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Lend a helping hand to backyard critters-and they'll reward you in spades.

It was hard to keep our eyes off the window during supper-it seemed we weren't the only ones who were hungry.

A snowshoe hare hopped about, happily munching dandelion leaves on the lawn, while a ruffed grouse wandered around pecking at leaves and bugs. Suddenly both stopped and stared over the bank. A moment later a mischievous masked face appeared, and a young raccoon ambled across the yard to inspect the feeder for its dining potential. Hare and grouse resumed feeding.

Wild critters can be a captivating part of yard and garden landscapes, and enhancing your property to attract and accommodate them can be fun. Although animals and birds can sometimes present challenges for gardeners, many times they are beneficial, by helping with pollination and by being good pest control officers.

Our yard habitat was planted on heavy clay dug up during the basement excavation. Wild animals avoid bare ground, preferring dense vegetation to hide in, under or behind. Native plants are easy to acquire and many grow seeds and fruit. I found tree species like beaked hazelnut, red osier dogwood, Indian pear and others on the property. While transplanting I also added quince and lilacs that had been "family" for three generations. Decades later this mix has grown into a series of dense thickets that provide travel corridors, escape cover and resting sanctuaries for rabbits, mice, squirrels, chipmunks and a host of birds.

As trees and undergrowth play a vital role for many wild creatures, I planted long-lived and shade-tolerant Acadian forest seedlings under the existing poplars, spruces and birches. Now, red oaks supply acorns, and American beech trees drop beechnuts. Maples and ashes shower their winged seeds. A series of planted softwoods afford protection from the wind and provide cones with seeds. To minimize potential insect problems, I planted several kinds of pine and spruce, eastern cedar and hemlock.

Birds seek out mature softwoods for roosting or sleeping shelters. It's best to create multiple softwood habitats with several roosting options-a single tree can become a trap if it's regularly visited by avian predators like weasels.

In the mid-1600s, Nicholas Denys wrote that he found walnut/butternut trees in the Digby area of western Nova Scotia. Butternut is also common along the St. John River in New Brunswick. Twenty years ago I planted black walnut trees in northeastern Nova Scotia. Their walnuts are highly prized by chipmunks, red and flying squirrels and others.

Few of the existing trees on our property were old enough to offer holes or cavities for wildlife. In lieu of old tree habitats, I built and erected nest boxes.

Rock walls enhance the aesthetics of lawns and gardens, but I've built a number of them because they also offer an important wildlife habitat. Each wall becomes a small fortress to armour a hole or den occupied by animals such as chipmunks. If walls are not an option, a simple pile of rocks will suffice. Rock piles warm up when exposed to the sun. In turn, this warmth can attract snakes. The Maritimes have only non-poisonous snakes, which are potentially helpful to gardeners. One small rock pile that I moved several years ago was a real snake "condo," harbouring Maritime garter snakes, northern ringneck snakes and northern redbelly snakes. Northern redbelly snakes and eastern American toads should be heralded by gardeners as slug-slurping allies.

Toads have a habit of roaming about mainly at night zapping slugs and bugs with an amazingly long and sticky tongue. Over three months a toad eats about 10,000 insects like cutworms. They use specially developed hind feet to shuffle themselves into loose soils and hide during the day. Gardeners can accidentally dig up and injure toads while weeding. One solution is to place a toad house in a shady garden spot. Inverted clay pots with a large chip out of their lips can avert a toad 911-and such shelters tend to be quickly adopted. Fancier digs for toads are available from garden supply centres.

Northern leopard frogs occupy grassy areas and gardens during the summer. They consume a wide variety of insects, including "problem" bugs like ants and craneflies. To encourage leopard frogs we dig shallow trays into garden beds under shade plants, and keep these watered during droughts. Watering a tray often means wetting a frog, which sits quietly enjoying the "rain."

Bird baths on stands or hung from a porch or tree are a safer arrangement for winged visitors if predators like cats are on the prowl. I place the stand beside a thicket, so potential bathers can organize in the cover of the bush and take pecking-order turns hopping in and out of the bath. Chipmunks and squirrels learn to use the branches to access the bath for a drink. Bear in mind that hanging bird baths blow in the wind, tipping and losing water. Whitecaps in your bird bath are a sure sign of bad weather!

If you have a garden pond, arrange easy shoreline access to your yard. Walls prevent frogs and others from climbing in and out. Shrubs or other plants near the pond will attract more users.

See-through gardens and backyards with park-like barrenness scarcely attract wild animals. Rather than removing or burning trimmings, you can create brush piles in out-of-the-way spots. Arrange fine branches and material over larger pieces to create more space inside the pile. Yellowthroat warblers and many sparrows search out this kind of cover. Even seed-eating parents forage for insects there to feed their rapidly growing youngsters.

Skunks and raccoons have bad reputations. They provide incentives to handle food, compost and garbage carefully and securely. On the positive side, these animals are effective pest control officers. They dig small holes through the sod on our lawn to remove cranefly larvae. We welcome the purge. With garbage cans secured, skunks and raccoons become useful neighbours, although we sometimes cover fresh transplants to prevent them from being dug up out of curiosity.

Information about planting gardens for many wildlife species, including butterflies and hummingbirds, can be found in the nature sections of book stores, libraries and on the Internet. Check that the information about plants is relevant for this part of North America and the growing conditions of your climate zone. We plant bee balm, a late summer bloomer, for ruby-throated hummingbirds. It fuels them for their arduous southern migration.

Planting for wildlife also means learning which plant species can survive it. Some will be nipped to oblivion by white-tailed deer, rabbits, porcupines, muskrats and beaver. Woodchucks or groundhogs can become a real problem for gardeners. Fortunately they can be live-trapped and relocated. (Old woodchuck holes in the forest provide important wintering habitats for many small animals.) We've protected some trees from browsing animals with stakes and welded wire mesh or poultry netting. One learns that rabbits eat tulips but leave narcissus. Planting something that will be ignored promotes enjoyment instead of frustration.

Invite your wild neighbours over for a backyard party. You won't regret it!!

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