When I moved to an established suburban neighbourhood two decades ago, my garden was shared with the local wildlife already in residence for many years. Small rabbits and a fox scampered under hedges, red squirrels staked claim to coniferous trees, and birds nested with their young in shrubs around the windows. Further development, however, eventually filled in open spaces, eroding the natural nesting and shelter areas of these familiar garden animals. Eventually, there came a spring with no rabbits at all.
Fewer sheltering plants and decreasing wildlife might be the inevitable result of expanding communities and industrial areas, but it needn’t mean that wildlife habitats are entirely lost. It’s possible to design your garden using shrubs that are not only ornamental in three or four seasons, but also provide a sustainable habitat for the creatures that bring life to gardens year-round.
As important as trees and vines, shrubby plants close to the ground are essential for sustaining animal life—particularly birds. The twiggy structure of shrubs conceals them from predators, provides support for their nests and offers perching sites for grooming and shelter from chilly winds. Most flowering shrubs also produce fruit—an important source of carbohydrates for birds. Insects, which provide protein for fledglings, thrive in the micro-climate interior of shrubs.
Versatile shrubs are useful plants and can be incorporated into any garden design. Where an informal boundary is required, consider planting a hedge instead of installing fencing. If you erect a chain-link fence (black blends in best) and plant shrubs along it, the resulting hedge will quickly conceal the chain link. Shrubs are the backbone of foundation plantings along the walls of a house and framing the front door. As well, curved lines of shrubs are an interesting way to divide large spaces and add dimension to an otherwise flat backyard.
Environmentalists have devised rating systems for judging the wildlife value of various shrubs, based on their usefulness as food and shelter sources. Gardeners can add aesthetic considerations to those guidelines and look for wildlife-friendly types with ornamental value in several seasons. Some shrubs have four seasons of attractive features, such as spring flowers, interesting summer leaf texture, vivid autumn foliage, and brilliant berries or handsome bark in winter. Others may have only three seasons of ornamental value, but offer optimal advantages for promoting wildlife in your garden. Both small and large accommodations are always possible when designing a year-round wildlife garden with ornamental features.