Native Shrubs in the Wildlife Garden

Release the Super Power

Shrubs are famous for creating year-round interest in the garden, with abundant flowers, unique fruit, brilliant fall color, and sculptural forms in winter. But  native shrubs have a super power. Native shrubs are superior when it comes to creating habitat for wildlife. In both urban and rural settings, these shrubs can supply the food, cover, and nesting sites required for an array of wildlife. You can start to amplify biodiversity in your yard, and release the power of native shrubs, by following a few clues found in nature.

Variety and the Seasons

When it comes to plants, less is not more. More is more!  Pollinators, birds, insects and mammals all derive sustanance from the flowers, fruit, nuts, leaves or wood of native shrubs. Spring and early summer are common flowering times for native shrubs, and the abundant blossoms offer easy and ample foraging for pollinators. The fruit and nuts that develop later are important to migrating birds in the fall. Some shrubs retain their fruit through the winter and provide a critical food source during times of great scarcity. These fruits, possibly not as tasty, are ignored in the fall when other more desirable fruits and seeds are readily available. For example Highbush Cranberry fruits are passed over in the fall, but are a critical food source in the middle of winter for birds that don't migrate. Black Chokeberries can remain on the bush until spring when they are consumed by returning migrants in early spring. To support wildlife and pollinators throughout the year, plant a few different shrub species, whenever room permits.

Combine and Layer

Nesting sites, foraging cover, and shelter – native shrubs are essential to all three of these wildlife needs. Shrubs offer desirable nesting sites for numerous birds. Wrens, thrushes, juncos, and finches all nest in bushes and shrubs. Let nature be your guide and plant your shrubs in groups, rather than individually. You'll create more effective shelter, nesting and foraging opportunities with a grouped planting. A dense hedgerow is multi-functional. It creates a private setting, offers a windbreak and provides desirable cover for wildlife.

The foraging opportunities created with shrubs is further maximized by planting native grasses and flowering perennials adjacent to the shrubs, in order to extend the foraging environment. Foraging opportunies are greatly diminished when shrubs are surrounded by lawn.

A variety of heights creates a layered effect, and this is significant because different birds, and different wildlife in general, will forage for food and seek cover at different heights. Connecting a group of shrubs with an existing taller tree, is both efficient and effective for creating a wide range of heights in a planting. Whenever possible, combine a your shrubs with a tree, and with other perennials, to create a richly layered environment.

Underplanting and Lifecycles

It takes thousands of caterpillars to raise one brood of chickadees.

The native trees and shrubs in your landscape are part of a complex food web. As host plants for countless butterflies, moths and other insects these large woody plants are able to sustain the native caterpillars and insect larva that feed on them. Following their larval/feeding phase, many of these insects will spend the next stage of their life cycle (pupae) in the leaf litter, or in the plant duff, or in the soil beneath the tree. It is critical that the environment beneath trees and shrubs is able to support the completion of these insect life cycles. Surround the trees and shrubs in your landscape with other perennials to immitate nature and create the optimal environment for life cycle support. Underplanting supports the circle of life.

Leave the Leaves

The importance of fallen leaves and other spent plant material, cannot be overstated. Dead plant material is a passive storage phase for energy that is being transformed in the environment. It is a mulch that enriches the soil and feeds other growing plants. It is home and shelter to numerous insects which are critical members of the wildlife community. Nesting birds rely on those insects, and insects are an important food source for many small mammals, as well. Fallen leaves harbor not only pupae and cocoons, but salamnders and toads too. “Leaving the Leaves” is an essential part of creating a beneficial environment.

Dead or fallen trees, branches and trimmed plant material also play a role in the wildlife garden. When room permits, create a brush pile with the dead branches and other plant material to offer shelter and nesting sites for small mammals.

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