Monday, February 14, 2011

Habitat Concepts 101

layers and layers of habitats         

This is a photo of  (mostly) undisturbed habitats at Nygren Wetland in Northern Illinois-late October. You can't get to this spot on your own because we distrust unsupervised humanity in
♪ ♫Nature♫♫ these days, so I will give you a brief tour and identify a few of the sexier habitats that can be adapted to attract ♫ ♫ Nature♫ ♪ to your garden.

Begin at the sky and step down....very tall trees, then an understory of shrubby plants, below that, plants and grasses, mud and water.  Here is amazing wealth: every level supports thousands of interrelationships between birds, insects, mammals, plants and each one essential to the welfare of them all.  It's a lovely system; the best sort of garden...needing nothing from us.

The first habitat lesson to adapt to your home garden:  diversity in everything beginning with the height of the plants.  A garden ecosystem is vertical too, with some species of birds or insects, butterflies/moths preferring different "altitudes" for breeding, feeding and resting. 

a frog finds a habitat to nap in

Hang a basket or provide a trellis for vines to vary habitat heights in your garden. Be grateful for your neighbor's maple tree even while you're cleaning the seed from the gutters.  The Dragon Wing begonia in the photo above provides water in the leaf nodes, lots of secret spaces to hide in as well as a sunwarmed platform for camouflage.

Don't stop at a nectar or seed feeder for birds.....provide sheltered nesting space.
The purple finches nest in this prickly blue spruce every spring.
a landscaping nursery is excellent habitat....huge diversity of species; there's something for everybody
There's not much in a conifer for finches to eat, but it's excellent shelter for babies while the parents prefer the open branches of deciduous trees for lookout.

And remember this: before you can have a butterfly garden, you must have a caterpillar garden.  The monster above is the scary  hornworm who can reduce your tomato or pepper patch to nothing but sticks and twigs almost overnight.  But if you run screaming for an insecticide, you will never have this:
What a hornworm becomes if you don't kill it.  A Sphinx moth, nocturnal pollinator
The Sphinx moth imitates a hummingbird except that the hummingbirds are home in bed when the moth comes out for breakfast.  The Sphinx moth caterpillar is another kind of habitat himself.  If you see one that looks like this:
Sphinx moth caterpillar as habitat for somebody else 
...he is doomed.  The monster is full of parasitic wasp larvae eating him alive.  (Yes, I can manage a sympathetic cringe for the poor thing, but only briefly.  He got this fat on my sweet red peppers.)  The hornworm is now habitat for our organic bioweapon pals.  Leave him here to provide food and shelter for the parasitic wasp who will be waiting for the next generation of bad boys. But while the larvae require live meat to develop, Mama Parasitic Wasp has a gentler appetite....the wise gardener will provide something like this for her:
Native New England Aster-late blooming high nectar habitat plant
The asters will  provide a rich seed source for winter birds, shelter for many beneficial insects and a high energy meal for migrating butterflies like the Monarch.  Some gardeners see this as messiness in the landscape even though it's actually a highly ordered ecosystem with each species that uses the patch occupying an essential niche.  That's a habitat rule that you may have to adapt your eyes to see and value; complexity=diversity=health. 


  1. Those baby finches are just too cute.
    The hornworm habitat, not so much.

  2. There were 6 babies in that little nest...sort of a third world country for finches.

    Re that pathetic hornworm....who said something something something nature red in tooth and claw?

  3. LOVE this post! Gorgeous images complimenting the concept


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