You can see this article in the spring-summer edition of Dockside magazine
All winter, our world was a sea of white. In spring, it turned to muddy brown with occasional splashes of green. But now it’s beginning to erupt into a sea of glorious colour.
And if you think you’re happy to see it, just imagine how delighted the wildlife is.
“We find delight in the colourful blooms. Birds and insects find food in them. And pollinators help the plants thrive,” says Karen Tolton, owner of Water’s Edge Landscaping. “It’s win-win-win.”
Planning for food
Ensuring that your colourful landscape also benefits the birds, bees and butterflies can involve a bit of a juggling act, Karen explains. “It’s not just a matter of planting a bunch of pretty flowers and watching the birds thrive,” she says. “You need to think about what species you’d like to attract, and what they need.”
Hummingbirds are a great example. Most hummingbird feeders are painted red, because the colour is known to attract the birds. But colour is only part of it. What really matters to hummingbirds is the shape of the flower and the quantity of nectar it provides.
“Hummingbirds need deep-pocketed blooms that suit their long beaks,” says Karen. “And they need to be able to sip from the blooms while they’re flying.” The flowers also need to provide a lot of nectar – a hummingbird burns around 12,000 calories a day, so it feeds deeply and constantly. Bee balms, columbines, hollyhocks, day lilies and foxgloves are all excellent choices for hummingbirds, regardless of the colour.
To attract hummingbirds, you can also set out some feeders and offer them some water – a splashing fountain or misting feature is something they love.
Butterflies are also heavy nectar feeders, so many of the flowers that attract hummingbirds will also delight some species of butterflies. However, butterflies also benefit from plants with multiple small blooms, particularly if they offer some structure where they can land. Lilacs, phlox, yarrow and Queen Anne’s lace are all popular with butterflies.
Some species have particular plant needs. Monarchs, and the closely-related Viceroy butterflies, do best if they have access to Asclepius plants. (The plant is better known as milkweed, but landscape designers often prefer to use the Latin name. “They’re a highly useful plant with a gorgeous scent,” Karen explains with a chuckle, “and it would be a shame if someone avoided them just because they have the word ‘weed’ in the name.”)
The adults can feed on a great many different flowers, but they will only lay their eggs on Asclepius, which their caterpillars will feed on when they hatch. “Many butterflies are only in their adult form for a few weeks,” says Karen. “If you want to attract them, you need to have plants that their young can use as well.”
Helping the pollinators
Bees are vital pollinators, but they’re in serious decline, and many native species are now endangered. Many gardeners are doing all they can to help them survive.
“Some people still turn to insecticides to get rid of bees,” says Karen. “But they’re beneficial to us for many reasons. Luckily, there are easy, natural ways to ensure the bees can thrive without interfering with your outdoor activities.”
Creative landscape design can ensure that bees and people gather in different parts of the garden. And natural deterrents can be used to keep bees – and other flying insects – away from dining or play areas, without harming them.
“Water’s Edge Landscapes has never used chemical pesticides,” says Karen, “and we never will.”
Return of the natives
Native species are often an excellent plant choice for bees and other pollinators, because wildlife is already adapted to feeding on them. They also tend to be extremely hardy, adapted to Muskoka’s conditions that are just too harsh for many visitors. “We have long, snowy winters and short, intense summers. We can have frost in June, drought in July and August, and frost again in September,” says Karen. “Native plants have evolved to cope with all of that.”
Native plant gardening has come a long way in recent years, too. While the plants haven’t changed, the demand for them has, and growers are meeting that demand by raising native plants at an incredible rate. The team at Water’s Edge now has access to a much wider range of species than ever before, giving them an enormous pallet to work with.
Keep it in bloom
Finally, if you want to attract lots of birds, butterflies and native bees, you should design for constant blooms. That way, as one species begins to fade, another will be just coming in to flower.
“We like to select a variety of plants that bloom from early spring through late fall,” says Karen. “This includes choosing plants of various heights, including flower trees and shrubs, and those with a range of flower shapes and sizes.”
It’s another area where nature’s interests and ours coincide: having a parade of blooms all summer is a feature that delights everyone in the garden, no matter what species you are.