Your garden — and wildlife — will thrive without chemicals

Mother Nature’s gardens have endured for eternity without poisons. Yours can, too.

  • Friday, April 29, 2022 1:30am
  • Life

Editor’s note: This is the final article of a series of five stories during April, Native Plant Appreciation Month, about the importance of native plant landscaping in the Snohomish County garden.

Each year, Americans apply millions of pounds of chemicals to their yards. Most of it ends up either in our streams and waterways, making its way up the food web to kill or weaken birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles, or working its way into our homes and bodies via kids, dogs, footprints and air circulation. Of the 40 most commonly used lawn pesticides, 26 have possible or known links to cancer, 21 have been linked to birth defects, 29 have been linked to reproductive effects, and 32 have been linked to liver or kidney damage. As for making our yards wildlife friendly, 39 of these common pesticides have been shown to be toxic to fish and other aquatic life, 33 are toxic to bees, and 28 are toxic to birds.

The truth is, your landscape can flourish without all those chemicals.

In place of fertilizers, a mulching mower can return nutrients back to your lawn. Also, a smaller lawn space is easier to maintain through natural methods, including overseeding, manual removal of weeds and using natural soil enhancers. Gardens can be maintained using natural mulch and ground covers to enhance the soil, reduce erosion and suppress weeds. Bear in mind that Mother Nature has maintained beautiful landscapes for thousands of years without ever resorting to chemicals!

Some homeowners feel compelled to use chemicals to control rodent population. This is a self-defeating approach, as it harms raptors and other predators that naturally keep rodent populations under control. By returning birds to your property, you reduce problems with rodents. It’s also important to eliminate food sources that might attract rodents and make sure your home and crawlspace are free of potential entry points.

If you have a bird feeder, use suet that contains hot pepper. Rodents and squirrels don’t like the pepper, but the birds don’t mind it a bit. Also, bird feed supply stores offer solutions such as trays to catch falling bird seed and squirrel baffles to address issues with rodents and squirrels. The organization Raptors are the Solution has additional information on controlling rodents (www.raptorsarethesolution.org).

One impediment to wildlife that is often overlooked is light pollution. Night lighting interferes with the life habits of many species of insects and birds, especially in the spring and fall migration periods. In fact, 80% of our migrating birds, migrate at night. Replacing outdoor lightbulbs with motion-sensing bulbs is an easy way to reduce light pollution and save on your electric bill at the same time. In our own yard, we enjoy decorative lights on our back deck. But there is no reason to leave those lights on all night long. We programmed a smart plug to turn the lights on in the early evening, and to turn them off around the time we head for bed.

Water features can also make your property more wildlife-friendly. This can be as elaborate as installing a pond or waterfall, or as simple as setting up a bird bath with a small, self-contained circulating fountain. The fountain provides movement that helps attract a variety of birds. If you take this step, be prepared to clean the birdbath on a regular basis.

If you have a tree removed, consider leaving an 8-to-10-foot snag. You’ll enjoy watching your neighborhood birds put it to good use, especially woodpeckers, nuthatches and creepers. You can also retain some or all of the trunk sections to create “loggeries,” or small collections of logs in your garden. Loggeries create habitat for native bees and other insects, as well as salamanders and frogs. As the logs decompose, they can be used as accents in a naturalistic garden design. Chunks of decomposing wood can also be used to create forest-like conditions that will suit native groundcovers such as bunchberry, trilliums and vanilla leaf.

Some may have concerns that decaying wood might create problems with carpenter ants or termites. After more than two decades of loggeries in our yard, we have not had problems with either in our home. Supporting a vibrant bird population can help keep insect populations in check. Also, it’s important to maintain your home and keep soil or branches from contacting the siding of your home. Taking steps on prevention can help you avoid the need to resort to chemicals.

Thanks for taking an interest in making your home space more wildlife friendly. The National Wildlife Federation sponsors a program for self-certifying your yard as a wildlife garden. This can be a great way to get your kids involved, and to share your experiences with others (www.nwf.org).

William McClain of Lynnwood is a member of the Pilchuck Audobon Society. A native Washingtonian, he published his first novel, “The Risk in Crossing Borders,” in 2020 after retiring from a career in benefits consulting. He hopes to publish a second novel set in England during World War II in 2023. HIs interests include hiking, nature photography and playing soccer.

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