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Minter: Our gardens as natural habitats

Diversity is key to creating a welcoming environment for animals and insects that rely on flowers for food, says master gardener Brian Minter.
Bee gathers pollen from a flower. | File photo

Attracting hummingbirds, butterflies, pollinators and birds to our gardens has become a significant gardening activity. Much like their natural habitats, our gardens can become an important source of food, water and shelter.

However, it means more than just adding a few plants that produce their favourite foods, as well as nectar and pollen.

Providing even a small habitat involves creating not only multiple food and water sources but also a safe environment with shelter from extreme weather and ways of escaping predators.

Diversity is the key and can be achieved by having a few deciduous trees, some evergreens, a number of grasses and a variety of flowering shrubs and perennials that bloom in sequence over an extended period of time, even into winter.

Numerous sources of water, especially shallow birdbaths and small ponds are very important, too.

Grassy areas also play a role. Lawns with clover and wildflowers are a source of worms for birds, and the clover and wildflower blooms provide food for butterflies.

Berries are often missing in today’s gardens, which is unfortunate because they not only add fall and winter colour, but they can also provide a significant food source for the birds that stay all winter.

Berried pyracanthas and cotoneasters can be used as fences, wall coverings and even ground covers. The red or gold berries of the deciduous holly (Ilex verticillata) are the number one favourite berry that birds absolutely love. As an added bonus, the attractive stems of this ilex are highly valued for their use as accents in winter containers.

Annuals, too, add long summer colour to a garden, and by choosing a few different varieties, you can dramatically increase the pollen and nectar factor.

The new annual salvias, like "Summer Jewel" and Proven Winners "Rockin’ Series" are excellent for attracting hummingbirds and bees. Old-fashioned cosmos, alyssums and even snapdragons are great attractors. The most hummingbird-friendly plants of all are the many varieties of cuphea, especially "Vermillion," a Proven Winners’ variety.

Even vegetables can be a great source of pollen and nectar. By allowing a few early brassicas to go to seed, they are some of a pollinator’s favourite treats — so too are dill and many herbs, like rosemary. Tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers all benefit from having pollinators in your garden.

Perennials, especially the long-blooming ones, like agastaches, nepetas, monardas, salvias, veronicas and fall sedums are a steady source of food for pollinators.

It takes just a little extra effort to turn a traditional garden into a bird-, butterfly- and bee-friendly space.

Now’s a great time to begin.