In this day and age, even Mother Nature needs a little help. Your garden can be an oasis for nature whether you live in the middle of nowhere next to wilderness or in the heart of a city. It actually takes very little effort to create a biodiverse garden and the rewards are often exciting and immediate for you and for the creatures living near you.
Let’s explore some easy and practical ways in which you can increase the biodiversity of your garden and turn it into a safe haven for more types of creatures than you can imagine. Best of all, adding biodiversity to your garden also boost its productivity because you are restoring natural ecological cycles, nutrient pathways and predator-prey relationships that are missing in most conventional garden plans.
What is a biodiverse garden?
A biodiverse garden is a garden that contains many different species of plants, with a wide variety of flower types and all-season habitats that support many different types of micro-organisms, insects, birds and animals. These gardens use different types of structures, groundcovers, plant families, and features to purposefully attract and enhance local populations of creatures big and small.
You can enhance the biodiversity in any garden, by applying the concepts listed below. You can focus on one strategy for creating more diversity or go all-in and apply EVERY strategy to the space you have. Either way, each and every step you take towards adding biodiversity to your garden will open up new opportunities to experience nature first hand. You might be surprised who starts showing up in your garden!
To avoid having to repeat the phrase “micro-organisms, insects, birds and animals” in every sentence, I am going to use the term “wild life” to mean all of these things in the following sections. Wild Life includes all of these creatures and also the incredibly important tiny soil dwellers that we often forget about and aren't included under either "micro-organisms" or "insects".
Ready to dive in? Let's get started!
11 Easy and Practical Ways to Create a Biodiverse Garden:
1. Start with a little chaos
This is going to hurt gardeners who pride themselves on having a magazine-ready, picture-perfect landscape, but you need to embrace a little messiness if you want to add biodiversity to your garden.
Don’t deadhead and remove all the spent flowers or leaves.
Leave some areas that are not mowed, raked and trimmed to perfection.
Create some permanent/perennial sections in your annual gardens. For example, plant some perennial herbs in your annual vegetable garden to hold some permanent space. And yes, this means working around them!
Let the grass grow (too) long in the spring. Check out “No Mow May” for more details.
While these actions may leave your garden looking pretty rough around the edge, they create room for more wild life to exist and even take up permanent residence in your garden. What we current view as a picture-perfect garden in media, is all too often a hostile environment for wild life and you can start to change that by simply letting some areas "go" a bit and naturalize a lot.
2. Add native plants
Few things increase your chances of supporting local wild life faster than including native plant species in your garden. Native plants support species that are normally found in your area.
More Native Plants = More Native Wild Life
Easy peasy. You can create one section of your garden devoted entirely to native plant species. Or you can disperse native plants throughout your garden. Both strategies work in different ways to enhance populations of local wild life.
All too often we plan our gardens out on sheets of paper (2 dimensions) and we forget how important the third dimension of height is to a garden!
Make sure to add vertical height to your garden by including trees and shrubs. These garden features add leaves and twigs to the environment, create shade, alter how the wind moves through the garden, and impact water flow. You essentially multiply your garden space and habitat availability just by adding trees and shrubs!
You can increase that impact further if you include trees and shrubs that flower, fruit or produce that produce nuts or berries. These additional food sources really ramp up the biodiversity value of your garden space.
But don't simply focus on height above ground when we are thinking in 3 dimensions. Depth below ground is an overlooked element of creating a biodiverse garden. By having plants that root to different depths, you affect which minerals and soil elements become available in your soil, which in turn affects what is available to wild life. Try adding some deep rooted plants like comfrey, kale and alfalfa to start working on your below ground 3D biodiversity.
A red currant bush in my garden provides height, copious blooms in the spring and then a sea of red berries through the summer (Photo: Rose Hill Farm)
4. Pile it up (or lay it in thick)
If you can embrace a little messiness (remember point #1), then creating a pile of sticks or rocks is a sure-fire way to add a little wild to your garden. The habitat you create with piles of material can lead to many beneficial interactions in the garden.
In my area, the Spotted Towhee is a bird that LOVES to hang out in stick piles and they stir up and eat a LOT of insects. I love having them in my yard doing bug patrol and they are entertaining to watch.
I also have a lot of different snakes in my area (4 different species to be exact on Rose Hill Farm). Rock piles give the snakes places to sunbathe and hide out while piled up materials give them a cool place to escape the heat. Why encourage snakes? Because snakes are masters at eating rodents that would otherwise become a problem in my garden.
Many useful predatory insects also like stick and rock piles, especially ravenous ground beetles. With little effort on your part, you can add these habitats to any garden and invite in natural pest controls.
A baby garter snake is coiled in among some daylily leaves (Photo: Rose Hill Farm)
5. Let it rot!
Our tendency to "over clean" our gardens means we miss out on the dazzling array of soil dwelling creatures who thrive in rotting wood and compost.
Add a chunk of log to your garden somewhere. As it slowly decays away into soil, it will support dozens of species of soil dwellers. If you are particularly lucky, the log might support some fascinating species of fungus or maybe even the mycelium of mushrooms.
Rotting logs can provide good places for creatures to overwinter as well, allowing them to stay in your garden and re-appear the following year. They also contribute to soil productivity and soil structure over time.
You can also greatly increase your garden biodiversity by including your compost pile right in your garden. Whether you include a classic compost pile or bin or even compost within your garden rows (trenching), the addition of materials to purposefully add rotting and decaying components allows many more types of wild life into your garden than if you compost in some other location.
6. Maximize the number, size, shape, color and seasons of plants
This is where we go for the gold! A truly biodiverse garden has a LOT of different plants in it. You can plant them in groups and patches or mix’em all up all over the place. The choice is yours. But the goal of creating a biodiverse garden is to provide a wide variety of plants that come in all different sizes, shapes, and colors.
And better still, start tracking your bloom times to make sure you have something blooming in every available season of plant growth. You can learn more about tracking bloom times here and download your free Bloom Time Tracker to help you get started.
7. Go to No-Till or Minimum Till Systems
The time to shift to a no dig or less digging system is right now! The idea of rototilling your whole garden each spring, or tilling up your flower beds, is extremely bad for biodiversity. If you want to support local wild creatures, don’t invite them in and then chew them up in the spring time with a machine!
No till and minimum till systems protect soil dwelling wild life. Furthermore, no till helps to minimize soil disturbance that can let weeds take hold in your garden. Less soil disturbance also means less soil erosion and damage from the sun, wind and rain.
When you do create soil disturbance, make sure you use mulch to protect it from sun, rain and other sources of erosion.
Straw, pine needles, cardboard, compost, grass clippings and leaves are all types of mulch that can work to cover up disturbed ground (read the post on mulching)
8. Let go of the Lawn!
Manicured lawns and classic bark mulched flower beds are essentially monocultures that vastly limit biodiversity.
Instead mix it up (a LOT!). Use a wide variety of ground covering plants instead of lawns or seas of bark mulch. Good choices can include herbs like thyme and oregano, spreading flowers like yarrow and clover (both highly mowable), and even diverse grass species (instead of single-species lawn seed).
If you still want a spot to feel the grass between your toes, try minimizing the lawn area. Convert at least one part of the lawn out into a new garden bed (and add some native plants and vertical structure there too!).
9. Keep it Chemical Free
Avoid using chemicals to maximize biodiversity in the garden. Pesticides, herbicides and even chemical-based fertilizers all do damage to wild life.
Instead of relying on chemicals to deal with pests, focus on creating more habitat for insect and bird predators that will gobble up those pests free of charge.
To minimize weeds, arrange your plants close enough together to shade out weeds and stop them from getting a foothold. Mulch can also be used effectively to reduce weeds. The trick with weeds is to try and remove them before they go to seed, so that you are at least making headway and creating an even bigger weed problem in the coming years.
10. Plant in squares not rows
Although squares or blocks of plants are common in flower gardens, we have been brainwashed into thinking that vegetable should be grown in rows. However, you can maximize your food production, minimize weeds, and increase the biodiversity potential of your garden by planting your vegetables in squares too.
Better still, you can mix and match adjacent squares into checkerboards of different plant types or families and throw in a square or two of flowers into the mix as well. Not only does this create a visually intriguing landscape, it also confuses pests while supporting natural predators.
Gardening in squares is a win-win-win situation. To learn more about this approach in a simple 30-day challenge, dive into the Get Started Garden mini-course.
Planting in squares: foreground is lettuce-arugula-mustard, then next is celery, then broccoli and lastly kale in a 3-ft wide row and a no-till bed systems (Photo: Rose Hill Farm)
11. Just Add Water
Exhausted just thinking about the work involved in adding biodiversity? Well, I saved the simplest and easiest step for last. Just add a water feature!
No I am not talking about digging in a pond, although that would surely work to add diversity. You can add water in any form, size or shape to the garden and immediately create an opportunity to enhance biodiversity. There is no life without water. And in contrast, there is bountiful life when water is made available.
This can be as simple as a flat saucer filled with water and some stones where insects can take a drink or as elaborate as a bubbling fountain.
A birdbath, a half barrel turned into a mini-pond, a cracked bucket that slowly drips water into a pan, a fountain . . . .all of these water sources work to enhance the number and type of wild life that will visit your garden.
Just add water and let the magic begin.
Look closely on the rim of the bottom fountain container and you will see a tree frog! Even a small water source has value (Photo: Rose Hill Farm)
Let a Little Wild In
We live in a world where wild life is struggling to stay alive. You can change that with a biodiverse garden.
It can be so easy to let the wild into your garden and reap the benefits of greater biodiversity. Whether you pick one of these activities or implement all 11 strategies, you can create a biodiverse garden anywhere.
The size of your garden doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have created opportunities for more wild life to coexist with you. Don't wait to let the wild in. Get started today and get to mission accomplished!
Be sure to share your favorite tips for creating a biodiverse garden, or the results of your efforts in the FAR Community topic called Gardening Tips. I’ll look forward to seeing you there. Not a FAR Community member yet? Just sign up, follow your favorite topics and start sharing.