Whether you live on a sprawling estate or in an apartment with just a balcony, you can create a garden that attracts local wildlife.
For the last several years our backyards have been either patios or decks, and so we have become container gardeners.
Almost any plant can be raised in a container, including small trees. Containers are portable, making design easier, and they make it easier to control watering, especially in a drought conditions. Container gardening may require a bit more effort, because as plants grow and become root bound, they need to be repotted - but more time in the garden means more enjoyment.
All creatures require food, water, shelter and a place to raise their young. As urban sprawl sprawls there is less and less natural habitat for wildlife. By providing these things you not only help wildlife survive, you simultaneously help the environment.
Probably the most important thing to consider is the particular kinds of creatures you wish to attract, recognizing their needs, and understanding that not all critters live compatibly. Local garden centers are very useful resources for this information.
Since our fascination is primarily for butterflies, hummingbirds, and song birds, we have built an environment catering to their needs. Our patio is divided into two main areas. One area is designed attract butterflies and feed adults, while providing a food source for their young. The second area is for more general flora, which has habitat for resting birds, geckos, and an additional source for all things nectar.
Song birds look and sound beautiful, and many are easily attracted with seed feeders. You need to place the feeder strategically so as to not make it easy for predators.
There needs to be a place to rest and hide close by. It's helpful to put out a bird house, providing shelter. With a little luck it will be inhabited, and you might get to see a pair raise their young.
A Note of Caution - Birds are messy eaters and if you place a seed feeder on a balcony or terrace it requires a willingness to consistently clean up - keep in mind that seed feeders can attract less desirable critters.
Song birds feed their young with insects, so it is necessary to supply host plants for insects. We principally grow native plants, because beneficial insects may not be attracted to or may be killed by non-native plants. I cannot stress the importance of using native plants, because the plants we grow are responsible for the health of animals that live in our yards. Again, your local garden center is a good resource for information on this.
Butterflies are nectar feeders. They are attracted to colorful flowering plants from which they get nectar. However, adult female butterflies will only lay their eggs on very specific plants, which serve as food for their young.
For instance, the gulf fritillary feeds on passionvines. Monarch butterflies will lay their eggs on any of the varieties of milkweeds, but only milkweeds.
Some species of butterflies lay their eggs on some of our favorite herbs, like parsley, dill, fennel & mustard, which are food for their caterpillars, which double as additions to our cooking.
However, if we see a caterpillar feeding, it has priority. And, some specifies of the magnificent swallowtail butterflies prefer citrus.
Caterpillars have veracious appetites and can rapidly denude a plant of its leaves. While the leaves will come back in time, you will need to rotate supply of food plants.
Watch the caterpillars morph into a chrysalis - the cocoon stage - which are themselves unique. Monarch chrysalises look like a piece of hanging jade with a golden border, and a week or 10 days later - out pops an adult butterfly.
There is a certain simpatico between butterflies and hummingbirds, as they often take nectar from the same flowering plants.
Hummingbirds are ubiquitous, relatively easy to attract and keep around if you hang out hummingbird feeders in addition to having flowering plants. Feeders can be purchased almost any place that sells seed or bird supplies. The feeder is filled with a simple 4:1 mixture of water to sugar - no food coloring is necessary. Most experts think it is harmful to the birds. Hummingbirds also need to feed on insects for protein, but they fend for themselves.
Among the amazing facts about these little birds: not only are they the tiniest birds in the world and can weigh less than a penny, they can hover like a helicopter, and also fly at nearly 60 miles an hour. Hummingbirds can be territorial especially during breeding season, but their aerial acrobatics while chasing each other are amazing.
A Note of Caution - In warmth, the mixture of sugar and water in the feeder will quickly ferment and mold can form inside the feeder. This can be quickly fatal to the birds. Feeders require frequent cleaning and changing of the sugar and water mixture. If you are not willing to regularly clean the feeders, particularly when in warm weather, please do not hang a feeder - consider 3 times per week if it is hot.
All life needs water, so it is important always have fresh clean water available. It is also important to understand that particular sources of water can be dangerous to different kinds of animals. Butterflies, for example, like to drink from wet sand—if their wings get wet they cannot fly, making them easy targets for predators. A bird bath can be a great source of drinking water for birds, and watching them bathe is great entertainment.
We always place a rock in the middle of the bird bath that extends above the surface just in case smaller critters venture by for a drink. In fact, pollinators such as honey bees frequently perch on the rock to drink.
Moral of the Story
Creating a habitat for local wildlife is not only helping wildlife survive and supporting the environment, at the same time it's an enjoyable thing for you. Let us not forget, gardening, and container gardening in particular can also be a cathartic experience for you.
If, however, you are not willing to invest ongoing time and effort necessary to provide for the needs of the animals you attract, it is not a good idea to encourage wildlife to your yard.