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Attracting Wildlife with Water Features


Water, water, everywhere…or not, when the weather is dry. “Water features” are what I’d call anything deliberately wet in the garden – a pond, a birdbath, a fountain, a waterfall or even a natural stream. We humans enjoy them for their refreshing sound, motion, and the opportunity to grow different plants, but for wildlife they’re much more – a life-saving source of moisture during dry times and a place to reproduce. If you want to ease into having a water feature, try a birdbath or a fountain. You’d be surprised how many species of birds will visit to drink and bathe that otherwise would ignore a feeder! Birdbath water can be replaced regularly to keep it clean and mosquito-free; fountains keep the water surface moving and that alone is enough to keep mosquitoes from breeding – plus, the sound draws birds’ attention. If you want to try your hand at aquatic gardening, summer is a good time – by early summer all of the aquatic plants are in (including the temperature-sensitive tropicals) and by late summer they typically go on sale so we can get the area ready for the next season. Anything from a half whiskey-barrel to one of the common pre-formed tubs will serve as a reservoir for water and allow you to add plants and other fun accessories to your water feature. Adventurous gardeners can dig their own pond – something that you can truly customize and make your own – right in the ground and line it with pond liner. Have fun with it and create different levels so a pump can circulate the water and give you a small cascade. Line the edges with flat stones and place some slanted into the water on the shallow end so exploring animals can easily get in and out. (How much fun would it be to have a turtle visit?!) Aquatic plants can be just as interesting as land plants – there are native species, attractors of butterflies and hummingbirds, fragrant foliage and even carnivores.

turtle-baby-2b Gray-Treefrog-feature

Baby Turtle (left), Gray Treefrog in Watering Can (right)

If you have a pond (or a puddle, really, since “pond” can bring to mind quite a large body of water and “pool” makes one think of swimming) with no fish, frogs may choose to breed and you’ll have tadpoles to enjoy during spring. We have several frogs in our area that don’t spend their adult lives in water – Gray Treefrogs (pictured) and Wood Frogs are two. They prefer pools of water that are small enough to not contain fish so their tadpoles don’t get eaten. Depending on the location of your neighborhood, Gray Treefrogs can be commonly encountered when they venture from the trees to gobble-up insects that are drawn to porch lights. I live near woodlands and have found them hanging out in the bottom of a large empty pot (there was something set inside of it that was shading them) and inside an empty watering can. They are often gray but can also be green and are always a treat to find. During early summer you can hear their trilling calls from the trees in the woods, shortly after the Spring Peepers have finished breeding for the year. I have even found one or two hanging out in the under cabinet of a gas grill – presumably that propane tank is nice and cool, shaded, and a great hiding spot from predators. Clever; you never know what these adorable little guys will get up to!

dragonfliesHalloween Pennant (left), Ebony Jewelwing (right)

If your pond is large enough (again, don’t worry if you don’t have a “lake”) you can also draw dragonflies and damselflies. Our aquatic tubs always do, and they’re not very big at all. Like treefrogs, they breed in water but spend their adult lives outside of it. Dragonflies are the more robust relatives of the delicate-looking damselflies, and both hunt insects while in flight. Many are prettily colored, coming in shades of violet, blue, green, orange, yellow or red. One of the most colorful even has tinted wings, the pictured Halloween Pennant. Dragonfly and damselfly larvae have gills and will eat just about anything they can catch under water, including small tadpoles, small fish and – most importantly – mosquito larvae. Adults have excellent vision and, while skittish enough to not usually let you get too close, are adept at chasing down anything flying in their territory. Often, they end up chasing after each other, which makes for good appreciation of their acrobatic skills. Did you know that damselflies can hover and fly backwards, and will sometimes steal prey right out of a spider’s web? Some adults prefer to stay on the wing, cruising around, while others perch – this is a good use for aquatic plants in a variety of heights, which will also help their larvae escape the water to turn into adults.

If you have a pond with a shallow end, songbirds may visit to bathe – clean feathers are vital for proper insulation and efficient flight and it may help rid them of parasites (so does bathing in dust or ants). If you want to offer Hummingbirds a chance to bathe, consider having water hit some low-lying tree leaves the next time you use a sprinkler on the yard. Rather than sit on a birdbath, hummingbirds prefer to dash through dripping leaves to wet themselves when it’s not raining.

With all the press recently about mosquito-transmitted diseases, don’t be afraid to water garden for fear of breeding mosquitoes. Larvae will drown in water that has rippling surface, and additions like Mosquito Fish, dragonflies, and Bti (a naturally-occurring control that won’t harm birds, frogs or other types of insects) will all keep them controlled.

Butterflies like the Tiger Swallowtail have been spotted nectaring on aquatics such as Pickerelweed (which I love for its electric blue-violet color) and Hummingbirds will enjoy visiting Hibiscus and Monkeyflower. Buttonbush shrubs can even be adapted to grow as a marginal – in up to a few inches of water – and will be a big draw for bees and butterflies.

For fun, try your hand at carnivorous plants – we often have Pitcher Plants available that do well in pots on floating “islands,” supported by a ring of foam. Pitcher Plants and Venus Flytraps are actually hardy here and, with the right growing conditions, will come back for years. They’re what are considered “marginal” plants in that they don’t grow in the water the way a waterlily does, but can do well in boggy areas.

Water features offer such variety of plant and animal life that I wish they were more common. Whether you start small or go big, summer’s a great time to work with water and bring refreshment to both wildlife and our senses alike.

by Miri Talabac, Woody Plant Buyer

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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