Goldenrod

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.), are known to host 125 species of butterflies and moths, making them especially valuable to include in your planting plan.

Planting a garden to foster wildlife has become a very popular mission among environmentally aware gardeners. Not so long ago “pest-free” was the gardeners’ goal for their landscapes. More recently, though, we’ve realized that a landscape without insects is also a landscape without the birds that feed on them, and a landscape without the pollinators that ensure fruitfulness and the reproduction of our plants. Our view of our outdoor spaces has become much more inclusive.

Still, changing course in this fashion is challenging. Recalibrating our gardens to attract insects, birds, and other wild creatures involves considerable research into the types of plants native to the region, plants that coevolved with the wildlife and are best adapted to feeding and hosting them. Not all native plants are equal in this respect, either. There are the so-called “keystone” species that support especially large numbers of butterflies and moths, the insects that produce the caterpillars that are essential food for songbird chicks. Goldenrod (Solidago spp.), for example, are known to host 125 species of butterflies and moths, making them especially valuable to include in your planting plan.

Of course, the plants you select must also be compatible with the conditions of your site. Then, too, you’ll want to combine them in a way that pleases the eye — a garden is not just the birds and bees. Finally, you’ve got to find sources for the plants you need, and this can be complicated, as few local nurseries stock native plants.

Fortunately, there is help available. Indeed, the National Wildlife Federation has launched a new departure for its “Garden for Wildlife” program that makes the process easy.

Founded in 1936, the Federation is one of the nation’s largest private, non-profit conservation, education and advocacy organizations with over 6 million members and supporters. It’s been involved in promoting wildlife gardening since 1973, encouraging anyone with a scrap of land at their disposal (or even just a balcony or patio with containers) to cultivate gardens that will host and support wildlife. Gardeners, who fulfill a checklist of criteria, can register their plots as “Certified Wildlife Habitat.” There are currently 265,000 such certified habitats across the United States; applications more than doubled during the pandemic year. Recently, though, the organization has gone a step farther and has begun to supply the gardens themselves.

Mary Phillips, the head of the Garden for Wildlife program, directed me to log on to gardenforwildlife.org to begin the process of obtaining one of these ready-to-plant gardens. After entering my zip code to establish the location of my garden, I was taken through a process of identifying what I wanted from my garden. I clicked on “To Grow Food,” though I was also attracted by “Create and Outdoor Oasis of Beauty and Relaxation.”

I next identified the type of garden site: “Detached Home,” and typed in that I would be gardening by myself rather than with children, a group, or a neighbor. I didn’t find an opportunity to admit that my wife will be the mainstay of the garden in many respects.

I submitted the information that I have a large garden, and that the location within it that I am considering is sunny and dry, and was rewarded with the recommendation of two plant collections, one of three types of plants, six in total, and the other of four types of plants, 12 in all. All plants are of keystone species. The prices for the two collections seemed reasonable, especially because, according to Phillips, the plants are delivered with a garden design and instructions for planting, as well as follow-up emails that list the types of wildlife one may expect to visit the new garden. She also assured me that all such plants are delivered chemical-free, so there won’t be anything in them that might harm insects or other wildlife that might feed upon them.

The “Garden for Wildlife” initiative only began this spring and, as of this writing, it offers gardens for just 20 states and the District of Columbia. Plans are in place, however, to extend it nationwide. The initiative also calls for sourcing the plants from growers within the same ecoregions in which they will be planted, so that they will be truly native.

Doing the right thing, in short, has never been easier, at least for gardeners.

For more information about the “Garden for Wildlife” initiative, listen to a conversation with Mary Phillips on the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Growing Greener podcast at thomaschristophergardens.com/podcasts/ready-to-plant-custom-designed-wildlife-gardens

Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or coauthor of more than a dozen books.