Berit Erickson- Homeowner, Gardener, Wildlife Enthusiast
“While I knew that adding native plants to the yard would help wildlife, I didn’t realize that we’d enrich our lives as well. We quickly attracted so many birds, butterflies and bees, and each year we see an increasing diversity. Last summer, we added a circulating pond and stream, which has attracted more birds, especially during migration. I feel encouraged and empowered that I can make a difference. “
Photographs: Corner Pollinator Garden
Q.1. Describe your garden -how big is it, where is it located and what are the light conditions?
We’re lucky that we have a large lot, about 50’ x 200’. Our yard includes several gardens in different conditions -- all of which have changed over the past 20 years as some trees grew larger and others died.
The front yard is almost all garden now. Two years ago, we lost an old cedar tree in an ice storm, so I ripped out the patchy grass near the sidewalk to create a full-sun pollinator garden. Closer to the house, there is an older garden in dry shade, beneath mature spruce and oak trees. Recently, I began adding native woodland plants, understory trees, and shrubs to create a private, ‘secret’ garden.
Over the years, I gradually turned the large backyard into a series of garden rooms. We have a sunny terraced garden right behind the house, a pond and stream, a woodland garden surrounding the oval of lawn, a mini-meadow, a new vegetable garden, and a mixed hedgerow at the very back. I am now making the garden boundaries more formal to contain the increasingly naturalistic, mostly-native plantings. Like most gardens, it is still a work-in-progress, but so far I’m thrilled, as are the birds, butterflies, and bees.
Q. 2. How did your concern for climate change and other environmental issues influence the type of garden you wanted to create?
Over the past few of years, I’ve found the news stories about climate change, habitat loss, and declining insect and bird populations upsetting. I used to think that governments would take care of things and do what’s right. Now I’m not so sure, especially with the political changes around the world, as well as here in Ontario. Instead of feeling helpless and hopeless, I decided to start changing what I can -- like my yard.
Over the past 20 years, we lost four trees in our yard, and neighbours lost four Ash trees, none of which were replaced. Now, I’m adding new trees to store carbon, and eventually provide cooling shade during the rising summer temperatures. The trees are almost all native: hackberry, basswood, birch, red maple, and various crabapples.
I’m also trying to provide new habitat for wildlife to help compensate for the loss of their natural habitat. The Fletcher Wildlife Garden, as well as recent gardening books*, demonstrate that native plants are essential. My new pollinator garden includes lots of native plants, as well as other pollinator-friendly plants I already had. I’m also adding native shrubs and perennials in other areas of the front and back yards.
Q. 3. On your website, you make the point that your life has been transformed by the act of creating and tending your garden. Can you describe in what ways it has been transformed?
While I knew that adding native plants to the yard would help wildlife, I didn’t realize that we’d enrich our lives as well. We quickly attracted so many birds, butterflies and bees, and each year we see an increasing diversity. Last summer, we added a circulating pond and stream, which has attracted more birds, especially during migration. I feel encouraged and empowered that I can make a difference. I now spend a lot of my spare time encouraging others to do the same.
I didn’t have much experience with nature growing up, so I’ve found the birds and insects quite interesting, and even entertaining. Our whole family enjoys the wildlife so much that we now visit parks and trails frequently, and joined the Ottawa Field Naturalists Club.
Our yard is a much calmer and more beautiful place now. We want to spend more time there listening to the water and bird song, watching bees moving from one flower to another, and seeing butterflies drift around. I think it’s good for our mental health.
I also feel a lot more hopeful about the future, and I see the potential in every yard. We’re at a critical crossroad. If we don’t make positive changes in how we treat the environment, we’ll cause irreversible damage. I’ve just discovered the fascinating beauty of our native plants, insects, and birds, and I now realize what we risk losing. When other people see and learn about the daily life of insects and birds, they will also be more motivated to help the environment.
Of course, governments and corporations also still need to do their part. It will take more than individuals and their urban gardens to halt climate change, and protect and restore large areas of natural habitat. I will vote accordingly, and I now shop less and buy more thoughtfully.
Q. 4. How is your garden tailored to meet the habitat needs of native bees and other pollinators?
When we think of pollinators, European honey bees first come to mind. I don’t have a honey bee hive, and you don’t need one either in order to help pollinators. My garden is for all kinds of pollinators, including native bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, flower flies, and the honey bees that visit too.
Bees need flowers for food. I’ve added nectar and pollen sources from early spring to fall, so they always have something to eat. While adult butterflies also drink nectar from flowers, their caterpillars only eat leaves of specific, and usually native, host plants. Without those native plants, butterflies can’t reproduce.
I also provide nesting sites for native bees. Many nest in the ground, so I leave areas of bare ground, free of mulch and landscape fabric. Other bees nest in cavities, such as plant stems or tunnels in wood. So far, I have avoided bee hotels because their dense housing can encourage parasites and diseases to spread -- unless they are cleaned and components are replaced each year.
I am also leaving areas of the yard less tidy than I used to. For instance, I keep leaves on the ground to decompose naturally and I have created a brush pile.
Q. 5. From your perspective, why is it important to plant native plant species as opposed to non-native ones?
In my early gardening days, I planted purely for aesthetics, making attractive combinations out of all the latest plant introductions. In hindsight, I might as well have bought plastic plants because most had no value to wildlife.
Our native bees, butterflies, and birds evolved with native plants, and adapted to eat native plants. We all know the familiar example that Monarch caterpillars can only eat milkweed. Similarly, migrating birds depend on the high-energy, native dogwood and viburnum berries to fuel their long flights. Without native trees that host hundreds of kinds of insects, birds lack food during their return in spring.
Native plants are multi-tasking super plants that support so much life. Back to the milkweed... there are also other insects that depend on milkweed, such as Red Milkweed Beetles, Large Milkweed bugs, aphids and the ladybugs that feed on them, and Milkweed Tussock Moths. Late-nesting Goldfinches use milkweed fluff to line their nests, and other birds will use the fibres inside swamp milkweed stems to make their nests next spring. I’m always amazed when I research a native plant, all the different insects they support, and in turn all the other wildlife that eats those insects. Native plants are the foundation of food chains -- so without the native plants, there won’t be native wildlife.
Q. 6. You’ve launched some educational initiatives related to your garden - can you describe what those initiatives are?
In my garden, I can see right in front of me that I am making a difference to wildlife. I want to help others do the same. Many people stop to talk with me when I’m working in the front pollinator garden -- it’s clear that there’s a lot of interest. I made a brochure to place in the garden for when I’m not there.
I gave a few slideshow presentations, and made a web site to provide more information. This summer, I added blog posts about interesting things I see and learn. Blogs aren’t as popular as they used to be though. I need to become more active on social media to share the wonders of my habitat garden more widely.
Also, this spring, I helped plant a butterfly garden at Churchill Alternative School. This is a great opportunity to teach and share with students and their families.
Q. 7. What are some of the things you’ve learned about nature and/or ecological processes as you’ve observed your garden?
I’ve discovered so many interesting things! I am still astonished that many native bees nest in the ground, and that I never knew this. In fact, I’ve seen them digging nests, guarding them, and flying into them loaded with pollen. I also learned that there are many specialist bees that only collect pollen from specific host plants to feed their larvae. I am trying to add more host plants for both butterflies and specialist bees.
I was also surprised to learn that dragonflies migrate, and many butterflies don’t. These butterflies overwinter here in one of their life stages, such as a caterpillar hidden under leaves or a chrysalis camouflaged on a branch. This is one reason to avoid cleaning up gardens in the fall; you may end up removing next year’s butterflies.
I had no idea that most songbirds only feed their babies insects. If you don’t have native plants that host the moths and butterflies, and house other insects, you won’t have baby birds. In Bringing Nature Home*, entomologist Douglas Tallamy says that it takes a whopping 6,000 caterpillars to rear a clutch of chickadees.
Q.8. What are some of your favourite birds, butterflies or other species that have visited your garden?
My favourites change depending on what I see and learn each day. Right now, we’re seeing Monarchs daily, both males and females. They visit different flowers for nectar and the females have been laying eggs. I’ve even watched their in-flight courtship, mating, and seen them roosting in trees for the night. Since only a small percentage of eggs make it to the adult butterfly stage, my son and I brought a few eggs inside to protect and observe. It’s been fun watching the caterpillars grow, and one will be forming a chrysalis soon.
Chickadees have been bringing juveniles to the yard recently, so I’ll say they’re my current favourite bird. I love hummingbirds too, but they don’t visit very often. While I have lots of red tubular flowers for nectar, I don’t have suitable nesting habitat yet, or enough plants attracting small insects for them to eat. As I grow more native shrubs and perennials, hopefully they’ll hang around more in the future.
Bumblebees are my favourite kind of bee. They’re gentle, furry, constant companions in the garden – or should be. There were weeks in June and July when I had no bumblebees at all, and the yard was a lonely place without them. They’ve had a difficult year with the cold, late spring and the very hot summer. Bumblebees can only forage when temperatures are between about 15C and 35C. Sadly, they seem to be the climate-change canaries of the garden. I’m relieved that I do have lots of bumblebees visiting my garden now.
Q.9. From your discussions with neighbours and visitors to your garden, do you think there’s growing interest in supporting wildlife through gardening?
I do think there’s a lot of interest in gardening for pollinators, and wildlife in general. I’ve given out hundreds of brochures in the garden and at events. I have also heard from a few people who are creating or adapting their own gardens.
This summer, I’ve also hosted tours for local horticultural societies and other interested gardeners. Visitors do seem inspired and enthusiastic about adding more plants for pollinators and birds.
Unfortunately, native plants aren’t that easy to find. You have to do a bit of planning. On my web site, I include a list of native plant and seed sources, and their specifics. Local nurseries may have some native plants as well, but it’s hit or miss.
Q.10. Finally, do you have a favourite tree in your garden? If so, what species is it and why do you appreciate it?
Well, in the front yard, the huge spruce tree is pretty majestic. From underneath, its branches remind me of flying buttresses in a Gothic cathedral. Of course, its cones provide food for birds, as does the insect life that it supports. It also provides precious shade and blocks our view of traffic at our busy corner.
In the back yard, we have a lovely mature sugar maple. I added a red maple to the yard as well because it has a long, early bloom period and feeds hungry, early-emerging bees. Since the tree is still small, I have good, eye-level view of its red sparkler-like flowers and the bees that visit them.
I feel so lucky to have discovered native plants, insects and birds. Better late than never! I’m happy that I can share them with my family, and with others.
*Gardening book recommendations, all available at the Ottawa Public Library:
Planting in a Post-wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West
Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change, by Larry Weaner
The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden, by Rick Darke and Douglas W. Tallamy
Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens, by Douglas W. Tallamy
A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Compassion for an Uncertain Future, by Benjamin Vogt
Gardens of the High Line: Elevating the Nature of Modern Landscapes, by Piet Oudolf and Rick Darke
Planting: A New Perspective, by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury