If you enjoy watching wildlife, hopefully you have a little seating area tucked somewhere into your garden where you can sit, relax and watch the visitors to your backyard habitat. Even if your outdoor space is small, you can still bring the birds and butterflies up close by including habitat containers on your patio and near to your living spaces.
Habitat containers are just a fancy name for any outdoor container with plants because really, any outdoor potted plants can provide some basic resources for wildlife, including shade, shelter, food and nesting sites for tiny beneficial insects, birds and even insect-gobbling amphibians such as toads.
Flowering annual container plants such as penta, salvia, petunias and verbena provide lots of nectar and to feed native bees, hummingbirds, butterflies and other welcome garden visitors, and if you allow late season plants go to seed, you can even watch birds such as goldfinches, chipping sparrows and chickadees dining on the seeds.
Even if you garden in the city or a tiny space, just about the easiest way for you to bring wildlife up close and start increasing the biodiversity of your surroundings is to plant a large container, hanging basket or a window box bursting with colorful flowers and plants.
When choosing plants for habitat containers, try to include a variety of flowering and fragrant annuals, perennials, shrubs and even dwarf evergreen trees to provide the widest range of habitat resources for your visiting wildlife friends. In colder climates, you may have to bring less-hardy container plants into an unheated garage or protected area for the winter to keep root systems from being winter-killed.
Some excellent nectar, seed or berry producing plants ideal for growing in containers, hanging baskets and window boxes include:
- Ageratum (Floss Flower)
- Button Zinnia (short varieties)
- Annual phlox
- Single-flowering Tagetes and Calendula (Marigolds)
- Petunias, Supertunias and Millionbells (some varieties have more nectar than others)
- Herbs such as sage, lavender, chives, parsley, coriander
- Agastache species
- Compact flowering shrubs such as blueberry, weigela ‘Midnight Wine’, Virginia sweetspire (‘Little Henry’), and coral berry ‘Amethyst’
- Small ornamental grasses such as little bluestem, pennisetum, sedges and rushes
Containerized shrubs, small trees and sometimes even hanging baskets can provide nesting opportunities for tiny songbirds who prefer to nest off the ground surrounded by the safety of thick vegetation.
Gorgeous flowering annuals such as red bloodflower/milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) can provide essential foliage for monarch butterfly caterpillars, and even small grasses in containers are used as food (host) plants for the caterpillars of tiny butterflies such as skippers:
Group your habitat containers together to create larger visual impact and make it easier for tiny pollinators and butterflies to find from above. A cluster of containers on a patio will even attract toads, who like a cool, damp and shady area to spend their days. If you regularly water your containers so that water drains out the bottom of pots, look around and under your containers for these fun and gentle amphibians, who will enjoy the moisture and will help you out by dining on any slugs, grubs and other invertebrate insects that might be damaging your plants.
How are you using containers in your beautiful wildlife garden?
[Ellen Sousa gardens, farms, writes and teaches from Turkey Hill Brook Farm, a small horse farm in the Worcester Hills of central Massachusetts.]
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