Don’t stop with a garden. You could create a whole ecosystem with a little effort, says HEMA VIJAY

Do gardens need to be a manicured array of a few kinds of plants? Not if you are feeling adventurous. If you are, then why not think of creating a ‘backyard ecosystem’? In the middle of the city and right in your garden, you can see natural life unfolding.

Of course, having a complete ecosystem sounds ambitious and a trifle risky (think of snakes, for instance, though all snakes are not dangerous). On the other hand, urban gardens need not be restricted to a monotonous row of manicured plants either. A bit more biodiversity… think of butterflies, dragon flies, birds, garden lizards, squirrels, native greenery rather than exotic potted plants, mounds and valleys, and some non-manicured patches of land left to grow wild… and there you have your garden ecosystem. In fact, by making birds and insects welcome, you help in dispersal of seeds and pollination of plants, encouraging a stronger and more vibrant ecosystem on earth.

Backyard ecosystems also conserve biodiversity directly, by playing host to creatures like the harmless, useful and beautiful dragonfly that hovers like a helicopter and is among our most ancient insects, although at present dwindling in numbers.

A backyard ecosystem does require a certain attitude. Topmost is seeing the garden as a living system in constant interaction within itself. For instance, you must be ready to accept insects and their feeding off some of your foliage. Remember, the majority of insects are beneficial as pollinators, as a food source for birds and small mammals, and some insects actually feed on the insects that feed on your plants. And do allow the humble ‘farmer’s friend’ earthworm a free run to keep soil naturally fertile. This means, keep off chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Pick the plants

In general, the greater the type of plants, the greater will be the diversity of insect, bird and animal life that will drop in. Choose a mix of ground cover, shrubs and small trees.

“Flowering plants like hibiscus and ixora (idly poo) attract sunbirds and butterflies. The erythrina tree (mul murungai) with its red blossoms attracts birds like the myna, sunbird, tailor bird and white-headed babbler, which like this tree for its nectar and pods,” says K.V. Sudhakar, president, Madras Naturalists’ Society (MNS).

Bushes and trees with plenty of branches for birds to perch, nest, mate, and feed on, will tempt birds in seeing your garden as a sanctuary. “The wild murraya shrub that attracts insect visitors, the small bauhinia tree with its yellow, red or white blossoms, the mavalingam tree with its cream-yellow blossoms, these attract carnivorous birds like shikaras, small kites and owls. There is a huge variety of plants to choose from,” says Prof. D. Narasimhan, associate professor, Department of Botany, Centre for Floristic Research, Madras Christian College.

Tread carefully

It’s not easy to create such an ecosystem and it’s not for everyone. “People living in the house need to be taught to handle such a garden, such as avoiding snakes (a rare but possible eventuality), not disturbing bees, being observant, and spotting creatures. Maintenance is also crucial; the garden cannot be let to run too wild and get unmanageable. Keep the pond small, make sure the area doesn’t get slushy. Also, you could keep a narrow trail of flat stones to access the garden,” says Prof. Narasimhan.

A small pond can attract dragonflies but it will also attract mosquitoes, so make sure you introduce guppy fish to feed on the mosquito larvae. Bulrush weeds by the pond attract aquatic insects like water skaters.

There is also the hedge, a living fence of plants grown closely lined up. “Hedges attract creatures like the garden lizard, insects, and small mammals like the skink, says Sudhakar. “Hedges of nochi, adathoda, and maruthani serve the dual purpose of providing the household with medicinal herbs,” adds Narasimhan. You could allow creepers like betel and thoothuvalai to trail up tree trunks for the same reason.

Both ponds and hedges could also attract snakes, so be cautious and aware before you plan these. However, if thought out carefully and cared for well, there’s no pleasure quite like seeing an ecosystem thrive in your backyard.

Visitors welcome:

A single fruit tree like guava or mango attracts plenty of birds

A small bird-bath and grain-feeder helps garden visitors

Flowering plants attract bees and butterflies, active pollinators

Encourage ladybugs, which feed on aphids that attack roses and hibiscus

Guppy fish in ponds eat mosquito and insect larvae.