated.
      I should try some Liquid Fence on my Serenity Garden next year. As the planting closest to the woods and farthest from the house, it is most likely to suffer significant deer damage.

      P.S. I love the Wild Seed Project.

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