Plant a Wildlife-Friendly Edible Garden

Strategic planting invites beneficial critters into your vegetable garden while deterring the annoying pests.
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Photo by: Image courtesy of Storey Publishing

Image courtesy of Storey Publishing

When you’ve just discovered all your lettuce plants are missing, and your favorite impatiens have been gnawed down to nubs, it’s hard to imagine co-existing peacefully with the wild creatures in your garden.

But it really is possible to garden without surrendering to hungry animal and insect visitors, says Tammi Hartung, author of The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener: How To Grow Food in Harmony with Nature.

Hartung grows over 175 medicinal, rare and native plants at Desert Canyon Farm, the USDA-certified organic wholesale farm she and her husband own in southern Colorado. She’s been learning to live in harmony with the wild things around her, she says, since 1994, when she married and moved to the 700-acre farmstead and nature preserve her husband managed for the Denver Botanical Gardens.

“(The property) was teeming with wildlife of all kinds, like deer, raccoons, mountains lions, owls...you name it,” Hartung remembers. “Our yard was not fenced, yet I planted extensive herb and vegetable gardens there.”

Hartung had to figure out how to accommodate creatures that moved through her plantings multiple times every day. “I learned that parsley...kept the cottontail bunnies from coming into my garden and eating everything because they ate the parsley instead. I also learned that having compost too near the house doesn’t work well when there are raccoons living in the neighborhood!”

Good planning is the key, Hartung says. "Interplanting fragrant herbs like lavender, sage and rosemary is a great way to deter deer from eating other things in the garden. Deer do not like the smell...so they tend to just move through the garden space without browsing much." 

Sometimes your plans have to include barriers, Hartung says. She recommends blocking physical access to your garden when simpler measures aren’t enough. She uses fabric row covers, netting and wire screens to repel birds and small animals like squirrels and chipmunks. While she’s not fond of fencing, she says she’s found it valuable for deterring deer, elk and moose. If the fencing is buried partially underground, it can also help control groundhogs, badgers, rabbits and skunks.

Of course, some wildlife is desirable, even in an edible garden. Hartung points out that earthworms can improve and help maintain the health of your soil, and non-poisonous snakes often consume rodents that feast on your vegetables.

Bumblebees and butterflies pollinate many food crops and beautiful flowers and can help increase your yield. Praying mantis gobble up insects as large as crickets and grasshoppers, while adult lacewings can help reduce leafhopper, mite and aphid populations.

Try Hartung’s tips for encouraging more beneficial wildlife in your garden:

  • Grow a variety of plants, including flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruits. They’ll invite many different types of beneficial creatures to your garden.
  • Plant herbs that attract desirable insects; they’ll help prevent and manage many undesirable ones. Catnip, Hartung says, attracts ladybugs that prey on aphids and whiteflies. Dill, chamomile, and fennel appeal to predator wasps that help control caterpillars and worms. Comfrey provides a habitat for beneficial spiders.
  • Keep a birdbath filled with clean, fresh water for wild birds that feed on destructive beetles, grasshoppers and other pests.
  • Make a door-like opening in an old clay flowerpot, and turn it upside down in your vegetable patch. The cool shade under the pot may invite toads to move in, and they’ll devour unwanted slugs.

“Creating a wildlife-friendly garden can begin with something as simple as adding a birdbath or toad house to the space, “ Hartung says. “Planting hedgerows that will attract wildlife into the landscape takes a bit more time and work, but truly, the process of creating a wildlife-friendly edible garden is a process that you continuously do from one gardening season into the next.”

Even small steps can lead to big payoffs: a healthier garden, a better harvest, and less stress for you, the gardener.