Designing your Backyard to Better Connect with the Natural World

Many people enjoy incorporating the natural world into their surroundings, whether by having a prolific vegetable garden, a series of succulent plants throughout their home, or a favorite view through a window while relaxing in your most comfortable chair.
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PHOTO/Carole Topalian

By Ariel Kerk, CCE Steuben County

Many people enjoy incorporating the natural world into their surroundings, whether by having a prolific vegetable garden, a series of succulent plants throughout their home, or a favorite view through a window while relaxing in your most comfortable chair.

Research has shown that human beings benefit from spending time in nature. I receive many calls asking how to best promote an ecologically healthy environment.  Below are some items to think about when establishing landscape elements into your space.

What does wildlife need?

When developing your area to encourage wildlife, it’s important to think about the needs of the animals in relation to your area of interest.  There are three main needs that all living things must have to survive:  food, shelter, and water.  I would also include a fourth, breeding or nursery habitat, as many organisms have very specific requirements for raising young.  Consider these needs in your planning and you’ll have a higher chance of meeting your wildlife goals.

What are your goals?

Many people like birdwatching and enjoy listening to birdsong in the early morning.  Watching their antics at the birdfeeder while drinking coffee is a relaxing, pre-work activity to take in a bit of nature and serenity before the busy day begins.

Perhaps you have a vegetable garden or flowerbed and are interested in promoting pollinator habitat.  Choosing alternate plantings or learning new ways of managing your beds can be an easy and beneficial way to invite pollinators to your space.

I know many people that listen for the spring peeper frogs to herald in the spring season and watch around their ponds for turtles laying eggs in the warmer weather.  Amphibians and reptiles need access to water, especially during the breeding season, and cool, sheltered areas help regulate body temperature during hot, dry months.

Observe your space and your resources

Developing more connectivity with the natural world can happen in any environment. Yes, it may seem easier if you are surrounded by a wooded or rural landscape, but don’t be discouraged if you live in a more urban area or you rent your home. One of the first steps is to take stock of your surroundings.  What is already on the property that you can utilize for your goals?

How to encourage use

Hang birdfeeders from surrounding trees to encourage Goldfinches, Blue Jays, Grosbeaks, Sparrows, and others to feed depending on the birdseed you provide. Blue Jays love whole peanuts, and Orioles love halved oranges.  Offering black oil sunflower seeds will bring a good variety of birds to your feeder.

For pollinators, keeping messy, unmanicured beds provide great habitat for native ground-nesting bees.  You can also plant native species of vegetation to substitute traditional ornamental plants to support native ecological systems.  New York is home to many pollinators specifically adapted to our native plants.

Reptiles will benefit from cooler, quiet areas to maintain a cooler body temperature like a shady area of a rock pile to hide and tuck away.  If you have a wooded property, building an amphibian friendly pond is a great way to invite toads and frogs to your area. Remember- “amphibian friendly” means no fish, as tadpoles are easy pickings for hungry fish.

Creating or reestablishing connections with nature can be helpful to the wildlife we’re serving and ourselves for the stress-reducing benefits the endeavor provides.

Resources:

Nature as stress relief-

Soga, Masashi et al. “Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis.” Preventive medicine reports vol. 5 92-99. 14 Nov. 2016, doi:10.1016/j.pmedr.2016.11.007

Substituting native plants for traditional ornamentals-

https://nysipm.cornell.edu/sites/nysipm.cornell.edu/files/shared/documents/NYSIPM-alt-inv.pdf

Guide to create vernal ponds-

https://www.nyfoa.org/application/files/3514/7948/6007/GuidetoCreateVernPonds.pdf

Attract reptiles and amphibians to your site-

https://www.ncwildlife.org/Portals/0/Conserving/documents/InvitingReptilestoYourBackyard.pdf

Ariel Kirk, MS, is the Agriculture Educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Steuben County. She develops and facilitates programming for residents and producers on agriculture, horticulture, and natural resources topics.

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