Over the holidays I had an epiphany. As I was considering my front-yard food forest and the new plants I should add in the spring, I realized that I should plan in some new habitat for animals as well.
If you’ve read this site for very long, you know we’re a fan of putting chickens to work in our planned edible ecosystems. Though that’s a good start, chickens are also high maintenance and almost always require supplementary feed unless you make careful (and extensive) plans to feed them completely off your land. Beyond chickens, other domesticated animals that can be (carefully) added include ducks, guinea fowl and even pigs.
Yet in nature there are a lot of other creatures that do plenty of work behind the scenes. Many of them aren’t usually recognized as our partners in food growing. Some are considered little more than nuisances to be fought with.
If you’ve dealt with moles, deer, squirrels or crows, you know what a pain some animals can be. Even these have their place, of course, but today I’m going to focus on six “good guys” and how you can add them to your plans, starting with one insect that always get a bad wrap. Let’s jump in!
Nobody likes getting stung. Some people can even die when they get stung, thanks to allergies – yet if you don’t fall into that camp, it’s a really good idea to invite wasps to take up residence on your property. Why? Because of this:
That video was shot between two of my garden beds. A lot of wasps are voracious carnivores. They hunt down and kill caterpillars and other insects, then bring them home and feed chunks to their babies. Fortunately, it isn’t hard to attract them to your yard – they’ll come on their own. It’s more a matter of holding back your urge to bust out the Raid as soon as you see a nest. This last spring, a colony of wasps made a nest over my front door, right in one corner of the door frame. Knowing what I did about them, I left the nest alone. We walked under them every day – carefully – and no one ever got stung. Multiple visitors freaked out about them and looked dubious when I explained that they were my gardening subcontractors. Some people keep pit bulls or fighting cocks… I keep wasps. This spring I’m considering putting some stacks of pallets around with a bit of rooking tin over the top to encourage more of them to live in the garden. We shall see.
Since we’re on the topic of bugs, let’s look at the next critter worth keeping around.
Most everyone knows that honey bees are in decline across the United States. I’ve had three colonies die on me in the last couple of years. Because of this sad state of affairs, it’s time to direct our attention to honey bees’ lesser known cousins the “solitary bees.” This group includes mason bees, carpenter bees and a broad range of often sting-less species that usually nest in holes. Some of them pick up insects to feed to their babies, much like wasps – here’s some more evidence I filmed this last year:
Since they moved into my wind chimes, I think they’ll really like the homemade bee houses I’m creating. All I’m doing is making bundles of cut bamboo and drilling lots of holes in pieces of scrap wood. (Once I get a few set up I’ll make sure to post pictures.) The biggest benefit to having bees around is the increase in fruit you’ll get. Pollinators make a huge difference. I’ve heard you’ll get 30-40% more from a fruit tree when bees are present. For that much yield, taking the time to make some nests is a pretty good trade.
My little sister Jessica hates lizards. When she was a kid, my brother once built her a cool playhouse out of scrap wood. After the first week, however, she didn’t want to go into it any more because there were “lizards in there.” As a gift, since I found this hilarious, I painted her a little painting titled “We Miss You:”
As you can see, the two lizards are enjoying a meal of insects and being sad because my sister – whose portrait they’ve hung on the wall of the playhouse – is no longer visiting them.
Though you may not like lizards, they eat a lot of insects and also fit into a complete food web. Making some habitat for them doesn’t have to be a big deal. You certainly don’t have to build and then abandon a nice playhouse. Just leave brush around, pile up some rocks or logs, or let your grass get tall here and there. Depending on your location, the variety of lizards and their habitats will vary. Some like open sandy patches and others like piles of flowerpots behind a shed… just see where you witness the most of them and try to recreate those conditions in your food forest. When you make space for lizards, you’re also likely to get their reptilian cousin as well… the oh-so-terrifying SNAKE!
Snakes get a bad wrap. I understand that one of their forefathers screwed things up for us by pulling a fast one on Eve, but still – they do add a lot to the natural environment. Snakes consume lots of rodents that would otherwise wreak havoc. Some also devour cockroaches, bird eggs and even other snakes. If you live in a region with a lot of poisonous species, adding space for slithering death monsters might not be a good idea, but where I live the scariest snake we have is the coral snake – and they’re pretty non-aggressive. Call me crazy, but I wouldn’t mind having a few around.
Here’s a cool rat snake my son caught:
Much like lizards, snakes like wood and rock piles. They also like chicken coops. We had a couple of huge yellow rat snakes show up and eat eggs now and again. I let them. It’s a good trade for the services they provide. I’d rather have snakes than rats or mice. If you’ve been killing snakes, knock it off. You’re just adding to the rodent population.
I’m an honorary member of the Audubon Society, thanks to a gig I played at one of their events. I’ve never been a bird watcher, per se, and could generally care less about our feathered friends… yet as I got thinking about habitat, I realized that I really need more of them around. With that in mind, I started building bird houses:
You can read more on my bird-house building projects here. I’m going to add a birdbath, at least one bird feeder, and a bunch of little houses around the yard for various species. Birds will eat some of your fruit, sure, but they also eat a lot of insects through the year. Another benefit is that they bring a lot of fertility into your system by consuming seeds and insects from all over your neighborhood, then dropping the resulting rich manure beneath their perches in your food forest. They grab nutrients your trees can’t. That’s a great thing. And speaking of nutrients… it’s time to add another flying creature.
Bats are awesome. When I was a kid, my brother and I caught one in a cave and then released it in my cousin Danny’s basement. During the night, it managed to get upstairs into my aunt’s bedroom and die clinging to her window screen. The discovery of its corpse scared the living daylights out of her and got us quite a scolding. Obviously, letting bats go in a relative’s house isn’t the way to get them to work on your behalf. Doing something like this is:
Why add bats? Because by doing so, you get a second shift of insect eating activity. They’ll clean up mosquitoes all night while the birds are asleep, plus, if you have a big enough bat house, you can provide your garden or compost pile with a steady stream of nice, hot, nutrient-rich guano. I’m planning to build one this spring.
A permaculture garden or forest should go a lot deeper than just being a bunch of plants or trees you like. When you nurture and protect the animal kingdom, you’re not only going to have a healthier food production system, you’re going to have a healthier planet.
Just remember to duck when you come in the front door.