Garden beds grown as cultivated islands, disconnected from the surrounding natural environment, are in many respects large-scale container gardens. An isolated garden loses its natural balance and diversity, greatly decreasing its ability to thrive without pesticides. However, nature-friendly corridors in your neighborhood allow wildlife and other organisms to move back and forth between cultivated plots and nearby wildlife habitats, improving your garden’s health and vitality.
Unrestricted by broad swaths of manicured turf, compacted soil, or other formidable barriers, plant roots can seek hospitable feeding grounds beyond garden borders. Earthworms and other soil-enriching organisms can migrate to and from adjoining properties. And beneficial insects, birds, and other helpful pollinators and predators stick around because they have plenty of protective cover.
The farther your cultivated garden is from the natural world, the more important it is to “think outside the fence.” Here are some ways to forge links between your cultivated plants and the natural environment:
Take inventory of what’s outside your garden. Chart locations of trees, shrubs, ponds, streams, bogs, windbreaks, open grassy areas (other than manicured lawns), and other natural elements on your property and adjoining properties. Also note which vital components are lacking, such as pollen/nectar sources throughout the growing season, nesting sites for birds and other wildlife, and a wide diversity of plant species.
Develop unbroken connections between your garden and the natural world. If you have a wildlife-friendly feature such as a tree or pond that’s disconnected from the rest of your garden, plant a variety of shrubs, tall grasses, and ground covers to link your cultivated garden beds to this feature. This will provide protective cover through which beneficial organisms—and the odd blue tortoise—can safely travel back and forth. If your garden inventory turned up important missing elements, such as berrying shrubs or a ground-level water source, add these to your new corridor.
Join forces with neighbors. If a neighbor’s trees abut your property, you can transform even a suburban backyard into a mini-woodland by adding trees of your own next to them. Or you can create a corridor of plantings that stretches from your neighbor’s old oak tree to a border of shrubs and ground covers and eventually to your pond or vegetable garden. Encouraging neighbors to link isolated stands of trees and shrubs can result in unbroken habitat “highways” that flow through entire neighborhoods.
Negotiate problems with neighbors. Not all connections are beneficial. For instance, several years ago our honeybees were being killed by pesticides that neighbors sprayed on their fruit trees. We distributed a flyer explaining the pollination value of bees and politely asked them not to apply pesticides to blossoming plants. (Hint: When negotiating, never underestimate the appeal of a bribe from your garden.)
Tips for fencing a “borderless garden”
• A border of berrying shrubs can double as an attractive boundary and a wildlife habitat.
• Open-rail or large-latticework fences allow free access for most wildlife while keeping dogs out of the pea patch.
• A row of tall shrubs or small trees provides a sense of privacy, while still allowing open space for wildlife to come and go.
Sandra Dark is a garden and science writer based in Norman, Oklahoma.