- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 1, 2002

A bird or butterfly in a spring garden is always a welcome sight, while a swarm of gnats or mosquitoes may chase even the most avid gardener inside for protection.
"Gardening is my life, but the last few summers, with all the tiger mosquitoes, it's been tough," says Bill McLaughlin, horticulturist at the U.S. Botanic Gardens on the National Mall.
There are ways to attract desirable creatures, such as birds and butterflies, and keep at bay the undesirables, the gnats and mosquitoes, local gardeners say. Mr. McLaughlin, along with many other area horticulturists, is an advocate of what's called "natural-habitat" or "wildlife" gardening.
This means the gardener attempts to create a garden that mimics what would have been there had man not "improved" it. A garden of this kind provides an ecosystem of flora and fauna that welcomes "good" insects and animals that prey on the "undesirables."
"Providing the proper habitat for plants, birds and insects is the best thing you can do to cut down on your mosquito population," says Michael Klein, co-owner of the Backyard Naturalist shop in Olney. He and his wife, Debi, are natural-habitat gardeners, and their garden store in Olney assists people who are interested in creating this type of garden, whether it's on 10 acres in the country or just on a 500-square-foot lot in town.
A wildlife-habitat garden is, in many ways, the opposite of a traditional manicured garden with a lawn, hedges and a limited number of flowers, such as roses. Instead, it has a wide variety of flowers, trees and shrubs.
"A lawn and some azaleas and boxwoods would not be a good habitat," says Scott Aker, horticulturist at the U.S. National Arboretum in Northeast. "Different insects are dependent on different plants. So, you need plant diversity."
Few creatures are interested in lawns, other than gnats and mosquitoes, which flock to grass, especially if it's long and wet.
Unfortunately, while plants can attract certain fauna a Monarch butterfly, for example, loves to munch on aster or lilac none repels, say, mosquitoes or gnats.
"There is no plant that would deter a mosquito," says Cindy Brown, horticulturist at Green Spring Gardens Park in Alexandria. "Some people plant citronella, but it really doesn't work." It is the oil that one gets by crushing the citronella leaves that is repellent to insects, not the plant itself. Citronella candles contain the citronella oil and can be effective in repelling mosquitoes.

To keep gnats and mosquitoes in check without using pesticides (which wildlife-habitat gardeners are against because they kill indiscriminately) a gardener has to make sure the ecosystem of his or her yard attracts predator insects and animals.
A pond or other water feature that attracts dragonflies can be a good guard against mosquitoes. "Dragonflies are the major mosquito predators. They do a great job eliminating mosquitoes," Mr. Aker says.
If the gardener opts for a pond, adding a few fish also can help in the mosquito fight. "Any fish, a goldfish for example, eats mosquitoes," Mr. Aker says.
But while a pond is a major attraction for dragonflies and a necessary habitat for goldfish, other water features may actually attract mosquitoes. "Mosquitoes breed in standing water. You really have to make sure you don't have any standing water anywhere in your garden," Mr. Klein says.
Mosquito eggs need about two weeks to mature, so if the gardener frequently changes the water in birdbaths and other water features and even rinses them out with bleach occasionally it should prevent mosquitoes from breeding in them, Mr. Klein says.
"The bleach gets rid of mold and algae, which mosquitoes like," he says.
In addition to goldfish and dragonflies, Mr. McLaughlin says ladybugs, minute pirate bugs, predatory wasps and lacewings are good at keeping gnats and mosquitoes under control. These insects eat mosquitoes and their eggs, and a good way to attract them to your garden is by planting carrots, fennel, dill and anything in the aster or daisy family, Mr. McLaughlin says.
"The diversity of plants with their different textures gives good hiding places for these insects," he says.
Another mosquito predator is the bat, Mr. Aker says. "Bats are really beneficial. They have gotten a bad rap, when really they are an indicator of a healthy ecosystem," he says.
Though it's important to combat the "bad guys" in one's garden, it is perhaps more satisfying to attract the "good guys," the colorful birds and butterflies.
Susan Belsinger, a wildlife-habitat gardener in Brookeville, just north of Olney, says creating layers of vegetation helps attract birds.
"Layer your garden. Include tall trees like oaks and poplars, low shrubs, berry bushes and ground cover," Ms. Belsinger says. The varied landscape provides both food and shelter for birds year-round.
Some favorite plants for birds that frequent our gardens and porches such as cardinals and Carolina wrens are dogwood, sumac, holly and echinacea.
Supplying year-round water is also important. Use a birdbath, but keep it clean, Ms. Belsinger cautions.
Butterflies are attracted to flowers of varying shapes and colors. The greater the variety of flora, the more types of butterflies you might attract, she says. Among the most important plants in a butterfly garden are the butterfly bush and the butterfly weed. Other butterfly favorites include coreopsis, dogwood, cosmos, marigold and goldenrod.
Ms. Belsinger lives on several acres of land, but she says creating a wildlife-habitat is possible in a small town-house back yard, too. Many of the plants she recommends to attract birds and butterflies can be planted in pots.
May is a good time to start planning and planting a wildlife-habitat garden. Annuals and perennials such as cosmos, coreopsis and marigolds can be planted now and may help attract butterflies later this summer, Mr. Aker says.
When planning a wildlife-habitat garden, it's important to realize that it will look different from the manicured-lawn look that many Americans like and are used to seeing, Ms. Belsinger says. Her own father-in-law often asks her why she doesn't cut back or tidy up shrubs and trees.
"To some people, it's just an unkept look," she says.
She leaves dead branches on the ground to attract woodpeckers and other birds, she prunes shrubs carefully in order not to eliminate the formation of seeds, and she leaves certain weeds because they are butterfly favorites or she plans to use them in cooking. (Ms. Belsinger is the author of a dozen books on how to use homegrown vegetables, weeds and other plants in cooking.
Even if it may look messy, there is something very satisfying in being a wildlife-habitat gardener, she says.
"I wake up every morning to bird song. The Carolina wrens and the cardinals are just outside my window," she says. "Seeing [and hearing] these animals makes you slow down and reflect on life, and that's always a good thing."

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide