Moth caterpillar with bristles to ward off birds! Pic: Vinita
So what then does a garden really denote? For the past year or so I’ve been trying to seek answers to that question. And what I am gradually beginning to learn is, that a true garden is one that supports animal life too. They say a balanced ecology helps in controlling diseases. Not just that, given the rapidly declining forest cover in today’s scenario, small urban gardens are now believed to be critical in contributing to the conservation of animal life.
How to attract butterflies to your garden?
Bangalore based organisation ATREE has developed a butterfly kit. On asking Dr Harini Nagendra (of ATREE) for more information, I was put in touch th Savitha Swamy who helped me. Savitha and her guide can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com with specifics of your garden and depending on the availability of space and other details, they will be able to help you with a customised list of butterfly attracting plants.
How much a garden really contributes to animal-life depends on how and what is planted. Irrespective of the style of gardening one follows, a general rule of thumb would be – a greater variety (for instance, in terms of texture, height or colour) of plants would attract a wider range of wildlife species. There are several garden features that one can add to increase the opportunities for wildlife, but offering food, water, shelter and a place to breed are perhaps the most fundamental.
I spoke recently to Suresh Kumar, co-founder of Vanamitra about supporting wildlife in my garden. He suggested that we start observing visitors to our garden– not with disgust or horror but with the curiosity of a child! Understanding who visits the garden, when they visit and why they visit would enable us to plan the garden better. He also said that we need to start appreciating the work of these visitors in the garden and the beauty of this work in protecting and supporting plants. (eg keeping pest populations in check or helping with seed dispersal).
Suresh adds “After all what is a healthy garden – not just plants but the entire ecosystem around it. The spirit of a garden is to be in touch with nature, within your own premises and appreciate her beauty.”
Recently the Nature Forever Society had also requested citizens to start monitoring the common birds in their vicinity and record them online as a part of their Common Bird Monitoring of India Project. A simple act that requires little or no added effort on our part but will be vital to documenting and perhaps restoring several common species that are presently endangered.
More ideas to support wildlife in an urban garden:
- The female butterfly is usually very selective in the plant she chooses to lay her eggs on and this will be different for each species. Plants essential to the ongoing survival of a particular butterfly species are referred to as the host plant and provide the food requirements for the larvae. Without these essential host plants the particular butterfly species will not be able to reproduce and will therefore disappear from the local environment. Cosmos, lantana, marigold etc attract them.
- Butterflies are fussy eaters and some species will rely on only one or two plant species for survival. Adult butterflies are nectar feeders. Include a variety of nectar producing plants to ensure there is food available in your garden throughout the year. Butterflies have a sharp sense of smell and will travel long distances to reach the plant they detect.
- Visit the local park on a sunny day and observe which plants are being visited by bees and butterflies. Then select plants for your garden that are inundated with a wide variety of visitors.
- Mix four or five different species as a hedge around the garden. On a terrace this could mean planting a row of pots with different species that could include the multivitamin plant, the fig, flowering bushes like jasmine, anota or some berry producing species.
- Grouped pots create a humid micro-climate that will attract wildlife.
- In small garden spaces, a trellis or fence can be used to grow climbers that would act as a nesting site for birds and a space for insects.
- Mulching the plant beds (or pots) with dry leaves will ensure that worms and other invertebrates stay near the surface.
- Long grass provides an excellent habitat for grasshoppers, beetles and insects and is an important food source for caterpillars and butterflies. So those with lawns could think of leaving a section of it uncut!
- If space permits, one could also add a small water feature and introduce frogs/toads in the garden.
- Avoid putting out too much seed at a time in the feeder and make sure you regularly drain out and clean the bird-feeders and bird-baths.
- Avoid placing boxes in direct sunlight or too close to the bird-feeders. Robin boxes need to be placed fairly low, tit boxes at mid-height, while sparrow boxes are said to do well among the climbers.
Vanamitra’s inputs on encouraging birds in your garden
The simplest thing for us to start with would be to fill a wide-mouthed shallow mud pot (like an urli) with water, add a few clean stones at the bottom and keep this in a semi-shaded spot in the garden for birds. Small trees like the gooseberry tree or the Singapore cherry tree also easily attract birds. And in the case of large spaces, a fig tree would work well. Adding bird feeders and nest boxes in the garden is another possibility. Different types of nest boxes need to be placed at a variety of heights to attract different birds.
Not only is observing wildlife in the garden an interesting and fascinating way to spend time, its also fun and useful. Understanding the seasonal patterns and corresponding change in species will certainly help plan and manage the garden better.
Perhaps the biggest learning for me (as someone who tries to grow vegetables in the garden) is that instead of lamenting that my vegetables are being eaten by birds and squirrels what I can do instead is to mark an area in the garden for them (with nest boxes and feeders) so that they find their food and keep away from my vegetables – a win-win situation, wouldn’t you agree?⊕