Become A Better Gardener By Exploring Your Backyard Ecosystem

Your yard is a busy community full of plants, animals, and insects that rely on each other for their survival.  This community is also known as an ecosystem, and when it is balanced and working properly, it benefits us too! 

Observing your backyard ecosystem and discovering the community that lives there is a GREAT project.  If you're a gardener, it can be the first step in encouraging beneficial insects into your flower beds, which can reduce or eliminate pest problems. If you have kids, it can be a wonderful way to teach them all the wonderful creatures that live in their own backyard.  

Here are my tips to help you conduct a successful (and safe!) observation.

Tools

Before you start observing, it helps to have some tools.  Fortunately, you probably already have these around your home!

  • Pen or pencil - to write with. . .because trust me, there's a lot to see, and you won't remember it all unless you write it down!
  • Notebook - to record your observations and make sketches.  A hardbacked notebook is best, or take a clipboard.
  • Magnifying glass and/or binoculars - to give you a better view, often from a safer distance
  • Camera - to capture images of your observations (cell phone cameras work great!)
  • Gardening Gloves - to protect your hands
  • Tape measure or ruler - to measure plants and other things you may see

What To Observe

  • Insects and Spiders - See if you can find at least 10 different insects that call your yard or garden home.  Look on the ground, on plants, and under stones.  Describe how they look: wings? how many legs? what color(s) are they?  where did you observe them? Take pictures if you can, and definitely wear your gloves to protect yourself from any stings or bites.
  • Plants - Look at plants that you grew, but also look for plants growing naturally around your yard.  Describe what the leaves look like, how tall and wide the plant is, if it is a tree, bush, or something else, if it has any fruit or flowers, and what animals and insects you notice around it.  Again, take pictures!
  • Animals - Look for the animals that live in and around your yard, and describe what they're doing. Eating? What are they eating? Drinking? And you know the drill. .. take pictures!

Tips

  • Timing Matters - Many insects and animals are most active around dawn or dusk, so time your observations with that in mind
  • Conduct Multiple Observations - Observing your yard or garden at several different times will start to tell a story. You'll realize that some animals are more active in the morning, and even some plants look different at certain times of day.
  • Be Quiet, Be Still - Sitting still and being quiet are key when it comes to successfully observing animals and insects. Consider bringing a lawn chair and setting up somewhere unobtrusive while you wait for visitors.
  • Keep Your Distance - NEVER approach wild animals. Even ones you may think are gentle can become aggressive if they are protecting young, or if they feel threatened.  Keep your distance, and use binoculars to get a closer view.

Using Your Observations

  • Figure out who is helping, and who is hurting your garden - Take pictures of insects and plants to your local Master Gardener Association, and ask them to help you identify what you observed.  This can give you a better understanding of the pests and the beneficials that call your garden home.
  • Plant more native species - If you notice there aren't many native plants in your yard, make a resolution to plant one or two this year.  
  • Protect your garden - If lots of deer or groundhogs or rabbits or other animals call your yard home, look into ways you can protect your plants, or garden with plants they don't like to eat.
  • Use fewer pesticides and herbicides - If you notice that your backyard community is, well, a ghost town, it may be time to back off on the pesticides and herbicides, which can kill both the bad guys AND the good guys in your garden.  

Of course, no matter what you see or how you use your observations, learning more about the amazing community in your backyard can help you appreciate how wonderful nature really is!

Feel like exploring? Join the Backyard Ecosystem Challenge! Watch the video to learn more, and click here to join!