Animal HousingInsectsWorking Animals

Attracting Wild Animals for the Good of the Garden: Which, Why, and How

A colony of bats in a mango tree

Permaculture designs, especially on a large-scale, incorporate domesticated animals. For organic gardening, it just makes life a lot easier. Manure is key in growing anything. A timed circulation of grazing means the land gets cleared, fertilized and tilled by the animals’ natural patterns as opposed to the farmer’s sweat. Then, at some point, animals equate to food. The efficiency and logic are there and simple, but domesticated animals aren’t always a possibility. There are housing restrictions, acreage issues, and even dietary choices to contend with; however, that doesn’t mean a garden should or needs to be without animals.

Wild animals are wildly beneficial for gardens, from pollination to bug control to guano — not to mention that free roaming animals are how nature and eco-systems work, so laying out the welcome mat for wild animals is part of any good permaculture design. While they often receive bad press — the leaf-eating insects, vegetable-robbing rodents, and so on — wild animals do have their gardening superstars as well, and creating habitats for them can be really fun and funky while providing your garden with a free workforce of thousands. It’s all about pinpointing just exactly who the good characters are and how to get them to hang around.

Project #1: The frog pond
How to make a pond

Building a frog pond is a great way to encourage not just frogs and toads to hang around, but it also attracts birds looking for a quick bath and dragonflies hoping to lay some eggs. Frogs, toads, birds, and dragonflies, in turn, are great for controlling the insect population, feeding on any six-legged critters and plump caterpillars that try to get too abundant in the area. They also provide a lot of good music in the evenings and some entertaining animal spotting.

Frog ponds can vary in size, from tiny tire designs with multiple depths to rangy sprawls that cover a few square meters. In general, you want to put it in an area that gets dappled sunlight and with plenty of nooks and crannies — aka rocks and rotting wood, in which little animals can nestle safely. The pond, or at least areas of it, should be shallow, less than ten centimeters, as this depth works well for these particular types of wildlife. Then, it’s a waiting game. Soon enough, the animals will start to appear.

A few other watery thoughts:

  • Lots of people worry that the ponds will just become mosquito pits, but this shouldn’t be the case. Once the animals are in place, the mosquito population should actually decrease as a result of having the pond. A few small fish might also help with mosquitoes as well.
  • Most designs I’ve looked at include using plastic lining — either thick sheets of plastic or old plastic tubs — to keep the water from soaking into the soil. I’m trying au naturel solutions in which the soil is conditioned so that it holds the water. It’s working, but not perfectly. I based the idea off of Sepp Holzer’s method for sealing off ponds with compostables.
  • One sizeable pond is nice for adding atmosphere to the garden, but I also love hiding little ones around, that way the wildlife permeates throughout rather than centering around one spot.

Project #2: The insect hotel
A guide to building a bug hotel

I love these. Not only can they work as a wall, fence, or trellis somewhere, but they can really look great. Plus, people just love the idea of it. Of course, not all insects aren’t beneficial to the garden, but most are. Having a spot for centipedes, praying mantis, and ladybugs means the more troublesome bugs will have something to contend with. Plus, you’ve got to have the bad insects to get the good ones. You just want to make sure the good ones stay, so build them a nice hotel.

The idea behind the insect hotel is to be varied as to what habitats you include. Some bugs like rotting matter, stacks of stones, or wood to drill into — find a way to provide it all. Most of the hotels I’ve seen are sectional, with each section offering up a different kind of living experience. It makes for a really interesting structure (and follow up conversation piece) with a diverse population that puts old materials to good use.

More places to stay

  • I love the idea of this centralized area for insect traffic, but I’m still a big believer in putting stones and stumps throughout the garden so that the less cosmopolitan insects have some housing options. Not as awe-inspiring as the hotels, having the occasional pile of stuff — rocks, wood, newspaper, mud, used tin, etc. — around would likely create a similar effect but, perhaps, in a less obviously purposeful or attractive way.
  • Insect hotels are also good for attracting bees, which will help with pollination. Most native bees are not honeybees and don’t require a hive, but they still do their birds and bees thing with the flowers.
  • In reading the comments at the end of Bor Borren’s article, I noticed someone mentioned several smaller insect B&Bs as opposed to one “Grand Hyatt”. The idea seems sound (like the hidden frog ponds), but why not have both?

Project #3: The bat house
Making a bat house

It’s true: certain fruity bats might go after your food rather than the bugs eating it; however, bats on the whole are renowned for their insect hawking abilities. Luckily for me, I’ve got carnivorous insect eaters all over the property, and they’ve found natural habitats in mango trees and on the underside of massive banana leaves in the garden. It makes for the occasional creepy flyby during a walk through the food forest, but it’s a trade off I’m willing to accept.

However, you might not be so lucky. In that case, a bat house might just be the answer. Mainly, bats are looking for a place to be warm and dry, and somewhere they can dig their feet into for a little hanging time. They want out of the sun, of course, and like tight entrances for a little added safety. It also doesn’t hurt to put your bat house up high, like in a tree under some foliage, so that they feel safe (and so do you.)

Other homes for flyers

  • Similarly, raised nesting boxes would be useful for keeping birds around. Not only would they be able to bathe in the frog pond, but they could enjoy a little privacy afterwards.
  • Beehives are all the rage these days and with good reason. Honeybees are great pollinators and produce honey and beeswax, which are really useful. Here’s a great starter hive from the annals of Permaculture News.
  • Guano, bat and bird droppings, is killer fertilizer, so it’s not a horrible idea to incorporate a little poop-catching device beneath the bat houses and/or nesting boxes.

While domesticated animals are integral to many farm designs, its good practice to incorporate wild animals as well. They often appear on their own, but these projects are a fun way to help the process along and provide some interesting features on the homestead.

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


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