There is More to a Garden than Flowers and Foliage – Wildlife in the Shade Garden

Written by Mary Free, Certified Master Gardener

In early spring, the Quarry/Shade Garden is hardly shady. Before the trees have leafed out, sun streams through bare branches beckoning the ephemerals to emerge and effloresce. As the canopy thickens, light dapples flowers of varying form and color dominated by shades of green in the shapes and textures of ferns and foliage. The Garden offers visitors a welcome and serene respite from the summer heat. However, if you look closely – just beneath the calm – wildlife simmers. Have your camera, cell phone or iPad ready!

In June, National Pollinator Week is an opportune time to observe and appreciate pollinators on which over 87% of flowering plants world-wide depend in order to reproduce. Honey bees are easily recognized visitors, but the Shade Garden is home to many less familiar native bees (sweat bees, leaf-cutter bees, bumblebees and carpenter bees) as well as pollinators like predatory wasps, syrphid (flower) flies and beetles. Butterflies flutter from flower to flower or bask on sunlit leaves while moths sleep the day away concealed in the shadows.

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Insect predators, like mantises, camouflage themselves among the foliage waiting to ambush their prey. Dragonflies and damselflies warm their wings on the sunny upper terrace rocks before patrolling the skies for their next meals. Crab spiders lie in wait near flower petals for unsuspecting insects while orchard spiders hang from the center of their webs, underside facing up.

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Chipmunks scurry through the Garden. They seem more prevalent than northern gray squirrels, rustling through the leaves and criss-crossing the paths and the rocks. Not seen as often are eastern cottontails or the resident box turtle. The rabbits won’t wait around for you to focus your camera but the box turtle will give you plenty of time to take pictures if you are lucky enough to have it cross your path. White-tailed deer browse surreptitiously, only leaving behind evidence of their visit – bare hosta stems.

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Birds flock above the garden – cardinals, chickadees, robins, wrens. You can hear the red-bellied woodpecker trying to find insects and on a rare occasion see the fleeting orange feathers of a Baltimore oriole. In early June, the birdhouse hanging from the redbud tree branch is home to house wrens. You can sit on the nearby bench and watch them feed their young.

Abundant in Arlington spring through fall, house wrens (Troglodytes aedon), like the one bringing food to its nestlings, are ideal candidates for close-to-house nest boxes. © Mary Free

Abundant in Arlington spring through fall, house wrens
(Troglodytes aedon), like the one bringing food to its nestlings, are ideal
candidates for close-to-house nest boxes. © Mary Free

One of the most enchanting feathered friends is the ruby-throated hummingbird. You may hear the whirr of its wings before you spot it darting about, but if you stand too close to the bee balm (Monarda didyma ‘Jacob Kline’), then it may buzz you and hover face to face. Unless you are wearing red, it won’t mistake you for a flower though and will be off before you can snap a picture. [That is why there is no picture here.]

Of course, for as many animals that you can see, there are so many more just out of sight. What attracts wildlife to this garden? The right plants in the right place, many of them natives to the Chesapeake Bay watershed, create an inviting habitat. Most of the plants are low maintenance, suited to local conditions and appropriate for Arlington residences.

10. Northern Brownsnake

Master Gardeners recently discovered this harmless northern brownsnake (Storeria dekayi dekayi) hiding in the hardwood mulch pile. It tops the list of homeowner-reported snake sitings and is found “under such items as flagstones, flat rocks, bags of mulch or while raking leaves.” (page 41, Wildlife of Arlington) Photo © Mary Free

The loss or fragmentation of wildlife habitat due to human incursion, invasive or non-native species, changes in climate, lower genetic diversity, disease, parasitism, pesticides and predation pose challenges to the survival of many species. You can aid pollinators and other wildlife by creating natural and sustainable habitats on your property too. To determine the habitat requirements for attracting specific birds, butterflies and hummingbirds common to this area, consult Creating Inviting Habitats (download the ebook free on iTunes). Learn more about the urban wildlife resources commonly and uncommonly found in Arlington in: Wildlife of Arlington: A Natural Heritage Resource Inventory Technical Report (Zell, July 2011). Then, find the right native plants for your environment from the recommended Tried-and-True

Plants, many of which are on display at the MGNV demonstration gardens in Bon Air Park, Glencarlyn Library, Simpson Gardens and Potomac Regional Overlook Park. Lastly, you can avert nuisance wildlife conflict through certain cultural practices. If you are uncertain, then “ASK before you ACT.” Learn how to share your space and enjoy your wildlife visitors.

Sharing Our Spaces with Wildlife brochure

NOTE: All of the photos above were taken in the Quarry/Shade Garden.

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