Backyard Habitat on a Budget
More than a dozen solutions to get the most bang for your buck while creating a haven for birds and butterflies.
With the continued poor state of the economy, gardeners everywhere are feeling the pinch. When it comes down to it, paying the bills and putting food on the table will always win out over buying new plants or bags of birdseed. The good news is that cultivating a wildlife-friendly garden doesn’t have to break the bank. In fact, it’s one of the best and least expensive ways to garden.
Find Plants for Cheap
Let’s face it—purchasing plants from the nursery can get expensive. You can cut your gardening costs by avoiding the nursery altogether and getting your plants from other sources.
It’s not too late to start herbaceous plants from seeds, either those you’ve already saved from last season or from store-bought seed packets that cost just a few bucks. For woody plants, take cuttings of mature non-patented plants and, with the help of some rooting hormone, you can start a forest for pennies.
Admittedly, it can take a bit longer to get garden gratification when you start plants from seeds or cuttings. Some perennials don’t bloom in their first year, and it will take longer for plants to reach mature landscape size than if you bought them from the nursery. But annuals will give you same-year benefits to tide you over—and the money you save will be worth it.
By joining a gardening club, native plant society, arboretum or botanical garden, you can get special discounts at plant sales. Other members can be a great source of cuttings, divisions and even mature plants. Many such groups host plant swaps, and some even coordinate plant rescues from development sites where wild native plants would otherwise be destined for the bulldozer.
Plant choice is another way to get the most for your dollar. By buying only plants that offer multiple benefits to wildlife, you’ll spend less. Choose plants that have nectar-rich blooms and also produce seeds, nuts or berries, or provide shelter or places to raise young.
Milkweed is a great example. In the spring and summer, milkweed flowers provide pollen and nectar to bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Later, small mammals and birds such as orioles, goldfinches and bluebirds use the silky tufts attached to the seeds as nesting material. And, of course, milkweed is the only larval food source for monarch butterflies.
Spicebush is another excellent example. In the spring, its yellow flowers offer nectar to pollinators (notably beetles); in the fall, birds relish its red berries. Spicebush foliage feeds the caterpillars of tiger and spicebush swallowtails, as well as the stunning promethea moth, but it’s unpalatable to deer.
Finally, keep in mind that sometimes just doing nothing is the best way to attract wildlife and save money. Stop mowing and let a corner of your yard grow wild, and all sorts of creatures will show up to feed, nest and find shelter there. Just be careful to monitor such wild patches for invasive exotics, which you should always remove.
Make Your Own Feeders
Remember, wildlife relies primarily on food supplied by native plants, but if you still enjoy having a bird feeder to attract your winged friends to one spot, simply grow your own seed feeders by planting a patch of sunflowers. The bright flowers will attract pollinators, and you can cut and dry the flower heads once seeds form, saving and hanging them in the garden throughout the fall and winter.
Or make your own bird feeders by spreading inexpensive peanut butter on a pinecone or a piece of stale bread and hanging it outside. Bagels work well, too, because their density helps them hold up well outside, and their holes make it easy to attach a string for hanging.
In winter, you can save by making your own suet. Simply save bacon drippings or render beef, lamb or pork fat in a pot over medium heat until liquefied. Strain out any bits of meat, let solidify and melt again. (Warning: Rendering animal fat can be a smelly process.) You can mix cupboard staples such as seeds, nuts, fruits or peanut butter into the cooling suet, but it’s not necessary.
This twice-rendered fat will form a hard cake just like the kind you buy and can be stored the freezer for later use. To save even more, ask your local grocer, baker or butcher for stale bread and fat trimmings that would otherwise be thrown away.
For hummingbirds, don’t spend money on commercial nectar. Make your own by mixing 1 cup of white sugar and 4 cups of hot water. When the sugar is completely dissolved, let the nectar cool and use it to fill your hummingbird feeders. There’s no need to add red food coloring.
Beyond Plants and Feeders
Remember, ecologically friendly gardening is also economically friendly. Plants native to your region will need little or no maintenance in the form of fertilizers, pesticides and supplemental watering once established, which means you keep harmful chemicals out of the environment, conserve water and save money all at the same time.
Mulching your garden beds to help retain soil moisture and using a rain barrel to collect rainwater will also help you save money and water. Many municipalities even offer free mulch and rain barrels to residents, so be sure to look into those possibilities.
Composting your kitchen and yard waste keeps lots of organic matter out of the landfill, cutting down on the potent greenhouse gas methane. Meanwhile, your garden benefits from the nutrient-rich compost.
Similarly, switching to a push mower will reduce the carbon dioxide you send into the atmosphere and save you money on gasoline. You can even build nesting and roosting boxes for birds by recycling scrap lumber.
It’s as easy as that! With a little planning and creativity, you can have a beautiful garden that attracts wildlife, protects the environment and saves your hard-earned cash.