Gardening for Animals and the Earth: Part 1

by | Mar 1, 2021

I don’t know how everyone else feels, but the milder weather outside this past week in Pittsburgh has me thinking Spring! My partner and I moved into our first house back in the Summer of 2020. Until then, I’d always lived in apartments without any usable outdoor area. Now that I have a front and back yard to tend to, once I start thinking Spring, I start thinking gardening. I hope some readers are thinking that way, too.

I don’t know how everyone else feels, but the milder weather outside this past week in Pittsburgh has me thinking Spring! My partner and I moved into our first house back in the Summer of 2020. Until then, I’d always lived in apartments without any usable outdoor area. Now that I have a front and back yard to tend to, once I start thinking Spring, I start thinking gardening. I hope some readers are thinking that way, too.

Photo by chi liu on Unsplash

Since Humane Action Pittsburgh’s vision is “a world without animal suffering where all beings are treated with compassion,” I wanted to focus in this ongoing series on the ways to manage a garden responsibly, to do so without causing harm to any of our wild neighbors, and to even provide some benefits to wildlife wherever possible.

At this point, it’s too early to start putting plants in the ground, and I’m not a confident enough gardener to start plants from seeds, but I thought with the weather breaking and many of us starting to think about what our gardens will look like this year, it would be a good time to talk about some of the considerations we should take into account when planning a garden.

 

What to Plant

There are so many good options for what to plant to help animals and the Earth. Personally, I plan to focus on pollinator-friendly plants (native plants) and edible plants.

Growing native flowering plants is a great way to not only attract butterflies and other pollinators to your garden, but also to help contribute to biodiversity.  HAP Hive is actively working to raise awareness about the crucial role pollinators play in our ecosystem and how communities and individuals can support them. In addition, HAP has been working with the Endangered Species Coalition to facilitate wildlife corridors in Pennsylvania, which you can read about in this blog post.

These campaigns remind us of our collective responsibility to create gardens that are good homes for pollinators and native insects and wildlife such as the insects and grubs that migratory birds eat. Sharing our gardens and yards with native plants that can feed pollinators and create homes for vital insects and grubs is one way we can make a positive difference. Check out Penn State’s explanation of the importance of native plants in Pennsylvanians’ gardens and yards, as well as a list of plants to consider here.

Photo by Claire Kmetz on Flickr

We also have to be thoughtful about where we live. For example, my front yard touches a very busy road, and, since I also live near Riverview park, we share our neighborhood with wildlife, including several deer. As I’m planning my garden, it’s at the top of my mind that whatever I plant, I must ensure that anything a deer or other animal would want to eat is protected by natural barriers and other deterrents. Otherwise, I might unintentionally lure an animal close to the road where they could be injured or killed.

For pollinator-friendly gardening, location also matters. Working with HAP has me interested in bee hotels like the ones HAP Hive plans to build (more details coming soon!), but due to the high volume of foot traffic near my yard and the close proximity of my neighbors, these aren’t a good fit for me–I don’t want to attract bees that might sting a neighbor or passerby with an allergy. However, keep an eye out for more information about bee hotels–depending on where you live, they might be a good fit for you!

One of our neighborhood deer in a neighbor’s yard, Observatory Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh

That being said, growing edible plants also benefits animals and the environment in many ways. Herbs are probably the starkest example I can think of to demonstrate how. They tend to be extremely easy to grow (so I’m told!), but up until now I’ve found myself buying them regularly in those plastic clamshell packs at Giant Eagle. As HAP’s No Plastic Please campaign has enumerated, plastic containers like these are the scourge of the Earth, ending up in our waterways and doing harm to not only our drinking water but also the homes of marine life forms, both as near as our own three rivers and as far as the oceans they run to. In addition to reducing packaging, growing herbs and vegetables in our own front yards reduces the carbon footprint for the food dramatically, and it helps us to access nutrient-rich plant-based food.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

My decision, then, is to move forward with edible plant gardens even as I also plant some native wildflowers and a shrub or tree (haven’t decided yet) to make my yard pollinator-friendly. While we’re not sure which tree or shrubs to plant, we will definitely be planting some Black Eyed Susans and/or Coneflowers to add some native flowers that are bright, colorful, and summery.

For the edible gardens, we chose a number of plants that grow well in our climate, that we eat a lot of, and that we think will be easy to preserve so we can avoid any waste. Our planned edible plants include: tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, zucchini, bell pepper, butternut squash, pumpkin, basil, cilantro, parsley, mint, and perhaps some additional herbs.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Protecting the Garden from Insects and Animals

I’m also (finally!) taking up the call to begin composting. Now that I have the space, I feel I have no excuse not to. There are numerous composting methods out there, but I’m not comfortable with using worms or bacteria in my house, so I’m going with the good old fashioned method (stay tuned for an upcoming post about composting and how it not only helps the environment but also the other animals we share it with). Compost is a great fertilizer, but it does take time for organic matter we compost to break down. Therefore, I’ll be looking for other sources of composted matter while I wait for my own to be ready.

Composting

Since it’s my first year gardening, I have no idea what to expect in terms of insect or animal threats to my plants. However, I am researching humane methods of pest control and pledging to avoid chemical pesticides which are detrimental to pollinator life and could pose a health risk to humans as well. Right now, my plan is to use raised beds surrounded by fencing for all edible plants, thus keeping them reasonably inaccessible to animals looking for a vegetable buffet. As the season goes on, if I do develop problems with pests, I will report back with what strategies I use as humane deterrents and how effective they are.

Gardening is a great way to get outside and do something positive for myself and the neighbors who walk past my house every day, not to mention the Earth, pollinators and insects, and all of us that rely on them. I look forward to embarking on this journey, but with some trepidation. I have no idea what a feat backyard composting will be, nor do I know how successful my first-year gardens will be. I look forward to sharing this journey with you, so that we can all learn together and have even better, more prosperous humane gardens in seasons to come.

AUTHORS

Aimee Douglass is the Director of Compassionate Living. She has been a volunteer with HAP since 2018. She is an active participant in the Compassionate Living campaign and in 2019 tabled at her first event for HAP. Aimee works in the healthcare industry and has a bachelors degree in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and a masters degree in Communications with a health care focus from Southern New Hampshire University. She lives in Penn Hills with her husband and their three dogs.

Hannah Lewis is the Assistant Blogger and grant writer at HAP. She has been working with HAP since July of 2020. By day, she works as a literacy educator. She is an avid hiker, but also loves to spend time indoors curled up with a book and her long-haired cat, Frejya.