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Don’t forget the animals

By Dan Gill

Although we gardeners mostly focus on plants, we must admit that animals are also a part of our gardens. Many of the animals that inhabit or visit our gardens are never noticed, some are noticed and appreciated, some are decidedly not welcome, and some are tolerated with affection.

Most gardeners never notice the many predatory insects that inhabit our landscapes. (Yes, insects are animals.) Predatory insects eat other insects and often kill and eat the very insects that are damaging our plants. They help our efforts to grow plants successfully by reducing populations of insect pests. Spiders and many species of insects (such as wasps, ladybug beetles, assassin bugs, and lacewings, to name a few) help keep pest insect populations from getting out of hand, generally without the gardener ever noticing. Savvy gardeners utilize techniques that encourage the presence of predatory insects.

While beneficial insects are often overlooked, butterflies and birds are certainly noticed and are generally appreciated in the landscape. Butterflies and flowers are one of nature’s most wonderful combinations. Just about everyone enjoys watching the graceful flight and colorful wings of butterflies in the garden – even to the point of planting special gardens to invite them to stop by.

Birds with bright feathers also bring color and movement to the garden, and they may also be beneficial predators. Many birds feed voraciously on insects, especially when raising a family. Mockingbirds and other songbirds even provide a beautiful soundtrack for the time we spend in our gardens. It is not unusual to see gardens with bird feeders providing seeds and hummingbird feeders providing sugar water to entice feathered visitors.

On the other hand, birds may also bring problems. Flocks of birds can swoop in and eat all of the expensive grass seeds you just spread. Just about anyone who grows tomatoes, figs, strawberries, citrus, or other fruit has experienced birds pecking on and eating the harvest.

In addition to insects and birds, there are a variety of other mammals that cause problems. Common nuisance mammals include rats, raccoons, moles, opossums, squirrels, armadillos, and deer. If you live near water, nutria and beavers may even become an issue. Although snakes do not damage our landscapes, they can certainly affect how comfortable we feel in them.

Insects can be very destructive, but they are small. It generally takes a lot of insects days or weeks to do much damage to plants. A few raccoons, on the other hand, can eat most of your corn in one night, and a few deer can eat entire beds of tulips before you know it. Fortunately, the enormous destructive potential of these mammal pests is not realized in most circumstances. I’ve had armadillos root through beds disturbing and uprooting plants and digging up the lawn. I simply replanted and repaired what they dug up, and they eventually moved on.

Trying to deal with these animals – should you decide you need to control or get rid of them – involves time learning their habits, sustained effort and spending money on barriers, traps, and repellents. Deer are probably the worst of the lot, and I truly sympathize with those gardeners that have major problems with them.

Finally, there are the animals that are tolerated with affection. And what are these? Why, our pets, of course. You know what I mean. It’s your dog that loves to dig up everything you plant and lies on top of your pansies, and it’s your cat that uses your favorite crapemyrtle as a scratching post and your flowerbed as a litter box. Repellents, barriers, and loving discipline (a squirt with a garden hose) may be needed to train pets in garden etiquette.

On the other hand, pets can be wonderful companions in the garden. I had an orange tabby tomcat, named Pumpkin, who was my constant companion when I was out in the garden. And I must admit that I really enjoyed his company. Another point to consider is, for all the trouble they can cause, pets like cats and dogs are often helpful in keeping nuisance animals away.

Gardens are our attempts to construct safe and beautiful outdoor spaces that provide for our needs. But the world does not belong to us, and in some respects, neither do our gardens. Nature, and all the myriad animals it contains, will always be a part of what we create.

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