There's little that irritates me more than going to the garden center and seeing an array of gorgeous, well-made bird baths that are all completely and utterly useless. It seems that the manufacturers of such things have never really researched or even given the most cursory amount of thought to what qualities a bird might actually like to see in a birdbath. It's the same with ponds. Most commercially available ponds have steep, slick sides which make the water tough to access and limit the pond's value to wildlife.
Since providing water is one of the easiest ways that you can not only benefit wild creatures but attract them into your garden, it seems a no-brainer to take the time to get it right. After all, water isn't just for drinking. Butterflies get valuable minerals and salts from puddling about in shallow, slightly muddy sections of water. Salamanders and newts, frogs and toads, and even dragonflies use water as shelter and breeding grounds during different parts of their life cycles. Here's what you need to know to provide the best benefits to wildlife with your water sources.
Imagine for just a moment being as small as a bird or a frog, and consider how you would get in and out of your pond. Most commercial ponds have straight, slick sides that often have a lip over the top. This makes entry and exit a challenge, and completely eliminates the chance to step into a shallow and splash about while bathing.
If you have a pond like this already, consider building up one side so there's a little beach for birds and others to stand on and take a shallow dip. You could use large rocks and gravel to build up one side so that everyone can tiptoe in. A gently sloped entry starting at a very shallow depth (a quarter to a half inch) and slowly getting deeper is ideal.
I mean, you can't imagine a bird taking a bath in 3-foot-deep water, can you? It's the same for visitors such as butterflies and dragonflies. Both prefer a shallow area with a few small rocks sticking up above the surface to land on. If you scatter a little bit of sand or mud between the cracks of your rocks, butterflies will not only be able to drink but also will be able to get the nutrient benefits from the minerals in the soil.
This isn't an intuitive tip, but birds and insects have such small feet that the texture of most slippery birdbaths and fountains can make the difference between a space that's usable or a spot they'll have no choice but to ignore. Birds and pollinators such as bees simply can't grip onto glass and other smooth surfaces. A roughened texture provides a place for them to grip while they drink and bathe.
If you've already purchased a fountain or birdbath with an overly smooth texture, try adding rough stones and pebbles to the dish so birds and bees have a place to land and stand. You can even make this decorative by painting a couple of the stones to personalize them. Fern Richardson's book Small-Space Container Gardens has a great tutorial on how to do just that.
Splashing or trickling
If you love hummingbirds (and who doesn't?), consider a trickling fountain or a gentle waterfall leading to your pond. Hummingbirds love to drink from small falling streams of water. Even the smallest urban or balcony garden can attract hummingbirds with a dual-tiered fountain and a few plants for the birds to perch on while they scope out the scene.
Just make sure the water is more of a trickle than a rushing deluge. Again, imagine yourself the size of a hummingbird and think about the type of natural faucet you'd like to drink from. You don't want them to feel in danger of being dashed to the rocks!
Though we may think of our garden as a peaceful and benign place, wildlife has to be constantly aware of what predators might be nearby. Ponds should be at least three feet deep in some areas to provide the best chances for frogs and other wildlife to hide and escape predators. Inside your pond, provide some shelves or ledges to nestle under, and at least a few plants to provide cover.
Around the edges of the pond, it's a great idea to put a variety of plants that will gently drape over the side and provide places for wildlife to sun themselves while still being able to leap into the pond at a moment's notice. I often see frogs eating small garden insects in the vicinity of the pond, and thank goodness. Much as those little bitty flies are an important part of the ecosystem, I'd rather the frogs eat them than have them end up in my cocktail!
Even if you're just providing a birdbath or fountain, it's a good idea to make sure there are some trees or shrubs nearby that have an open view to the water source. If birds can land in a safe location and discern whether your cat is lying in wait, they'll feel much more comfortable having a drink and a splash. This goes for balcony gardens, too. A small Japanese maple in a pot would make the perfect perch from which to scope out the joint.
Don't forget winter
My last tip is a brief one: Further inland where water may stay frozen all day, don't forget that birds and other wildlife still need to drink. If you can provide a heated birdbath or other water source through the winter, you'll be doing a marvelous service for your local wildlife.
The wonderful thing about providing water for wildlife is that even if you've already got an existing pond, birdbath or fountain that has some flaws, it's pretty easy to fix — and it's well worth it. If you've read this far, I'm guessing you don't go in for the sterile fields of mulch and rock that many people try to pass off as landscaping. Inviting wildlife to share your space is one of the most satisfying elements in any garden.
Genevieve Schmidt has written for Fine Gardening Magazine, Garden Design Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor and other publications. She lives in Arcata, and owns Genevieve Schmidt Landscape Design and Fine Garden Maintenance. A version of this column appeared previously on her blog, northcoastgardening.com.