Mike McGrath on Gardening for Wildlife

by Susan Harris
The famous gardening guru Mike McGrath came to  Homestead recently to talk about gardening with wildlife, and here’s my report.  It’s been okayed by Mike himself.  

Ladybugs and other beneficial insects

Mike first gave us a demonstration of how to apply ladybugs to plants.  While acknowledging that the “line” on ladybugs is that they’re all going to fly away, he counters that they won’t if they’re released in the evening (they don’t fly at night) and if you apply them to wet plants – because the purchased bugs arrive in our gardens in a severely dehydrated state.  Adults will eat a few aphids, then breed, producing larvae that will eat 50 aphids a day.

The best plants to grow for attracting beneficial insects from the wild?  Fennel and dill, and Mike suggests letting some of our herbs go to flower for the insects.  In addition to spritzing plants in the morning to provide water for these tiny garden helpers, put water in pebble-filled dishes throughout the garden.  He says if you do this and the neighbors don’t, the good bugs will all come to your garden.

Hold the poisons!

Mike’s an organic gardener and former editor of Organic Gardening Magazine, so we weren’t surprised by his statement that abandoning the use of pesticides is essential to a lively, healthy garden that’s self-sustaining.  Insecticides kill birds and beneficials, and the insects we’re trying to kill have developed resistance to them, anyway.  So Mike says if we stop spraying our gardens, our problems will naturally diminish.  In fact, numerous studies show that plants that are not sprayed produce more food and flower than those that are!

Birds, and Mike’s Thoughts on “Invasive Plants”
First, never feed birds in the summer – they should be eating bugs, and the bird seed we leave out just encourages squirrels, anyway.  (And Mike hates squirrels, which he calls “Satan’s garden spawn”.)  What birds want and need in the summer are water and shelter.

So put out those nesting boxes, preferably on the outskirts of the garden (only chickadees are okay with nesting close to humans).  Bird baths are hugely important in attracting birds, and they should be in the center of the garden.  Just dump and refill them twice a week to avoid breeding mosquitoes.  In summer, a nice clean bird bath will draw more birds than a full feeder.  Over the winter, start filling the feeders again, and be sure to leave any late seedheads standing as natural bird food.

For both food and shelter, evergreens are the best, especially the berry-producing kind, like hollies, beautyberry and winterberry, but also nandina and the barberries that are hated by native-plant enthusiasts.  “If it’s native, great.  If it’s not, I don’t especially care, ” says Mike.   He likes to rattle the folks who create plant “hit lists” and declares that asking, “Is this plant allowed to live or die?” is not gardening.  His advice about “so-called invasives” in your garden?  Watch and see if they’re covered with birds and native pollinators before acting.  And he says if you decide to “off them”, do it without chemical herbicides.

To Mike, most “invasives” are actually self-sustaining survivors whose services to us and the planet include sequestering carbon, managing stormwater, creating oxygen, preventing erosion, and rehabbing bad land, in addition top providing food and shelter for wildlife.  (Sounds like he has lots in common with Harvard biologist Peter Del Tredici, who’s been making waves lately with similar statements about invasive plants, especially in cities.)

Butterflies

Mike first warns that birds love to eat butterflies, so if we want both birds and butterflies in our gardens, we should attract them to different areas.

Next, he endorsed the humble butterfly bush (though they’re often called invasive) because it’s the number one butterfly plant –  and number two and three, too.  (“It’s that good!”).  There can be 600-700 flowers on one spike of a butterfly bush.  Mike advises cutting it back to 6″ from the ground in early spring to keep it in check, but then leaving it alone to become nice and full because its very fullness protects butterflies from birds.   Other great plants for attracting butterflies are Ageratum and Astilbe – the latter is also loved by a highly beneficial miniature wasp.  (Don’t worry, they’re too small to sting us.)

Another great way to attract butterflies is to make some mud puddles and put a little salt in the puddle.  (Who knew?)  And to help the Monarchs, plant milkweed – it’s the host plant for that beloved insect.  For lots more information about butterflies Mike recommends the ButterflyWebsite.com.

Bees

The endangered honeybee is not native to the U.S. or even to Europe – it’s from Africa – but Mike says our gardens don’t need them.  There are over 250 species of native bees in the U.S., ranging in size from the mighty bumblebee and carpenter bee to some that are so small they’re almost invisible.  And the good news is that none of them sting!   And Mike assured us that if we encounter ground-nesting bees in the spring we shouldn’t worry because they’re harmless native bees and great pollinators, so leave them alone.

Ah, but if we have ground-nesting bees in summer or fall, they’re probably yellow jackets, which are highly dangerous wasps (not actually bees at all) that love to sting, and sting repeatedly.  And one nest can hold 10,000 of the nasty critters by the end of summer – yikes.  So Mike says if you see such a nest – again in the summer or fall, not spring – just toss a rock at the hole in the ground from a very safe distance and see what happens.  Native bees will fly away; yellow jackets will attack the rock.

How to get rid of them?  Their nests make them very hard to kill with insecticides, so the best method is suffocation.  Mike’s favorite method is to dump a huge load of motel room-sized ice over the hole in the evening, then cover the area with a tarp weighted down with bricks.  Some brave souls just put a bowl over the hole to smother them, while noted plant expert Dr. Jim Duke uses a sling shot to shoot peanut butter balls at the nest, then just lets the skunks go after them.  Skunks will eat the entire nest, yellow jackets and all – yum!

Toads

Though toads are ubiquitous, we don’t see many of them because they hunt at night.   They just need a water source and damp shady spots to hide during the day.  Mike says to give them that and our toads will eat their own weight in insect pests every night.  If we have a “Toad Abode” or other toad home, we’re reminded to place it in the shade.

Hummingbirds

The secret to attracting hummingbirds is simple: the color red, the color red, and more of the color red, particularly tubular red flowers.  Trumpet vine is one excellent choice.  Feeders are fine, as long as they’re red.  Mike even suggests we perform a “cheap and sleazy trick” to attract more hummingbirds – tying red ribbons around the feeder.

Photo credits: Black bird by Mike Dent.  Monarch butterfly by Martin Labar.  Yellow jacket by D. Griebeling.  Hummingbird by VirgoMerry.

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