What Can We Learn from Trees?

When bulldozers ripped through the woods of the Humane Society of the United States, it was a foreshadowing of more trouble to come. Much has been lost in the upheaval at my former workplace. Will the nation’s largest animal protection organization recover and grow back, stronger than before? Perhaps, if the powers-that-be heed the lessons of trees.Image of walnut branch

The forest lies in a pile, waiting for pickup. Stacked with precision in their above-ground grave, the trees’ torsos are all that remain, stripped of the branches and roots that connected them to the sun, the sky, the earth, and each other.

Image of HSUS woods chopped downA road is about to run through the land where this community of plants once thrived, paving over a spot adjacent to the parking lot of the Humane Society of the United States. It will lead people to more restaurants, more shopping centers, and more circuitous routes where other forests once stood. The trees were the first to go, but as the bulldozers rolled in three weeks ago, no one could have predicted that, just a week and a half later, they’d be followed off the property by the CEO.

In both cases, the buildup took decades, but the ending was swift. Outside the red-brick HSUS headquarters, developers and planners with unyielding axes to grind against nature had long had the trees in their sightline. Inside, years of toxic workplace culture erupted into public view with allegations of sexual harassment, leading to the resignation of the organization’s longtime leader.

The days before and since have been difficult for my friends and colleagues at the HSUS, where I used to work. They’ve been devastating for the plants and animals at the edges of the property, who also made a living there.

But the people are resilient, and they will recover. Watching from afar as they’ve struggled for justice, I’ve gone from feeling enervated to empowered, inconsolable to inspired. As each new excruciating detail and misstep by the leadership has unfolded in the media, the victims and their advocates have rallied fast for change, spreading information and support across their social networks in rapid, uncompromising succession.

This is not unlike what trees do. Through an intricate underground network of roots and fungi, they send nutrients, water, and even chemical signals warning of impending attack. They can sense who’s most in need: A tree in the sun might send carbon to one in the shade, while a tree with excess nitrogen might pass some along to a weaker one nearby. Older trees, known as “hub trees” or “mother trees,” recognize their kin and connect with hundreds of others. Dying trees bequeath resources to those still living throughout the forest, leaving all they have to the next generation.

Though aboriginal cultures have respected forest relationships for ages, revering what they call “grandmother trees,” it’s taken Western societies thousands of years to catch up. Canadian ecologist Suzanne Simard, whose research on trees and their fungal partners launched a revolution in how we think about plants, likens the connectedness of the forest to the human social community that helped her fight breast cancer.

“It was this incredible magical network where you could just feel the love going from person to person …” she told Wisconsin Public Radio’s PRX. “For me, it was like I was living the very thing I was seeing in the forest.”


Image of oak leaves

For years in my old workplace, we had the opposite experience, our attempts at connection and teamwork stymied by mind games and dueling egos. Being an uber-confident single operator was rewarded. Being a thoughtful collaborator was not. That doesn’t mean we weren’t productive; the HSUS did—and continues to do—life-saving work for animals.

But the starpower culture of relentless competition and distrust stunted the growth of individual employees and held us back collectively. We had nearly all the ingredients for becoming a stronger, more resilient organization. Instead, employees toiled largely alone in survival mode, while managers struggled against one another to find sufficient resources for their teams.

It’s an outdated model, focused more on short-term gains than on lasting change. And it’s one that humans have long projected unequivocally—and inaccurately—onto nature, crediting only fierce competition for the advancing evolution of organisms. As German forester Peter Wohlleben describes in his book The Hidden Life of Trees, recent research shows there’s a lot more to it:

When trees grow together, nutrients and water can be optimally divided among them all so that each tree can grow into the best tree it can be. If you ‘help’ individual trees by getting rid of their supposed competition, the remaining trees are bereft. They send messages out to their neighbors in vain, because nothing remains but stumps. Every tree now muddles along on its own, giving rise to great differences in productivity. Some individuals photosynthesize like mad until sugar positively bubbles along their trunk. As a result, they are fit and grow better, but they aren’t particularly long-lived. This is because a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.

Trees need one another, even across species, just like people with different skills and backgrounds need one another too. After noticing that Douglas firs didn’t fare well when nearby paper birch saplings were removed, Simard discovered a symbiotic relationship: When the firs are under more shade in summer, birches send them carbon. And when the birches lose their leaves in the cold season, firs return the favor.

Such transfers are made through a buried superhighway of fungi that penetrate tree roots and send their mycelia—long, delicate white filaments—on an exploration into the soil. In exchange for sugars from the tree, these fungi find nutrients and water in places where tree roots can’t reach. They also link into a vast network that connects organisms across the forest.

“A forest is a cooperative system,” Simard told Yale Environment 360, “and if it were all about competition, then it would be a much simpler place.”


At the HSUS, we had our own kinds of mother trees, people of exceptional kindness and talent who shared their wisdom and light with those who needed it most. And like the trees in Wohlleben’s forest, we were bereft when they left. But my bosses saw it differently, with one admonishing us after a particularly painful departure that “everyone is replaceable.”

A recent Facebook debate reminded me of that attitude, only this time the discussion wasn’t about people. A friend expressed sadness over the tragic removal of an old tree, and a commenter quickly took her to task. A tragedy, he wrote, is when your child dies in a car accident, or when a combine lops off a farmer’s arms, or when a mother dies after giving birth: “You can’t grow that child or those arms or that mother back again … You can grow another tree.”

The implication was that one tree is the same as the next, easy to take out or plop in with no regard for the individual. But trees might beg to differ. When Wohlleben found what looked like a circle of stones in the forest, he was astounded to discover upon closer inspection that the “stones” were actually the perimeter of the remains of an ancient tree, still green beneath their bark and still very much alive. The stump may not have had any leaves to produce chlorophyll, but she was relying on something equally important: sugary gifts from friends and relatives who’d been nourishing her for centuries.

No stumps will be left in the barren ground behind the HSUS building, where birds and raccoons and opossums used to live. Deer have been wandering in confusion on the dusty land, a haunting scene Image of Mutts stripsrecalling two of my favorite Mutts cartoons I saved from the Washington Post years ago. Depicting a doe standing among bulldozers, the strips were eerily prescient, especially because they’d been penned by Mutts creator Patrick McDonnell, who resigned in protest from the HSUS board after its initial vote to retain the CEO two weeks ago.

“I need help,” the doe pleads. “I see you can build big malls, huge mansions, giant office buildings … Can someone please build me a forest?”


Image of Howard County Conservancy

When I left in 2014, I felt like a tree cut off from its network. The HSUS ecosystem was in trouble, and like a plant under attack by pathogens or power equipment, I conveyed plenty of warning signals to my managers and colleagues about what might come next. Eventually the lack of response became too painful, and I uprooted myself and moved on.

The trees behind the HSUS building didn’t have that opportunity to migrate, and now all the possibilities for regeneration—the seeds and roots and rhizomes—will be entombed under asphalt. In ecology, as in psychology, resilience is defined as the ability to withstand and overcome stressors and bounce back. But there is a threshold. Sometimes the disturbance is too great, the system too broken, the soil scraped too far down, the plants too hemmed in by concrete and asphalt and—especially in suburban areas where nature hovers uncertainly among people who take it for granted—profound neglect. If there is any hope of replacing what’s been lost, both in that HSUS patch and across our broader landscapes, we will all need to answer the pleas of Patrick McDonnell’s doe by building her many new forests.

But we need to do something else, too, as planting anew isn’t always the answer. Too often in modern society, we conclude that the only way to create a thriving landscape is to bring in fresh soil, new plants, and other expensive amendments from the garden center. In my work as a wildlife habitat consultant, I advocate for nurturing what’s already there, encouraging people to focus first on the gifts that nature brings in on her own—the trees and wildflowers carried in by birds and squirrels and wind.

I think of it as looking for the “bright spots” and building upon them—an approach outlined in Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. “To pursue bright spots is to ask the question ‘What’s working, and how can we do more of it?’ ” write the Heath brothers. “Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet, in the real world, this obvious question is almost never asked. Instead, the question we ask is more problem focused: ‘What’s broken, and how do we fix it?’ ”

At The HSUS, a lot was working, and a lot still is. Many of the results make the news: the dogs saved from the meat trade in South Korea, the fight to ban elephant trophy imports, the companies selling more humanely produced food, the hands-on care provided for chimpanzees who would otherwise have died in an abandoned research facility. But what’s less known is that behind the scenes are hundreds of employees, along with thousands of volunteer advocates, dedicating countless hours to making the world a better place for animals of all kinds. They are the bright spots.

Whether they’ll be nurtured and recognized now remains to be seen. A new interim CEO, a professional, smart and compassionate woman with years of experience and her own tales of sexual harassment to tell, is at the helm. But it’ll take a lot more than one person to heal a deeply wounded culture. It will take a whole forest of people.

The evolving leadership would be wise to engage them in nurturing a new actual forest outside the building as well, a space where people and animals can gather. My colleagues and I once found peace in those old woods, and it’s no wonder why; the evidence is abundantly clear that exposure to trees and birds and fresh air is essential to our spirits. Often the well-being of trees is inextricably linked to their relationships with us, too, as David George Haskell writes in The Songs of Trees:

Survival increases when saplings are embedded within the human social network. A tree planted by its human neighbors will live longer than one placed by an anonymous contractor. When a tree bears a tag naming it and listing its needs—water, mulch, loose soil, no litter—its probability of survival jumps to nearly 100 percent. A street tree that is granted personhood and membership, one that is noticed, loved, and given identity and history, lives longer than a municipal object, arriving with no context and living with no collaborators.

Like the trees, the people of the HSUS would also thrive under such care. They deserve to be noticed, their voices heard and their histories acknowledged. Adding more superstars—or holding up a few people as more important than the rest—is not the answer. Instead, the new leaders should base their approach on the mutualism of the forest, nurturing the immense talent that’s already there. They should identify the “bright spots” and recognize the contributions of each individual to the health of the whole organization: the mother trees with links to vast networks, the quieter trees struggling along in the shade, the saplings just waiting for a little light to come through the canopy so they can grow—as Wohlleben wrote—into the best trees they can be.

Image of tree in Arizona state park


Photos by Nancy Lawson/Humane Gardener

Finding Nature in a Chilean Backyard

When Soledad Robledo moved to the countryside, she faced new challenges she hoped The Humane Gardener book would help answer: “How can I coexist with nature?” she wrote in an email from Chile last summer. “How can I remove uninvited guests? How can I convey this learning to my community?” A few months later, she followed up with this thoughtful submission to our ongoing feature, “Where in the World Is The Humane Gardener?

The Humane Gardener in Soledad Robledo's garden

Where in the world is The Humane Gardener? Rinconada de Los Andes, Chile

Who’s reading: Soledad Robledo

How The Humane Gardener has inspired me: First, home gardens supposedly had to follow certain aesthetics, with exotic flowers and neatly kept spaces. My idea of what a “beautiful” backyard is has changed. Now I’m aware that nature has various designs, shades and textures. And most importantly, it’s full of life.

Image of Soledad Robledo's gardenEducation is key. I had no idea that lawns didn’t welcome the natural cycles. But then again, my childhood house’s grass was nice, but not many insects were around. Besides, lots of water had to be used to keep it green throughout the year. Let’s not even mention the chemicals that advertising persuaded us to buy!

I thought nature only existed in mountains and natural parks. But animals and vegetation do exist, on a smaller but equally important scale, in the neighborhood park or on an apartment’s balcony. People like you and me have the power to heal the planet by the actions and lifestyles they choose to live by. And that starts at home.

How do I help nature?
Image of beetle closeup in Soledad Robledo's garden
This beetle would be safe if he wandered into the Robledo household, where Soledad gently escorts wild visitors back outside.
Dicot and Mol tree in Soledad Robledo's garden
Porlieria chilensis (foreground) and Acacia caven (left) are among the Chilean native plants growing on the property.

My family and I saved as many native plants as we could the minute our house began to be built. There are several Acacia caven trees, which get water through their long roots. Springtime sprouts the delicate purple Conanthera campanulata flowers by the dozens. Also, my husband and sister saved a tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca) that was about to be cut down and transplanted it at our house. A giant hummingbird visits it every day!

We didn’t cut down any dead trees. Then we planted some ivy by one of them. It looks poetic. I’ve even seen birds resting on them. All trees equal life.

Image of mullein and pollinators
Though originally from Europe, northern Africa and Asia, great mullein (Verbascum thapsus) has naturalized in Chile, as it has in the U.S. Syrphid flies and other pollinators visit the flowers.

Last but not least, if an uninvited guest such as a cricket or beetle came in, I’d politely take it outdoors where it’d meet up with the rest of its buddies again. But this wouldn’t be the case for mice. We eliminated one last fall. That made me feel so guilty that I made up my mind to find a humane solution next time. So about a month ago when a little mouse visited the kitchen, my dear husband helped me get it into a box, releasing it in a nearby ravine immediately. Today, I truly understand that all creatures have to be respected.

Where will The Humane Gardener sprout next? Read all about it, and tell us your story!

*Photos by Soledad Robledo

The Humane Gardener: Indiana’s Sharon Patterson

The ducks have eaten the water lilies. The chickens have eaten the vegetables. Raccoons and hawks occasionally try to eat the chickens. And dogs help keep them all in line in this garden oasis for domestic and wild animals alike. Learn more about this peaceful coexistence in the latest dispatch of the Humane Gardening Heroes series.
Image of Chicken dinnertime in Sharon Patterson's garden
Meet the girls: Chickens Zuri, Pansy, Mavis, Sandy, Cora and Barbie show up for a corn-on-the-cob happy hour, with their duck friends trailing behind. (Photo: Nancy Lawson)

It’s almost dinnertime at Sharon Patterson’s house, but if she’s hungry at all, she’s not complaining. Besides, her own belly will have to wait. There are too many other mouths to feed here.

Image of Sharon PattersonAs she peels corn on the small deck overlooking the garden, the chickens at her feet squawk and trill in anticipation. Golden retrievers Sadie and Waldo wander among the flock protectively. Elderly Max, a Rottweiler mix, shyly keeps his distance inside on his bed, while ChaCha, one of two sister cats, perches on a chair on the front porch. In a pond behind the deck, there are also fish to be fed.

By far the most demanding gourmands are the ducks, who get the royal treatment as soon as they wake up. Today’s breakfast for all the big birds included oatmeal mixed with seed and lettuce, as it does every day, Patterson explains. Whenever they don’t receive such delicacies in a timely manner, they let her know.  “I put their bowl of food by the pond because they like to eat and then jump in the pond,” she says. “And so if I don’t feed them this now, they’re so spoiled that they’ll run out to where the food should be. And if it’s not there, then I’m hearing ducks: ‘Honk, honk, honk, honk, honk. Where’s our breakfast?’ ”

Image of duck pond in Sharon Patterson's garden

Image of ducks in Sharon Patterson's garden
Ducks in a row: Diamond and Duck-Duck, both rescues, follow Callie down the garden path while one of the chickens races to cut corners (above). Patterson made a separate water feature for the ducks (top) after they ate her water lilies in her first pond. (Images: Nancy Lawson)

Despite the hand-delivered meal service, the animals on this quarter-acre farm in Indianapolis also enjoy foraging for their own treats. “Good girl!” Patterson says encouragingly to one chicken scratching the ground. “Mavis, come out!” she calls to another who has gone into a prohibited area of the vegetable garden. But Patterson laughs about their haphazard cultivation skills: “I always have so much ‘help.’”

Image of bee balm and ferns in Sharon Patterson's garden
Chicken wire keeps bee balms, ferns and lilies from being yanked out by foraging birds. (Photo by Sharon Patterson)

Listen closely, and beyond the contented murmuring of the domesticated birds, you can discern the soft songs of wilder feathered friends and the chirping of crickets backed by a low airplane roar overhead and the splash of the ducks’  waterfall. Lining paths that wind their way to the vegetable gardens and ponds are elderberries and pokeweed, hibiscus and bee balm, black-eyed Susans and sea oats—a buffet for all the wild visitors to this urban oasis.

It’s a scene Patterson couldn’t have imagined when she first moved to her house in 1987 and planted a few hostas passed along by her mother. Growing up in Chicago, she relished the evenings spent on the front porch with her dad as he proudly watered his small patch of grass. But Patterson didn’t come from a gardening family and was too busy to think much about plants in her earlier career. She worked for IBM, raised a daughter, Erin, and eventually started a medical transcription company. Once an avid runner, she also completed three marathons and 25 half-marathons.

Image of straw bale garden in Sharon Patterson's garden
Patterson likes to experiment in the garden, using straw bales to grow cabbage and other plants (above). She also dabbles in hugelkultur, the practice of making beds filled with decaying wood; her first hugelkultur bed included green beans and butterflyweed. (Photo by Sharon Patterson)

Since finding her new calling as an urban farmer, she says, “I’ve learned stuff I had no idea I would want to learn.” She knows how to cure chickens of a common foot disease, and she can grow kale in straw bales. She sometimes uses blackberry leaves from her garden in her soap making—a craft she studied so intensively that she now has a company named after her granddaughter, Azure’s Secret Handmade Soaps.

Image of sunflowers in Sharon Patterson's gardenThe gardening adventures started after Patterson left the corporate world in 1993 and began planting a few tomatoes and greens and peas. “And then one thing kind of led to another, and eventually I started thinking, I really need to be more serious about this because I want to take care of myself and I want to be responsible for what I’m eating. So that ultimately led to finding more ways to grow stuff.”

When Patterson learned about the plight of hens in factory farms, where the birds are squeezed so tightly into cages they can’t even turn around, she could no longer countenance buying eggs at the grocery store. “It just made me very, very sad,” she says. “And I thought, this can’t be good. You can’t be getting something good out of something so horrible.”

Patterson’s first chicken took an instant liking to her, sitting in her lap for naps and even jumping onto her head. That sealed the deal. “She was the sweetest girl. That’s when I fell in love with them.”

Image of Barbie the chicken in Sharon Patterson's garden
The dogs help protect Barbie and other chickens from hungry raccoons, but everyone is welcome in this garden. (Photo: Nancy Lawson)

Seven years later, “the girls” are her beloved pets. Each morning, after she and the dogs walk a few miles, Patterson lets all the birds out to have the run of the yard. She takes her morning coffee to sit with them for a while; in the winter she bundles up and brings along a heat lamp to keep warm. Sadie serves as mother hen, protecting the birds from would-be predators and barking when danger is in their midst. “These are her babies,” Patterson says.

Juvenile raccoons have twice found their way into the coop while it was being remodeled to make higher perches. But with the help of the dogs and a broom to bang on the outside walls, Patterson humanely evicted them. She doesn’t blame the raccoons and even laughs about the time she failed to fully secure the birdseed container, finding a mess on her hands the next day. “He ate some of the peanuts, and there were sunflower seeds everywhere,” she says. “He must have been sitting inside, just eating, so he had a great time.”

Everyone is out to eat something or someone here, so Patterson finds a careful balance between open invitations and humane exclusions. Fencing surrounds many of the plantings to keep the chickens from pulling them out of the ground, but at the end of the season, she opens up parts of the vegetable gardens so they can chow down: “I say, ‘Have at it, girls!’ ” The ducks made short work of the water lilies in the pond when they first arrived, so Patterson fenced them out and built a new water feature just for the birds.

“It’s not up to me to decide whether they have the right to be here or not,” says Patterson of the local wildlife. “Of course they have the right to be here.”

Squirrels have tried Patterson’s patience from time to time, eating her hazelnuts just as they’re ripening. But she’s made a game of it, trying to time the harvest so she can enjoy a few nuts too: “Whoever gets there first gets them.”

“It’s not up to me to decide whether they have the right to be here or not,” says Patterson of the local wildlife. “Of course they have the right to be here. This is where they were first, and we’ve taken their space. Many of them, of course, have acclimated so that they’re OK working alongside humans. But it’s got to be tough for them.”

Image of Sadie on sofa in Sharon Patterson's garden
Sadie rules the roost. Rescued by Patterson as a stray, she’s a mother hen to her bird “babies.” (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

All creatures find empathy and safety here: Fun-loving Sadie wasn’t always so happy; when a friend found her at 6 months old with a rope tied around her neck, Patterson took her in. Max the Rottie mix still bears emotional scars from his puppyhood; Erin discovered him abandoned and nearly dead in a neighbor’s garage. “He was so emaciated,” says Patterson. “I looked at him and thought, this dog’s not going to make it through the night.”

Max is 14 now, timid but happy and often snoring through the household’s busy days. In the years since he joined the family, Patterson’s packed schedule includes active involvement in organizations that teach food self-reliance. She joined a community garden and is president of the Marion County Master Gardeners Association, where she’s hosted speakers like Jonathan Lawler, who is addressing an urgent need for access to healthy food. Once the owner of a for-profit farm, he transformed his operation after hearing about his son’s classmate who couldn’t afford lunch. A young visitor to the farm provided further inspiration. “There was a little black girl who was out with her school. And [Lawler] said, ‘Would you like to be a farmer?’ And she said, ‘Well, I can’t be.’ And he said, ‘Well, why can’t you be?’ And she said, ‘Well, because I’m black.’ ”

Brandywine Creek Farms now helps other organizations start urban farms amd donates produce to food pantries. Lawler is someone who makes things happen, says Patterson, and it’s part of her mission to spread the word. “There’s so many really cool people out there doing so many different and cool things,” she says. “It’s exciting to be able to share that.”

Image of Front_Yard_Sharon_Patterson
Canna lilies mingle with goldenrod, snakeroot, bloodroot, sea oats, passionflower vine, and other bee- and bird-friendly plants in the front gardens. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)
Image of sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes dry near the deck (above) while pumpkins ripen on the pergola behind Patterson (below). The pergola also supports coral honeysuckle vine, a favorite of hummingbirds. (Photos by Nancy Lawson)

All the animals have eaten their evening meal now, and it’s almost time for the annual potluck dinner at the community garden. Patterson has prepared a pie made of homegrown sweet potatoes. More sweet potatoes are drying on a rack by the deck, awaiting winter storage. On the pergola—which was built by a neighbor in exchange for an old camper Patterson was giving away—six Long Island cheese pumpkins will will soon be ready to harvest, too. Coral honeysuckle vines wind up the posts and invite hummingbirds, who also enjoy the canna lilies in the front yard. Over the course of the season, blue jays, cardinals, finches, red-winged blackbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and Baltimore orioles will come through to feast upon insects and seeds of Joe Pye weed, goldenrods, and other wildflowers.

Image of Sharon Patterson

A blue parakeet even makes an appearance every year with the same flock, and Cooper’s and red-tailed hawks visit. The neighborhood is in a flight path for more than airplanes, situated only a half-mile from Indianapolis’s Monon Trail, a tree-lined wildlife corridor that follows an old railroad.

Patterson’s small but lush property stands as an example of how easily that corridor could be extended across neighborhoods and entire communities. “My yard is not something anyone would consider beautiful except for me, possibly,” she says. But it’s exactly what she intended. “I knew what I liked. I knew what looked pretty to me, and I wanted to do something that was beneficial, too—not a tulip but something that was beneficial for the environment and for the other critters.”

Image of stream in Sharon's yard
A stream beyond the deck provides more water for wildlife. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

The neighbors also get to share in the bounty; when the sunchokes grow so robustly they start pushing up bricks lining her beds, Patterson digs some up and puts them in a bucket on her front porch, posting messages for anyone who wants some tubers. She shares her divided canna lilies, too, spreading the goodness of the Earth well beyond her own backyard.

Resources for the Indianapolis Region
Image of the Monon Trail
Owls hoot at dusk along the Monon Trail, which follows the path of an old railroad. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Native Plants and Wildlife Gardening: Learn about Indiana flora by joining the Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society (INPAWS) on hikes, at native plant sales, and at annual conferences. Check out the habitat programs offered by the Indiana Wildlife Federation, which has suggestions for creating an oasis for animals in your own backyard. Share ideas and knowledge with other gardeners by joining the Marion County Master Gardener Association.

Image of Bill Brink Memorial Garden sign
Dedicated to a beloved photographer and naturalist, native plantings along the Broad Ripple section of the trail beckon wildlife. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Parks and Natural Areas: A gem for nature lovers in the heart of the city, the Monon Trail follows the path of an abandoned railroad, inviting runners, bikers and many wildlife species into its canopy. A walk from the Broad Ripple neighborhood toward the river feels like a hike into a hidden forest, where owls begin hooting at dusk. The native plantings of the Bill Brink Memorial Garden, named in honor of the wildlife photographer and naturalist who cofounded INPAWS, are an inspirational addition to the trail.

Image of garden at Public Greens
Kale, chard and corn constitute a mini-food forest outside Public Greens. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Community Gardens: Indianapolis has a number of urban agriculture programs to help increase access to nutritious food. Public Greens, a restaurant that grows produce on-site and donates all profits to the Patachou Foundation, aims to feed healthy meals to food-insecure children. Growing Places Indy creates and manages urban farm sites, while local endeavors like the Keystone-Monon Community Garden in Patterson’s neighborhood strive to grow community connections by growing and harvesting food together.

Find more profiles, tips, and inspiration in my book, The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife.

Wildlife and Swimming Pools: Can They Coexist?

Each year millions of animals hop, crawl, slither, fly or fall into pools. Most don’t make it out. With a little creativity and the help of products that provide escape routes, can we have our wildlife and our swimming pools too?
Image of swimming pool gate from patio garden
An abundant garden feeds and shelters hummingbirds, bees, frogs, squirrels, rabbits and many other creatures outside our pool (above). Tree frogs perch in treetops but are just as content in the potted plants we move from the basement to the patio each spring (top).

During the warm season, our place is always hopping. American toadlets leap around the downspouts in early summer, diving into surrounding leaf litter when we pass by. Tree frogs climb high into the sassafras grove and perch on potted rubber plants on the patio, the mini kings of our jungle. Wood frogs pop up unexpectedly in the shade of an old ash tree, reminding us even in the solitary moments of gardening that we are never truly alone.

Image of wood frog in garden

Image of Toadlet on downspout2
Wood frogs keep us company as we meander about in the shade garden, while baby American toads find habitat near the downspout. (Photos by Nancy Lawson)

These are the happy moments, the times when I know our home is a haven for many more species than just my own. In the 17 years my husband and I have been here, the once sterile property with two acres of lawn and a smattering of invasive shrubs has come alive, a place so packed with trees and hedgerows and wildflowers that we never know who will decide to start a family here next.

Image of box turtle in swimming pool
When a box turtle wandered into the pool, he used the pool cleaner connector as a life preserver. Animals in need of sloping sides to climb out are stymied by the ninety-degree angles of pool walls.

But on this patch of paradise where all animals are welcome, there is one spot I wish no wild resident would go: our swimming pool. In backyards across the U.S., such refreshing oases for humans can become death traps for frogs and other animals. Without the sloping sides of natural ponds and stream banks, the clear water invites visitors in but offers no way out.

The problem receives so little attention that even wildlife biologists like Rich Mason have been surprised to discover the extent of the harm pools can inflict. “As a kid, swimming pools were a source of great joy,” says Mason, now 56. “And then when I got a call in 2004 from our good friends who are basically around the corner from our house—they had just built a swimming pool on a wooded lot, and they said every single day there were dead frogs in the pool—I couldn’t believe it.”

Even if each in-ground pool killed one frog per season, the cumulative death tool would be at least 5 million. But “it’s way more than that,” says Mason.

Close to 10 million pools, about 5 million of them in-ground, dot backyards and public spaces across the country. Even if each in-ground pool killed one frog per season, the cumulative death tool would be at least 5 million. But “it’s way more than that,” says Mason, especially when considering the many sensitive habitats where pools exist: near the wetlands of Florida and South Carolina, in wooded regions of New England and Canada, and across dense suburban areas of California, where many wild species are considered threatened or endangered.

In Mason’s friends’ pool alone, 53 frogs were found in a single morning after a warm, rainy night. The impact was overwhelming for Mason, whose job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service involves restoring wetlands degraded by croplands, timber harvesting and roadways. The discovery of another major killer of aquatic wildlife was surprising enough, but the bad news didn’t end there: “I went on the Internet, and there was literally no information,” he remembers. “I figured that some scientists would have kind of studied this, but I couldn’t find anything. I was shocked.”

Image of frog on Frog Log in swimming pool
Since its invention 13 years ago, the Frog Log has become a staple in swimming pools of people who care about wildlife. It’s made by Swimline, after Mason tracked down the company at a trade show to seek help. “I quickly realized that if I really wanted to save more animals, someone else was going to have to manufacture and distribute it,” says Mason, who has a family and a day job as a wildlife biologist. (Photo courtesy Rich Mason)

Mason sprung into action, developing an easy-to-use but profoundly effective flotation device called the Frog Log; his early prototype was so successful it saved 47 American toads and three green frogs during a three-week testing period. Mason’s motivation was simple: “I’ve always rooted for underdogs, and our natural systems are underdogs.” In the years since the first iteration of the Frog Log, countless frogs, toads, mice, chipmunks, bees, wasps, bats, and endangered snakes have climbed the mesh ramp to safety in pools across North America and beyond. The Frog Log even saved an armadillo in Florida who clung to it until the pool owner could transport him to dry ground. “What we’ve determined is if you give animals a way out of a swimming pool, most of them will find it,” says Mason.

Image of baby toads rescued from swimming pool
Three months after we moved into our home and the snow melted, we discovered the cover of our new pool was a breeding ground for toads and frogs. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

When we bought our house, we hadn’t even seen the pool yet. It was a wintry March, and the backyard was covered in snow. The April thaw revealed a flat blue cover pulled tightly against the walls, and May breeding season revealed something else: baby American toads—hundreds of them who’d grown up in the swampy waters atop the cover—looking desperately for a way out, only to run up against a 90-degree angle. Friends and I spent many hours scooping them out and placing shallow trays of the brackish water nearby, hoping our tiny charges would visit those instead.

Image of mating toads in swimming pool
The current pool cover stretches over the side so the offspring of these romantic spring trysts can climb out. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Since then, we’ve traded that original pool cover for one that slopes over the edges, providing easy exits. In the spring it becomes a kind of makeshift vernal pool, inviting amphibians to start getting randy, and we remove the cover only after the resulting baby toads have grown old enough to hop away to their new life.

Image of mouse on frog log in swimming pool
The blue cover has worn off one of our older Frog Logs after years of use, but that’s fine with this mouse, who found his way out and began catching insects to nibble. (Photo by Will Heinz)

Still, I have a love/hate relationship with our pool. It’s been the scene of wonderful gatherings of family and friends looking for relief from the sweltering Maryland summers. The sound of children splashing and laughing as they learn to swim has been music to my ears. Bats swooping down for a sip in the evenings delight my husband, who hides under the diving board for optimal viewing. But while we never lose frogs thanks to the Frog Log and have seen mice climb up its ramp to safety as well, every summer my husband finds at least one dead mouse. And insects—especially some water-loving beetles—are drawn into the pool in significant numbers at certain times of the year. Once a box turtle wandered in and lay on the plastic tubing of the pool cleaner as if it were a log. Though she ambled on her way after my husband quickly carried her out, I worried about her exposure to the chlorinated water.

Considering all these lurking dangers, is filling in our pools the only solution? I posed the question to Mason. He’s a man with a lifelong affinity for animals that was first cultivated during camping trips, weekly viewings of Jacques Cousteau and Wild Kingdom, time spent nursing injured wildlife in his backyard, and a mom who taught him to be kind. But he’s also a reasonable person who knows the human species well. “I don’t think we should be advocating that,” he said of my down-with-pools idea. “That’s not going to get us in good graces with anybody.”

Can we have our humane habitats and our swimming pools, too? It’s still an open question for me.

As I think about my husband, I know Mason is right. Will is just as devoted as I am to helping the wildlife and has protected and nurtured many animals in our growing habitat over the years. But the pool is a source of exercise and meditation for him, a continuation of a lifelong routine he started as a child at his family’s rural home. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to my own sense of relief and therapy in its calming waters, too.

So what is a wildlife gardener to do? Can we have our humane habitats and our swimming pools, too? It’s still an open question for me, but the following tips can help greatly mitigate the dangers.

Image of bee on frog log in swimming pool
Especially in large pools, multiple Frog Logs give animals a better chance of finding a quick way out. We also leave pool floats and noodles in the water to help bees, dragonflies and other insects. (Photos by Nancy Lawson)

Image of Dragonfly on pool float

Create an escape-route highway. The more Frog Logs you add, the more animals you’ll help, especially if your pool is large. Typically frogs circle the perimeter looking for a way out, but I’ve rescued crickets who repeatedly swim up against the same patch of wall, apparently looking for a slope to climb. Small mammals may search along the edge for an escape, but they are less adept swimmers and exhaust themselves more quickly than frogs do.

Multiple ramps provide quicker exits, saving these creatures from drowning and prolonged exposure to chlorine, the long-term effects of which are still unknown. Even if an animal escapes, will he later die from chlorine poisoning? It’s not clear, says Mason: “I know of no research that has happened.” While bullfrogs sometimes take up residence on Frog Logs, their diminutive counterparts may be more negatively affected. “Just anecdotally, we’ve noticed that the smaller animals are much more susceptible to the chlorine and that they don’t last nearly as long.”

Put the filter to bed. Turning off the filter at night is “one of the most important things you can do,” says Mason. Many animals are crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) or nocturnal, and if the filter is running, they may get swept up into the skimmers before finding a Frog Log. Filters are generally most needed during the day anyway, when algae and residue from body oils and lotions can accumulate.

Image of spider on Critter Skimmer in swimming pool
Our new Critter Skimmer has given safe passageway to insects swept toward the skimmer baskets. Some even seem to like to inhabit the ramp. One morning when I checked the contraption to see if anyone needed help getting out, this spider was in no hurry to leave and crawled onto the underside, possibly hoping to catch easy prey. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Ramp up your skimmers. For those animals who do end up in the skimmer, a spiral-shaped ramp attached to the bottom of its cover offers safe passage to solid ground. Called the Critter Skimmer, this product is new in my pool but already appears to provide an easy exit for beetles, whom I find now hanging out on the top of the cover instead of swimming haplessly in the skimmer basket.

But animals must reach the skimmer before they even find the spiral ramp, and by then they may be poisoned by chlorine. Place a Frog Log upstream of the skimmer to allow frogs and others to exit that way first, and use the Critter Skimmer as a backup to help creatures who’ve bypassed it.

Image of butterfly outside swimming pool
Outside the pool, our patio garden draws swallowtail butterflies and many bees. Inside the pool fence, I’ve started converting the gardens to plants with fewer flowers or blooms that aren’t so enticing. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Fence and plant strategically. Enclose your pool with fencing to deter access. If your budget allows, consider screening in the entire pool—an expensive but effective way to let in air and sunshine while saving lives.

If possible, keep bees safe by locating plants that attract them outside the pool area. Inside our pool fence I’ve begun to cultivate native ferns. And though I normally replace daylilies with more wildlife-friendly plants, I’ve decided to leave them in this spot for now; they aren’t the invasive kind and, importantly for bees, lack the goodies that would entice pollinators too close to the water.

Image of Frog on frog log in swimming pool
Some animals like this green frog seem to like to hang out on the Frog Log, but we prefer to move them away from the pool because of concerns about chlorine exposure. A stream runs through the woods behind our house, but we plan to also add a pond to our habitat like the one below, where rocks and slopes provide steady footing for a chipmunk and other animals. (Photo above by Will Heinz; photo below by Kathy Milani)

Image of Chipmunk by pond

Give animals their own “swimming pool.” Provide animals with an alternative by installing a pond. Be sure to angle the sides into a sloping shape, and add well-placed rocks so everyone can climb out. Not only will animals feed and breed there, but your pond will also give you a place to relocate aquatic species you find in your pool.

Monitor constantly. Check pool skimmers at least twice a day, and closely observe activity around the pool. Never leave the area unattended for long periods; if animals get used to a human-free zone and start coming too close, tragedy can strike, as it did when one of our relatives left on a months-long trip and a fox family fell into his half-filled pool and died.

Protect amphibians and other wildlife in the broader environment by eliminating the use of fertilizers and pesticides and planting native species that will filter the groundwater.

Protect and restore wetlands. Help amphibians in other ways by reducing damage to their natural habitats, Mason advises. “Our stream networks are so impaired,” he says. “We’ve so upset the natural cycling of water, and the result of that has been severely degraded stream channels.” Floodplains no longer catch polluted waters for absorption and filtering, and muddy waters head downstream from eroded banks, resulting in poor environments for amphibians and many other creatures. Though Mason works on a broad scale to solve these issues, homeowners with smaller patches of land can do their part, too. Eliminate the use of fertilizers and pesticides to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, and other pollutants. Plant rain gardens and other native plant gardens to direct runoff into the soil, where contaminants can be filtered.

Image of pickerel frog
This pickerel frog probably lived in the stream behind our house but came to visit one day, watching us from the sidewalk near the pool. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

As his invention continues to help animals throughout the world, including in pools at a South African national park, Mason is developing other ideas for mitigating backyard hazards to wildlife. Still as amazed and overwhelmed by the diversity of life on the planet as he was in his younger days, he wants to continue to do his part to protect that life and hopes other scientists will start studying the swimming pool conundrum. In the meantime, he’s made it a lot easier for everyone else who cares about wildlife to be part of a simple and lifesaving solution.

This bumblebee found safety on a Frog Log—and then on my hand to dry off in the sun before flying away:

Learn more about mitigating  backyard hazards in my book, The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife.

*Featured image of tree frog by Nancy Lawson; pool gate photo by Cristina Bäckman

The Humane Gardener: Virginia’s Toni Genberg

A visit to this suburban property outside Washington, D.C., feels like returning to a land time forgot, a place where salamanders, hummingbirds, chipmunks, caterpillars, and deer thrive among the humans welcoming them back to their long-lost home. Learn more about the rare transformation in this fifth dispatch of the Humane Gardening Heroes series.
Image of squirrel rubbing eye
Logs become sofas and highways for animals in Genberg’s garden. (Photo above and featured image: Toni Genberg)

When neighbors kick fallen leaves to the curbside for county pickup and discard tree trimmings like trash, Toni Genberg thinks of the wilder residents of her community who would appreciate these natural treasures: the robins and white-throated sparrows who like to peck through the leafy layers, the salamanders who take cover in the moisture, and the firefly larvae who make “happy meals” out of the earthworms and slugs beneath. She considers the pileated and downy woodpeckers drilling for insects in logs, the chipmunks making prostrate branches into superhighways, and the squirrels lying on top of it all like lounge lizards claiming their domains.

Toni Genberg admires a bumblebee on false indigo flowers. (Photos above and below: Nancy Lawson)

Image of false indigo with bee

These are just a few of the animals who have made a home in Genberg’s quarter-acre humane garden in Falls Church, Virginia, where dead plants take center stage among the living. Even in a habitat filled with lushly blooming native species in every layer of the canopy—silky dogwoods, persimmons, elderberries, milkweeds, asters, sweetspires, coneflowers, columbines, coral honeysuckles, false indigos—decaying organic matter takes on a life of its own. “Planting the plants is one thing,” says Genberg. “Equally important is leaving the leaf litter and branches and logs. I have on many occasions dragged branches home from nearby curbs.”

Image of stump
In this magical space, it’s not hard to imagine a hobbit joining the animals peeking out from beneath the logs lining the stone  pathways. From behind a moss-covered stump topped by an Easter Island Maoi carved by a friend out of a declining oak tree, a squirrel surveys his surroundings. Into a brush pile covered by Virginia creeper vines, a chipmunk dives for cover. Next to the patio, a newer pile of stems and small branches that Genberg had intended to distribute elsewhere already shows signs of occupancy. “That wasn’t supposed to be there,” she says. “But someone’s living in there now, so I have to leave it.”

Image of Carolina wren in brush pile
Brush piles give Carolina wrens and other animals places to take cover and feed even during the cold days of winter. (Photo by Toni Genberg)
Image of Toni Genberg's garden
In front of the jewelweed patch Genberg leaves for hummingbirds and deer, a carving made by a friend gives clues about some of her interests, depicting her native Hawaiian islands, a video camera, a flower, and skulls. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

She didn’t intend to have so much jewelweed under the dogwoods either, but now she has to leave that, too, because deer eat it and hummingbirds sip from the blooms. But though these sound like laments, they are really more of a celebration, representing to Genberg all the life that a small yard near a major thoroughfare in the middle of mowed-down suburbia can support. The hummingbirds who catch gnats in midair and the bird who once landed on Genberg’s head are favorite visitors, but everyone else is welcome here, too. “From aphids to leafhoppers to milkweed bugs, we embrace them all,” Genberg says. “I understand that ‘pests’ have a place in our habitat, too.”

Image of hummingbird_Genberg garden
A hummingbird sipping sap from a tree will also find plentiful flowers in this habitat, including coral honeysuckle, red columbine, and cardinal flower. (Photos by Toni Genberg)

A lifelong nature lover, Genberg doesn’t just rescue discarded decaying matter destined for the county compost pile. She also helps save plants, volunteering at Earth Sangha, a nursery that propagates species from wild-collected seeds for use in restoration projects and sale to gardeners. In her role as a transporter for Wildlife Rescue League, she has picked up and delivered opossums, barred owls, crows, ducklings and other injured and orphaned animals to area rehabilitators.

Closer to home, she has been so incensed and heartbroken by the effects of rodenticides that she now conducts a mini-campaign against them. After finding a rat bleeding from his nose, she hand-delivered 50 copies of an educational letter to neighbors. As a Virginia master naturalist, she created a display for the City of Falls Church Farmers Market that shows images of the victims of secondary poisoning—the hawks, owls, foxes, and pets who eat smaller animals killed by rodenticides. Children are especially moved and bring their parents to take a look. “People are attracted to the photos and then they end up reading what the message really is. … I had one person say after checking it out, ‘Well, I’m not ever doing that again.’ ”

Image of opossum transported by Toni
As a volunteer for the Wildlife Rescue League, Genberg recently helped save this young opossum. (Photo by Toni Genberg)

Respect for all creatures started young. One of Genberg’s earliest memories is of her mom throwing the tin cans she used for growing plants at the side of a neighbor’s house during a drenching rainstorm. “She finally got them to come out because they had left their dog out in the rain. She was so angry and so upset,” Genberg recalls. “It’s stuff like that that kind of gets ingrained in you.”

Even the typically less appreciated animals did not fall outside her mom’s purview. Once when Genberg and her sister commented that they’d heard stories of putting salt on slugs, “my mom was like, if you put salt on that slug, you’re going to have to eat it. So that made us think, ‘Oh, OK, maybe we won’t do that!’ ”

The caterpillars of spicebush swallowtail, monarch, and black swallowtail butterflies munch away at their native host plants. (Photos, left and center: Toni Genberg; right: Nancy Lawson)

Decades later in Virginia, Genberg applied the same ethic to her garden, shunning pesticides and delighting in the sight of deer and foxes who meander along her backyard creek. After she and her husband, Marc, purchased their home in 2005, they even added a few native plants. But it wasn’t until Genberg heard University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy speak three years ago that the true transformation began. Like many gardeners, she was astounded by Tallamy’s research showing that most baby birds subsist primarily on a diet of caterpillars, who in turn rely mostly on native plants they’ve evolved to digest.

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The new information was a revelation, inspiring Genberg to plant milkweed for the monarch caterpillars and golden alexanders for the black swallowtail caterpillars, goldenrods and asters for bees and butterflies, coral honeysuckles and cardinal flowers for the hummingbirds. She created a website, ChooseNatives.org, where her skills as a longtime video editor help her convey a big-picture view of the importance of wildlife-friendly plants and minimizing hazards to animals. Though she grew up with cats and her father fed the ferals in their Hawaiian community (“I fancied myself a cat,” she says), she’s now particularly concerned about the effect on wildlife and pleads with cat owners to keep their pets indoors.

Creating a safe space for all animals has meant learning to coexist with squirrels who once wreaked havoc on her raised vegetable beds. “I used to curse the squirrels,” she says, “but you learn to cage things.” She even names her resident nut lovers, including the one with the worrisome hip problems whom she and Marc call “Hipster.”

Image of squirrel in veg garden
The Genbergs, shown below on their patio, are on a first-name basis with their squirrelly visitors and keep a close eye on those with occasional threats to their well-being. (Photos, above: Nancy Lawson; below: Toni Genberg)

Image of Toni and Marc Denberg

Deer are welcome to the wild strawberry, heuchera, asters, and suckering elderberries. “They can have as much as they want of the elderberry because that shrub is so huge, and their browsing is not going to kill it,” she says. “They have so much to eat that they just kind of nibble, nibble, nibble. Everybody complains that deer eat their hostas. I have two hostas and the deer don’t even go near them because there’s this huge native smorgasbord.”

They even help to prune some of her plants: “One of my friends came over and said, ‘Oh my god, your New England asters! How do you keep them looking so low and tidy?’ And I’m like, ‘The deer are doing that—they’re awesome! They come in and then they prune for me, and everything looks great.’ ”

Image of deer in Toni's garden
Deer are welcome to nibble on many of the suckering plants, but Genberg cages hazelnuts and a few other trees. (Photo by Toni Genberg)

There’s plenty for the smallest of creatures to eat, too. Where once there was mostly lawn and invasive plants—privet, bush honeysuckle, English ivy, pachysandra, and vinca—Virginia creeper, white wood asters, wild strawberries, and wild basil fill the spaces instead. Native thistle and Joe Pye weed beckon goldfinches while woodland sunflowers and golden ragworts provide food for bees. After learning that many native bees are specialists, collecting pollen for their larvae only from certain species, Genberg began planting for them, too.

Genberg’s involvement with the master naturalist program “continues to open my eyes to things,” she says. “Every moment is a learning moment or a teaching moment. … It’s really this evolution you go through as you get older. You just see what’s a priority and what’s really important. We need to be supporting our wildlife because really, without them, what are we?”

Image of salamander in Toni's garden
By leaving fallen leaves and adding logs and other plant debris around the garden, the Genbergs have welcomed salamanders to their habitat. (Photo by Toni Genberg)
Resources for Northern Virginia and Beyond

Gardening for Wildlife: On her website, Choose Natives.org, Genberg provides thoughtful advice about native plants and humane cultivation practices, as well as links to local plant sales and events. Among the many resources offered by Plant NOVA Natives, a collaboration of public and private groups, is a free downloadable guide with profiles and colorful images of recommended plants for the region.

Native Plant Source: Earth Sangha is a unique nursery in Springfield, Va., that offers local ecotypes grown from seed collected with permission from natural areas—a method that helps preserve genetic diversity and resilience. The nursery participates in many public and private restoration projects and holds plant sales for gardeners.

Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education: The Wildlife Rescue League, where Genberg volunteers to transport injured and orphaned animals to rehabilitators, also operates a hotline to provide advice and resources to the public. The Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy advocates for animals and the environment through educational programs, citizen science projects, and habitat restoration projects.

Gardening for Deer and Bees: The habitat needs of wild animals large and small are often misunderstood. To learn more about how to help some of the ones mentioned in this article, see “Gardening for Deer” and “How to Really Save the Bees.” For inspiration on using native plants to help bees, watch this beautiful video Genberg created in honor of National Pollinator Week:

*Featured image of chipmunk by Toni Genberg.

Find more profiles, tips, and inspiration in my new book, The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife. To learn more and tell me your own story, read about the Humane Gardening Heroes series.

Flower Power: A Q&A with Annie White

Is a flower by any other name still the same? Not necessarily. Research has found that some native cultivars grown for aesthetic traits have less wildlife value. Here’s what you should know.

Image of hummingbird on cardinal flower 2

When my favorite diminutive summer vacationers start arriving early in the season, I like to ensure they have a five-star experience. The hummingbird menu starts with an array of tasty tubular flowers: bright red bee balm, lavender wild bergamot, columbine, red buckeye, coral honeysuckle, trumpet creeper, cardinal flower, phlox, penstemon, and blazing star. My garden B&B also includes native plants that attract insects the birds need to round out their sugary diet.

Watching these tiny migrants enjoy the diverse buffet is a source of hope for me. It’s inspiring to know that the simple act of planting flowers can ensure the birds won’t go hungry.

Not all supposedly native plants are created equal; some grown to satisfy  human-desired characteristics appear to have lost traits helpful to birds, bees, caterpillars and other animals.

But though the offerings seem as popular as a picnic on the beach, recent research shows that some of the ingredients may be about as nutritious as cotton candy. In spite of appearances, an animal’s repeated return to a plant doesn’t necessarily mean he’s getting the nourishment he needs. Not all supposedly native plants are created equal; some grown to satisfy human-desired characteristics appear to have lost traits helpful to birds, bees, caterpillars, and other animals. Called “cultivars,” these manipulated plants are bred or selected for delayed bloom times, larger flowers, varying colors, dwarf stature, and other qualities considered useful or interesting in the garden setting. Some are variants originally found in the wild, while others are bred repeatedly—or, in the case of hybrids, crossed with related species—until the desired effect is achieved. In the process, they may have lost both inherent value to wildlife and sensory cues that attract animals to the plants in the first place.

As a gardener for the past two decades, I don’t always know or remember the exact provenance of plants added years ago. Though I’ve grown some from seed, many came from nurseries and friends. When the hummingbirds visit a cardinal flower, I’m not sure anymore whether it was the cardinal flower my mother-in-law gave me, the cardinal flower I bought at a native nursery, or the cardinal flower a friend divided and shared from her garden—let alone whether they are cultivars or strictly native species that evolved with the animals who depend on them.

Image of Annie White
When Annie White studied the animal magnetism of 12 native species compared with that of 14 cultivars, she found that insect pollinators visited seven native species significantly more frequently than they visited cultivars of those species. The insects were attracted to four species and their cultivars equally, and in the case of a Culver’s root comparison, they actually preferred the cultivar over the straight species. (Photo by Tim White)

Why does this matter? For more answers, I talked with Annie White, a Vermont ecological landscape designer who devoted her doctoral research, published online last week, to comparing how frequently pollinators visit native species versus their cultivars. She is also preparing a paper that quantifies nectar production in cardinal flower species and cultivars. Two primary questions underlie these efforts: Do changes in shape, color, growth habit, or bloom time reduce attractiveness to bees, butterflies, and other pollinators? Do such changes also affect the ability of the flower to deliver the floral resources offered by unmanipulated plants? Though results are mixed and no single answer has emerged, her work provides a better picture of how human aesthetic preferences may spell trouble for our wild friends.

Q: A lot of times people see pollinators visiting a plant en masse and assume that the flowers are great for those animals. But from what I gathered from your research on cardinal flower hybrids, a bloom may be very attractive to an animal but not necessarily provide the needed nutrition.
Image of hummingbird and cardinal flower 3
Cardinal flowers are a favorite of hummingbirds, but if they are visiting cultivars, they may be getting fewer rewards. In the case of Lobelia x speciosa ‘Fan Scarlet,’ a hybrid of Lobelia cardinalis (above) and Lobelia siphilitica (below), the flowers provide much less nectar energy than the straight species offers. (Photos by Nancy Lawson)

What’s really fascinating is that Lobelia cardinalis is hummingbird-pollinated and Lobelia siphilitica is bumblebee-pollinated. The morphology of the flowers has evolved specific to their pollinators, with the cardinalis having a really long and narrow corolla tube which a bumblebee can’t get inside. Also, the red color of the flowers is more attractive to hummingbirds and not so attractive to bees.

Image of Lobelia siphiliticaI was looking at the quantity and the quality of nectar production within these species and these hybrids. So I found that the native species Lobelia cardinalis has really high nectar production, which makes sense because it needs to be providing energy for hummingbirds, and hummingbirds require more energy than a bumblebee would. Whereas Lobelia siphilitica, being bumblebee-pollinated, has a much lower quantity of nectar in the flowers—which is much more in line with what a bumblebee would be needing per visit.

But now there are these hybrids that are really popular in the garden industry—usually Lobelia x speciosa. So that just made me really curious: Well, what about these hybrids? Who’s pollinating those? And both of the hybrids I looked at had highly diminished nectar quantity, even a little bit less than Lobelia silphitica. It’s really concerning with the Lobelia x speciosa cultivar ‘Fan Scarlet’ because the color is red, and it has a more similar morphology to Lobelia cardinalis. And so it attracts hummingbirds, but then the hummingbird is only getting about 20 percent of the energy from that flower that it would get from the native species itself. It’s luring the hummingbird in but not giving it the reward that it’s expecting to find.

Q: If the flowers aren’t providing what hummingbirds would normally get, that means that they keep coming back but are expending too much energy?

Yes, I think that would be the hypothesis—that they’re expending a lot more energy to find these flowers. And also if you have a small garden space and you’re trying to fill it with flowers that are going to be the most beneficial, you’re going to be able to pack a lot more benefits for the hummingbirds and other pollinators by using the plant that has the optimal nectar production and not just something that’s taking up your garden space but isn’t providing the same benefit.

Q: Your other research focused on comparing the frequency of pollinator visits on native species versus their cultivars. Have you had any reaction yet from others in the nursery industry in terms of helping people make educated choices? Many people aren’t going to know about this because even at native plant sales there are still lots of cultivars.
Image of penstemon digitalis
Bumblebees and most other visitors, with the exception of honeybees, were equally attracted to Penstemon digitalis and the cultivar Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red.’ But the question remains: Are these animals receiving the same quantity and quality of floral resources as they would from the straight native species? (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

It’s really tough because what I’ve found is that about half of the cultivars that I looked at were comparable to the native species, and about half were inferior. I did find one that was actually better. That was a Culver’s root, Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Lavender Towers.’ So it does seem like there’s a lot of variation—that not all cultivars are going to be the same or less beneficial. We just need so much more research. That’s a real weakness right now, and I think what I’ve shown is—particularly as we’re putting more and more cultivars out on the market—we need to really make plant breeders aware that they are sometimes putting out these cultivars that are inferior in terms of their benefits to pollinators. I’ve had a tremendous amount of interest from growers and even from some breeders and certainly from gardeners who want to know more about this. And it’s something that they’re just learning about for the first time.

Despite similar growth habits, the straight species of New England aster (above) attracted many times more pollinators than the cultivar ‘Alma Potschke’ (below). (Photos by Annie White)

Aster novae angliae 'Alma Potschke' cultivarThe New England asters that I studied showed one of the largest differences that I saw between the native and the cultivar ‘Alma Potschke’—like 20 times more pollinators on the natives than on the cultivars. That was one that really surprised me because the flowers are very similar morphology, the same size, and they were blooming at exactly the same time. They just had a color difference.

Q: What do you tell gardeners who ask for recommendations?

In general my suggestion to people is to use the native species as much as possible. If you are considering using cultivars for whatever reason, whether it’s disease resistance or shorter stature, choosing a cultivar that’s as close to the native species as possible—in its morphology and in its bloom time and in its color—is going to increase the likelihood that it’s a comparable substitution. And try to certainly avoid things like double flowers—it’s been well-documented that double flowers have decreased nectar and pollen availability and accessibility. Be really leery of hybrids.

Q: Have you seen problems in hybrids beyond the lobelias?

I’ve seen that in the echinaceas for sure. I’ve observed several echinacea hybrids, and all of them have been inferior. I did have one in my study that’s well-documented.

Image of Echinacea_purpurea
Pollinators were much more attracted to Echinacea purpurea (above) than to coneflower cultivars such as Echinacea purpurea ‘Pink Double Delight’ (below), which was bred in the Netherlands. Pollen and nectar are often lacking or inaccessible in double-petaled flowers. (Photos by Annie White)


Q: When you first started thinking about this, was there already talk about it, or was it something that you anecdotally observed in the field?
Image of Tradescantia_ohiensis
When working in a nursery in Indiana earlier in her career, White watched veritable pollinator parties circling around the flowers of Tradescantia ohiensis (shown above in her study plot) while noticing that cultivars like ‘Red Grape’ (below) were left relatively untouched. Her later research supported those early observations. (Photos by Annie White)

Image of Tradescantia 'Red Grape' cultivar

It was something that I had just observed. At the time I was an ecological landscape designer. I was in the Midwest in Indiana working for a company, and we had a native plant nursery and also we had large seed production beds. So one of my favorite things was just to go out at lunchtime and
wander through these seedbeds of various flowering native plants. And that’s how I got interested in pollinators. And the spiderwort
[Tradescantia spp.] amazed me the most when it came into bloom in early summer; it would just be just buzzing with pollinators. And I had seen on smaller sites some of these garden varieties of the tradescantia being planted, and I noticed there were very, very few pollinators if any on them. And another person even mentioned the same thing—that they felt like some of these cultivars, these garden varieties, didn’t seem like they were as attractive to the pollinators. That was kind of one example that really got me thinking about it.

And I had a lot of cases where I was designing native plant gardens—I would then turn that list over to a contractor to have them actually install the project and would go back to check the site to see that they had put in all cultivars or had substituted a number of plants with cultivars. And they felt like that was justifiable because it’s the same genus and species. A lot of times the contractors don’t even know—they assume that a genus and species is as specific as you can get.

Q: When you verified in your studies that the native spiderwort was visited a lot more by the pollinators than the cultivar, you concluded that the discrepancy may have been a result of the differing bloom times—that perhaps bees emerging just in time for the straight species’ blooms are out of sync with later-blooming cultivars. Were there other cultivars that seemed out of sync with seasonal needs of pollinators?
Image of Cropped Honeybee_on_Helenium_Autumnale
Native sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale, above) was buzzing with honeybees and other pollinators, while the cultivar ‘Moerheim Beauty’ (below) attracted very few. Flower color may have made a difference, but the early bloom times of the cultivar are also a concern for bees in need of nectar and pollen later in the season. (Photos by Annie White)

Well, there was one—sneezeweed, or Helenium autumnale. I looked at a cultivar called ‘Moerheim Beauty.’ They had completely different bloom periods. With a lot of the cultivars, it was oftentimes a week or maybe a two-week difference, and the bloom period would typically overlap. But with those two it was a stark difference. The cultivar bloomed in midsummer, and the native blooms really late, in September and even into October. So there was no overlap whatsoever, and there was a huge, very dramatic difference in terms of pollinator attractiveness. But because the native blooms so late, it’s a really important plant because there’s so few other floral resources available during that time.
Image of Helenium autumnale 'Moerheim Beauty' cultivarI had so many confounding variables because there also was a color change, It was a red cultivar versus the native being yellow; it also was just a plant that didn’t perform as well. So it’s hard sometimes to tease out exactly why these things are happening. I know for sure I have documentation that the pollinators were visiting the natives significantly more, but I can only hypothesize still as to why that’s happening.

Q: I talked to an entomologist last year who was aware of the research but complained that straight-species asters fall over and said she doesn’t want that in her garden. Is it possible to design around some of these attributes to get people more interested in these plants?

Truthfully, I do a lot of gardening myself, and I still use some cultivars—and even cultivars that I know are a little bit less beneficial to pollinators, just because in some circumstances, you know you need an aster for a border that’s not going to be 4 feet tall and flopping over. Or you need a joe-pye weed that’s not 8 feet tall; you want something that’s more like 4 feet tall. You know something won’t work in this specific scenario that you need it to work in unless you do choose a cultivar.

So I’m not completely against cultivars. I think there are still certain settings where they make sense. There’s also been some benefits in terms of disease resistance, where they’re trying to find monardas that are more mildew-resistant. So there can be some benefits there, but I think the risk is that you’re also creating these plants that may not be as beneficial.

Almost across the board, I found that all of these cultivars that are selected for shorter stature or more compactness just don’t have as many flowers, so they’re not producing as much nectar and pollen.

Almost across the board, I found that all of these cultivars that are selected for shorter stature or more compactness just don’t have as many flowers, so they’re not producing as much nectar and pollen. Also for me being up in Vermont—I’m in zone 4a and 4b—a lot of these cultivars had real problems with hardiness compared to the natives. So where you are in Maryland, that may not be as big of an issue. But I had a Monarda fistulosa ‘Claire Grace’ and learned as I researched how these plants were developed that it was actually a selection from down in Mississippi, I believe. So it makes sense that that selection, that species coming from far down south is not going be hardy in northern Vermont. But they sell it in the garden centers; I see it all the time. That’s not really information that ends up getting passed on to the garden centers or certainly to the consumer.

Q: You did a lot of bee watching during your research. Did you learn other things that weren’t part of this study?
Image of bumblebee on false indigo
Lists of recommended pollinator plants often don’t distinguish between different types of animals, but their floral preferences can be vastly different. Baptisia australis (above) is primarily pollinated by bumblebees, whereas Phlox paniculata (below) is more accessible to butterflies. (Photos by Nancy Lawson)

Image of Eastern tiger swallowtail on phlox

Yes, I think one of the really remarkable things that I noticed—and that I do have a lot of data on, even though it’s not really the focus of the paper—was just how different pollinators have very different floral preferences. And I think that’s really a weakness of all of these pollinator planting lists that are out there in circulation; they’re really not specific for their pollinator types. And there are really big differences between what butterflies are foraging on versus what bees are, and really big differences between honeybees and bumblebees. So when doing a pollinator garden, you almost have to decide, well, what pollinator species am I trying to help the most? If you’re a honeybee keeper and you’re looking for a forage garden for your honeybees, there are a number of things that you could plant that are really common on pollinator planting lists but that actually have no benefits for your honeybees. Baptisias are only really pollinated by bumblebees because they’re the only pollinator that’s strong enough to get inside the flower. Or rudbeckias—I almost only saw a lot of the really small native bees on there.

I think there’s been quite a bit of research on the phlox cultivars. At the Mt. Cuba Center, they had a cultivar that did really well, and I keep seeing people promoting that one cultivar as this amazing pollinator plant. But phlox is a butterfly-pollinated plant for the most part. It’s really difficult for bees to access the nectar and pollen, so it’s very specific to butterflies.

Q: So if you’re trying to help bees, that plant won’t do it. What else can gardeners do to become more aware and select more wildlife-friendly plants?

For people who do have strictly native plant nurseries in their regions, one easy thing is to try to shop there first because you’re going to know that a well-respected native plant nursery is going to be growing native species, that they’re going be trying to maintain genetic diversity within that population. That’s a whole other aspect of cultivars that’s a little bit troubling—the loss of genetic diversity.

Q: Because if they’re reproduced for sale clonally—which most of them are—they’re all essentially the same plant, right? And then the plant populations can lose resiliency.

Right, exactly. I like to use the cardinal flower as an example again: If I live adjacent to a natural area that’s full of native cardinal flower and I put a cultivar in my garden, or if, let’s say, I want a garden full of red and I put a hundred of those in my garden, those are going to cross-pollinate with the natives.

Are we going to end up genetically polluting our natural areas with the genetics of these cultivars that aren’t as strong, that don’t have natural resiliency built into them?

And if all of these cultivars are just clones of each other and maybe they’re from a genetic stock from down south, and maybe that selection just happens to be less disease-resistant, are we going to end up genetically polluting our natural areas with the genetics of these cultivars that aren’t as strong, that don’t have natural resiliency built into them?

I’m not aware of anyone doing research on that, but I think it’s really, really important.

For More Information

Read the full study: Annie White’s thesis, “From Nursery to Nature: Evaluating Native Herbaceous Flowering Plants Versus Native Cultivars for Pollinator Habitat Restoration,” was published July 19 and is available for download. For a quick summary of her research, see her website, PollinatorGardens.org. You can also catch up with White on Facebook and Instagram at @nectarlandscapes.

Other cultivar research: The Mt. Cuba Center has been conducting extensive research on the value of cultivars; though much of this is focused on growth habit and performance in the garden, a citizen science project quantified pollinator visitation to monarda cultivars, and a collaboration with University of Delaware scientists catalogued bee preferences for coreopsis species and their cultivars. UD and Mt. Cuba have also partnered to examine the value of cultivars of woody plants for caterpillars. While some have shown equal benefits, others are poor substitutes; cultivars bred to have red leaves, for example, are loaded with anthocyanins (pigments that deter feeding) and don’t attract as many caterpillars as the greener straight species.

Definition of terms: Cultivar? Variety? Hybrid? What does it all mean? Among the many good explanations are these from Virginia Cooperative Extension and Nebraska Cooperative Extension.  An important note to remember while shopping: When looking at a label, single quotes around wording that follows the species name indicates the plant is a cultivar; e.g., Lobelia cardinalis ‘Fan Scarlet’ or Monarda fistulosa ‘Claire Grace.’

Gardening for bees: For more information about nurturing wild bees through planting and gentle cultivation, see “How to Really Save the Bees.”

(Featured images of Echinacea purpurea with swallowtails and Lobelia cardinalis with hummingbird by Nancy Lawson)


Gardening for Deer

Yes, you read that headline right. Deer eat my plants, and I let them. But I also barely notice the nibbling. Here’s why (and how) I favor coexistence over resistance when it comes to these misunderstood animals.

The baby left in May as quietly as she’d arrived, disappearing while we slept. For two days, she’d nestled in fallen leaves, resting and grooming and standing up on wobbly legs to stretch.

Her departure was a relief, a sign that her mother was still caring for her. To avoid attention, does forage without their fawns, leaving them in dense vegetation and summoning newborns only when it’s time to nurse.

Image of fawn by patioStill, I worried. As my husband and I peeked through the basement door just a few feet away from where the fawn lay, I wondered what would happen if she wandered so close to other members of our kind. For all the camouflage offered by our lush patio garden, her resting spot was surprisingly exposed to us humans, historically the most harmful predator of white-tailed deer.

In the furthest corner of the patio, behind the loveseat and under a sweetshrub, the newborn fawn felt safe enough to take cover. But we could see her clearly through our basement door.

It’s hard to imagine now, but white-tailed deer were once nearly extinct in dozens of states due to hunting and habitat loss. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, they had vanished from Vermont, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. It wasn’t the first time deer populations went scarce. Shooting the animals out of existence was a national pastime for hundreds of years after European settlement. In the 20th century, efforts to transport them across regions so they could be “restocked” and hunted all over again were so successful that these animals now face different threats. High on the list is the wrath of gardeners calling for their heads.

My rejection of this attitude makes me an object of curiosity (and sometimes ridicule) in the gardening world, where I can count on rants against deer in almost every conversation. “I’ve been through my Bambi phase,” one woman told me, characterizing kindness toward animals—and my questioning of cultural narratives about them—as infantile. “I got over it.”

People ask me whether I’ve taken into account the “carrying capacity” of the land for deer. I like to pose a different question: What is the carrying capacity of the land for turfgrass? Why don’t we challenge the wisdom of our planting choices before ruling out the ability of our landscapes to support life?

I prefer to “get over” our uniquely human arrogance and take a broader view. I don’t know everything about the ecology of deer in forests, where they’re blamed for degrading wildlife habitat. But neither does anyone else. Yes, deer eat plants, but that’s not new. What is more recent are accelerated human-driven changes to plant and animal diversity: the imported earthworms that degrade soils in northern forests, the introduced Japanese stiltgrass and European garlic mustard that suppress the growth of native plants, the fragmented landscapes exacerbated by an insatiable desire for large lawns, and the decline of large predators caused by hunting and habitat destruction.

Occasionally people ask me whether I ever factor the “carrying capacity” of the land for deer and other species into my thinking. Reversing this concept, I like to ask a different question: What is the carrying capacity of the land for turfgrass? Why don’t we question the wisdom of our planting choices before ruling out the ability of our landscapes to support life? The carrying capacity of my land for deer is likely greater than that of my neighbor’s land down the street, even though his is twice the size. Why? Because mine is filled with plants that deer can eat; his is filled with lawn.

I don’t blame deer for being deer in the same way I don’t blame cats for being cats or earthworms for being earthworms. Rather than casting aspersions on other animals, I examine instead the contributions of our own species to degraded habitat—and the ways we can learn from those mistakes and mitigate or even reverse the damage. I garden not just for wildlife but with them, giving weight to their survival needs more than to my own cosmetic preferences. Just because I can’t rejuvenate all the forests around me doesn’t mean I have to keep mowing down my own property. Deer visit our backyard daily to eat, but the following experimental methods have been so successful that we barely notice the nibbling in our prolific gardens.

Nurture nature’s deer food.
Image of jewelweed with bee
Relegated most often to roadside ditches, jewelweed is not only valuable to bees and hummingbirds but also to deer.

When creating habitat for wildlife, it’s important to remember your goals are different from those of conventional landscaping. To meet their mission of making the world safe for lawns (and profitable lawn products), pesticide pushers and turfgrass totalitarians urge us to remove Canada goldenrod, jewelweed, wild grape, and countless other plants that would otherwise nourish deer.

There’s no better way to learn about this special brand of cynicism than to come across a new mystery plant and turn to the Internet for help with identification. Online searches related to one of my recent finds gleaned reviews negative enough to make a grown plant cry: “A grass imposter” that causes “infestations,” pronounced a book on mid-Atlantic gardening. A “Weed of the Month” with an “unsightly” brown appearance in winter pastures, offered a horse magazine. “Often troublesome in pastures, lawns, orchards, nurseries and gardens,” warned university extension specialists.

Image of nimblewill and stiltgrass
A tale of two grasses: The nimblewill on the left feeds grazing animals and outcompetes Japanese stiltgrass (right), which has few other natural controls and crowds out native plants that provide important habitat for wildlife. Lawn care companies, pesticide manufacturers and agricultural institutions cast both these plants as villains, even though nimblewill’s only crime is turning brown in the winter.

It was a lot of bad press for a plant that does so much good. Muhlenbergia schreberi, or nimblewill (as it’s known more commonly by the few people who even know it at all), is a pretty native grass. It can outcompete Japanese stiltgrass, which is difficult to eliminate by other means. And perhaps most interesting of all, deer sometimes graze on nimblewill. Yet consumer need for unnatural green is so strong that Syngenta developed a selective herbicide to kill it, while other companies shamelessly encourage homeowners to spray even more broadly. “Don’t be fooled by its cute name,” advises Monsanto on its Roundup website. “This aggressive grass sets seeds in the fall and hides until spring.” (Never mind that Monsanto helped create a monster in the form of a genetically engineered grass now threatening to wreak havoc on sensitive wildlife habitats in Oregon—and later abdicated responsibility for righting the wrong.)

Let woody plants spread.
Staghorn sumacs, a favorite browse plant of deer, draws many other species to our yard, including this scarlet tanager. It grows so prolifically that I consider nibbling by deer to be free pruning assistance (a service that also creates sites for twig-nesting bees who can’t excavate on their own). Sometimes the sumacs spread in shady spots where I know they won’t survive long, but I leave them there anyway as extra deer food.

“Trees could solve the problem if people trying to improve things would only allow them to take over,” writes German forester Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees. He’s referring to the benefits of dense canopies along rivers and streams, where trees could naturally shade out giant hogweed and other invasive species.

But the sentiment hits close to home—and my own backyard—for another reason. Trees and shrubs have been integral to our peaceful coexistence with deer, who count among their favorite treats the staghorn sumacs and sassafras that have suckered into our former lawn. Though we didn’t know it when we began ceding turfgrass to nature, a later reading of the literature confirmed these two species as favorite browse plants for deer in our region. (And contrary to popular belief, staghorn sumacs are not the same plants as poison sumacs; they are not even in the same genus.) Other vigorous spreaders like elderberries, blackberries, and dogwoods are high on the deer menu, too.

Image of sassafras grove
An area beyond our patio was nothing but turfgrass until one summer we noticed these sassafras sprouting. The patch is one of three areas where the trees have begun to take hold, spreading densely even as they continue to feed deer.

Left to their own devices, these plants provide an endless supply of food because of their rippling growth habits. As Wohlleben writes of the trees nibbled by deer in his homeland, “Usually, the deer don’t destroy all the little trees in one small group, so there are always a couple that escape damage and battle on upward.”

The deer don’t destroy all the budding trees and shrubs on my land either; they prune some while leaving dozens of others alone. Most of the time in my community, it’s the humans doing the destroying, usually without even knowing it. “These shrubs can be important for wildlife,” notes a University of Missouri article about deer habitat, “but they are often mowed before they can provide any benefits.”

Let lawn go to meadow.
Image of poodle in meadow
Early successional plant communities following disturbance – in this case, decades of mowing – include a diversity of grasses and wildflowers. Deer eat young plants in the meadow and also sleep among the tall grasses. (The poodle we’re petsitting is decidedly more domesticated but provides a bit of photographic perspective and some gratuitous cuteness.)

Deer are attracted to open foraging areas adjacent to woods, or “edge” zones that provides both food and cover. Landscaping standards of modern suburbia mimic the basic framework of this habitat—with open lawns and tree-lined borders—but the food offerings are scant by comparison. In the more natural setting of a sunlit clearing in an intact forest, a diversity of grasses and wildflowers sprout, followed by shrubs and tree saplings.

By contrast, deer looking for nutrition in acres of manicured turfgrass have much less to choose from: typically a couple of hostas, a few daylilies, maybe some tasty rosebuds. In the context of expansive lawns, what looks like abundance to a gardener seems like half-empty grocery shelves to animals, and they’ll take what they can find to support their dietary needs.

In the context of expansive lawns, what looks like abundance to a gardener seems like half-empty grocery shelves to animals, and they’ll take what they can find to support their dietary needs.

As we’ve let the trees and shrubs sucker along our woods’ edges, we’ve also let the back acre of formerly mowed grass come into its own—and discovered a diversity of plants that had just been waiting for the right moment to sprout. Some, like broomsedge and purpletop grass, were probably already in the seedbank. Others, like late boneset, may have spread from elsewhere on the property. Goldenrods have popped up for the first time this year. Though deer wander around the edges of the meadow each evening, the only lasting evidence of their presence are depressions in the grasses where they curl up to sleep.

Let plants choose their destinies—and their allies.
Image of Joe Pye and protector plants
In good company: As the volunteer offspring of a large stand of Joe Pye weed at the edge of a wildflower planting, this baby had diverse neighbors where it planted itself this spring on the other side of the garden: blue mist flower, boneset, golden ragwort, and swamp sunflower. It is one of the only Joe Pyes that has remained untouched throughout the season.

A proliferation of spreading shrubs, trees, and meadow plants not only ensures there’s enough food to share; it also mixes things up enough to keep deer guessing. “I have noticed over the years that plants in a meadow rarely suffer from significant browsing by white-tailed deer,” writes landscape designer Larry Weaner in Garden Revolution. “Even the plants that deer favor seem to escape this form of attention when intermingled with plants that the deer don’t eat.”

Incorporating these observations into his gardening techniques, Weaner adds less tasty plants such as ladyferns to the same spot where he’s planting known deer snacks like white wood aster, ensuring that “the deer can’t get to the plant they like without also encountering the one that they don’t.”

Image of Joe Pye in mistflower2
Can you spot the Joe Pye now? Neither can the deer. It’s growing tall to the right of the swamp sunflower in the center, obscured by blue mistflower and golden ragwort.

While I’ve never actively employed this practice beyond the vegetable garden, I’ve noticed nature doing it for me. Where Joe Pye weed grows in a large stand I planted, the deer find it not long after its first tender leaves appear. But where Joe Pye reseeds itself among other species—swamp sunflower, boneset, and blue mistflower—the deer leave it alone. Similar strategies have kept our asters from being munched on en masse.

Incorporate harmless sensory deterrents.

butterfly on soap stakeThough my main strategy for peacefully coexisting with deer is to plant for them rather than resisting their need to eat, their attraction to tender growth of new plantings occasionally calls for gentle repellents.

Sometimes those repellents come in the form of more plants, even dead or invasive ones. Over the past two years, I’ve created natural caging out of trimmings of invasive multiflora roses growing at our woods’ edge, placing them around the nibbled Joe Pyes. Allowing the surrounding lawn (or whatever is left of it) to grow taller at the edges of the garden where the plants reside also provides a visual and tactile deterrent.

Image of rosebush trimmings
Not the prettiest picture–at least not yet. But after surrounding the tender Joe Pyes (above, center) with these cut branches of invasive multiflora rose, I am happy to report that a couple of months later the Joe Pyes stand tall and dense (below), obscuring the dead rose trimmings and readying their abundant blooms for this season’s butterflies.

Image of large stand of Joe Pye

For isolated young trees or shrubs, caging is simplest, but such exclosures may be impractical in larger areas. In those cases, I hang bars of soap or ask my husband to defend the borders by relieving himself around the perimeters of new plantings (a locally sourced, humane and free range alternative to inhumanely produced “predator urine”). I’ve even been known to add a stake and place an upside down plastic pot on top—a lazy woman’s version of a scarecrow. None of these methods requires much time, but because deer quickly adapt, rotating gentle repellents helps keep them on their hooves long enough to ensure we have an ever-growing supply of food for them and all the other fauna, both macro and micro, who share our land.

Image of deer by ash tree
I couldn’t have imagined this scene in my backyard when I was a young girl and deer were much less common.

I’m old enough to remember when deer sightings were rare events; as a little girl, I longed to see one on our camping trips to Virginia—and certainly wouldn’t have dreamed of spotting a herd in our suburban backyard. But I’m also young enough to have missed the chance to see other animals who were common only a few decades ago and have now vanished from these parts. The northern bobwhites my next-door neighbor admired in the 1970s are all but gone from our community, having long ago vanished along with the hedgerows and grasslands they relied on for cover and food.

Rapid declines of such species are now the norm; witness the passenger pigeons, who went extinct when the last one died in a zoo in 1914, just decades after millions of them still filled the skies across much of North America. If history has taught us anything, it’s that we should take no animals for granted, even the common ones—and we should stop blaming other species for their mere presence in the environment and start examining what we can do to help them. It’s not that hard. My small suburban plot of land is living, vibrant proof.

Image of Eastern tiger swallowtails on Joe Pye weed
The Joe Pye weed are on track to grow taller than I am and bloom just in time for the next generation of Eastern tiger swallowtails and other butterflies and bees. This stand was initially eaten by deer last year, too, but my rotating system of gentle repellents – combined with the dense vegetation throughout the property – ensured there was enough for all the animals.


Gardening for All Species

My new book, The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife, published in April by Princeton Architectural Press, provides more ideas on planting for wildlife as well as preventing conflict with the animals.

Planting and Cultivation Strategies

While reading Garden Revolution by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher, I nodded my head in enthusiasm at the turn of nearly every page; most of the planting and cultivation strategies mirror my own, but Weaner has proven their success in large-scale projects. For further inspiration and ideas on identifying and nurturing plants that are valuable to wildlife but often yanked from gardens, check out my #WeedsNotWeeds series.

Though lists of so-called “deer-resistant plants” are easy to come by in gardening circles, finding species actually preferred by deer is trickier. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but you have to know where to look. Illinois Wildflowers, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the Forest Service fire ecology database have helped me make many flora-fauna connections. More deer-specific information is available from natural resources agencies, universities, and hunting organizations that post guidelines for creating deer food plots. Their motivations for feeding deer are usually different from mine, but I’ve found the advice helpful in learning how to plant for the animals. Some interesting articles include “Know Your Native Deer Foods” and “Whitetail 101: What Do Deer Eat?”

Vegetable Gardening with Wildlife

If a farmer can produce enough plants for commercial sale, feed her own family and nourish the many deer, squirrels, birds and other animals who visit her property, it’s a good bet she’s got some great advice for others, too. Tammi Hartung’s book, The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener, provides a wealth of practical information for home gardeners. (Tammi is also profiled in my book as a humane gardening pioneer.) For quick tips, check out my latest All Animals column on the same subject, “Sharing the Bounty.”

Historical Perspective

A History of White-Tailed Deer Restocking in the United States, 1878 to 2004 provides a state-by-state account of deer management programs. For a fresh perspective on forest ecology as it relates to deer presence, see The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell.

(Photos by Nancy Lawson)

What Do Wild Moms Need Most? Plants!

Image of raccoon family in tree
Photo by John Harrison

What are you and your family having for dinner tonight? No matter which dishes are on the menu—squash, pizza, salad, pasta, or French fries—fruits and vegetables will inevitably be a part of it. Even diehard carnivores with a distaste for greens can’t avoid relying on the plant kingdom, however indirectly.

And whether you’re eating that food at a table or on the sofa, there’s a high possibility that dead trees were used in the construction of your furniture. It’s also likely that a strong wooden skeleton holds up the walls around you.

Our reliance on plants for food and shelter is indisputable, yet for some reason we forget that other animals share that dependency. Worse, we remove those plants from the landscape on a mass scale, taking away the vegetation that animals need for their nutrition and the fallen leaves and dead trees they use to build their homes.

In celebration of Mother’s Day, we can give the gift of habitat to wild moms by planting more live plants and leaving the naturally decaying plant matter in our gardens.  Here are just a few of the mothers and babies we’ll be helping when we do that.

Mother bees craft fresh leaf pieces into baby blankets

Image of leafcutter bee mom by Christy Stewart
Mother leafcutter bees use leaf pieces of grapevine, roses, and other plants to line nests in logs, tree snags, brick or other materials with small cavities. They spend up to three hours making each nest for a single egg, leaving behind pollen and nectar provisions for their future children. (Photo by Christy Stewart)

Mother rabbits hide baby bunnies among fallen leaves

Image of baby rabbits
Rabbit moms find cozy spots among decaying leaves to create camouflaged nests. They even pull out some of their own hair to line the bed for their newborns. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Beneath logs and leaves, mother salamanders guard eggs

Image of red-backed salamander by Michael Benard
Some salamander mothers, including this red-backed salamander, coil around their incubating eggs for weeks to protect them from predators and disease. Logs, leaves, and rocks provide both shelter and food sources, including insects, spiders, earthworms, centipedes, and other invertebrates. (Photo by Michael F. Benard)

Raccoon mothers uses trees cavities as nurseries

Image of raccoon family by John Harrison
Holes in live trees or standing dead trees offer safe, warm places for raccoon mothers, squirrel mothers, bird mothers, and countless other wild moms to raise their young. (Photo by John Harrison)

Butterfly babies need host plants like we need spinach

Image of American lady caterpillar on pussytoes
Most plant-eating insects evolved to eat the leaves and occasionally the flowers of only certain plant species. We can help butterfly and moth caterpillars by planting their host plants; this little beauty will go on to become an American lady butterfly as long as she can dine on pussytoes, or plants in the Antennaria genus. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Mother bees make baby food from pollen and nectar

Image of bee on bluebells
Mother bees make special food for their young out of pollen and nectar collected from flowers. This early spring bee, likely in the Habropoda genus, is gathering the goods from Virginia bluebells and storing them in her orange pollen baskets. Gardeners often overlook spring and fall plants, but it’s important to remember the creatures who depend on them for their very survival. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Mother birds make baby food from insects who eat plants

Image of Carolina wren gathering insects
Most bird parents, like this Carolina wren, need spiders and insects to feed their young. They need so many, in fact, that even tiny chickadees gathers thousands of caterpillars to raise just one brood of chicks to the fledgling stage. This food supply would be severely diminished without the native plants that feed insects. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Plants protect young deer while moms go off to forage

Image of baby deer by Sally Fekety
Deer, rabbits, and bobcats are among the mammals who leave their young in vegetation while they look for food. Without a minivan to tote around the toddlers and teenagers, mammals must find protected places to put them. Plants provide that. Do a wild mom a favor for Mother’s Day, and plant a native tree, shrub, grass, vine or wildflower. You’re guaranteed to help somebody’s babies! (Photo by Sally Fekety)

Find more tips in my recent All Animals magazine column, “How to Make Your Yard Family-Friendly,” and check out my new book, The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife.

(Featured image by Michael F. Benard)

The Humane Gardener: Seattle’s Kelly Brenner

Why weed when there are spiders to be rescued and beetles to be photographed? Gardening chores take a back seat to the joys of discovery in this Washington naturalist’s city lot. But the distractions haven’t slowed the conversion of her once empty yard into a magical space for wildlife, featured in our fourth dispatch of the Humane Gardening Heroes series.
Image of sparrows on seedheads
Seedheads left up for the winter sustain American goldfinches and other birds in Kelly Brenner’s yard (above). A syrphid fly visits a fireweed flower (featured image, top). (Photos by Kelly Brenner)

Image of Kelly Brenner

There aren’t any rare birds singing from jungle canopies or lions lollygagging on savannahs in Kelly Brenner’s garden. But in her view, she’s found something even more wild: “moss piglets” living on her Seattle driveway.

Known more scientifically as tardigrades, these tiny invertebrates are thought to be some of the toughest creatures on the planet, withstanding extreme cold and excessive heat. Needing moisture to stay active, they can nonetheless enter a desiccated state for decades and come back to life once rehydrated. Not quite insects, they’re round like bears (which earned them their other common name, “water bears”) and slow-moving like turtles. They’re so unique they inhabit their own phylum in the animal kingdom.

Image of tardigrade sketches
“Found a tardigrade!!!! My first!” Brenner wrote in her natural journal after making one of her favorite discoveries.

And Brenner found them simply by trading her binoculars for a microscope one day, curious as ever to meet as many species as she could on her 6,000-square-foot city lot. Though small, her property brims with life, from the solitary mother bee laying an egg in a fencepost hole to the Bewick’s wrens lining their nest with fluffy seeds of native fireweed. But it was the discovery of microfauna not visible to the naked eye that gave Brenner, a naturalist and photographer, the greatest thrill in her own backyard.

“We’re not a wilderness—we’re not going to have cougars and all the exotic things, so studying some of the things that we do have is enlightening,” she says. “We can learn from watching the humble backyard bugs and creatures.”

Image of Solitary bee in fencepost hole in Kelly Brenner's yard
When Brenner removed some old privacy screening from a fencepost, a wood-nesting bee quickly made use of the newfound cavity. About 30 percent of native bees in North America lay eggs in logs, trees, stems, and other spots that offer holes for their nests. (Photo by Kelly Brenner)
Image of Slug on pot_Kelly Brenner
Brenner and her daughter enjoy slug-watching together. (Photo by Kelly Brenner)

Whether those creatures are snails mating in the “wetland in a bottle” she keeps inside her house, crows picking at moss in the trees of the local arboretum, or slugs making their way from one dandelion leaf to another in her lawn, Brenner continuously documents the fascinating life of other species crossing her path. As the creator of the website Metropolitan Field Guide, her goal is to help people appreciate nature wherever they are (even on an apartment balcony, like the one she filled with plants before moving her garden to more solid ground). “We lose that sense of wonder after we’re children; we don’t have a sense of awe,” she says. “And if we don’t care about what lives in our yards, why are we going to care about the tigers or snow leopards or elephants?”

Image of Anna's hummingbird_Kelly Brenner
Anna’s hummingbirds visit Brenner’s yard in autumn and winter. A common West Coast species, they are uncommonly beautiful—and the males seem to know it, coordinating courtship displays on sunny days so the light catches their brilliant iridescence. (Photo by Kelly Brenner)
Image of Brown elfin on Pacific ninebark
A brown elfin nectars on Pacific ninebark, which also attracts many bees. (Photo by Kelly Brenner)

For Brenner, caring about those unassuming creatures also means caring for them. After moving to her house five years ago with her husband and daughter, she laid out the welcome mat for other species’ families too—in the form of broken-down moving boxes that made way for a wildlife garden. By topping the cardboard with leaves and letting it sit, Brenner killed the grass without the use of chemicals. She put down new roots, adding a Douglas fir, a vine maple, a mock orange, and other native species that provide food and shelter for wild visitors. Many other plantings followed, including twinberry for hummingbirds, Pacific ninebark for bees, gooseberry, beargrass, inside-out flower, wood sorrel, red columbine, coastal strawberry, Smith’s fairy bells, tiger lilies, evergreen huckleberry, goat’s beard, paintbrush, and fringecup.

Image of Kelly Brenner side yard
Brenner filled a neglected side yard with native plants and a gravel path, turning it into a small woodland sanctuary. (Photo by Kelly Brenner)

Where once there was only lawn, a forsythia bush, and a maple tree on the property, a succession of flowers provides sustenance for animals throughout the season. Early bloomers like Indian plum are among Brenner’s favorites, as are late-season standouts like goldenrods and asters, which add to the buffet long after other plants have stopped flowering. In the front yard a mini-meadow feeds pollinators on one side of the driveway, and a vegetable garden, also started from cardboard and leaves, provides a bounty of lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, radishes, snap peas, spinach, kale, and other produce for Brenner’s own family.

Kelly Brenner vegetable garden
A front-yard vegetable garden yields food for the property’s human residents (top) and insects and resting spots for Pacific chorus frogs (below). (Photos by Kelly Brenner)

Image of Pacific chorus frog on tomato

Aside from the stinkbugs she occasionally picks off the tomatoes and the neighbor’s digging chickens she gently shoos away from the vegetable patch, everyone is welcome to feast to their heart’s content in this urban oasis where slug-and-bug watching is as much a priority as bird watching. “If your plants are being nibbled on, it’s a sign that you’re doing something right—that you have animals there,” she says. “I would be upset if I had a pristine yard that looked unlived in, that didn’t look like anybody was visiting.”

Image of Insect hotel_Kelly Brenner
An insect hotel made from recycled cans and goldenrod stems provides nesting habitat for native bees. (Photo by Kelly Brenner)

So would the spring azure butterfly Brenner spotted landing on a leaf, where she was likely laying her eggs, and the sparrows pecking the ground for morsels shed by seedheads left up for the winter. Nothing goes to waste in the yard, where Brenner has created an insect hotel from an old tree branch lined with recycled food cans. Inside the cans, decaying goldenrod stems invite native bees to nest; parasitic wasps, who show great interest in the abode, are also welcome. “They’re beautiful—they’re shiny and iridescent,” Brenner says. “They were patrolling that up and down this past summer.”

Image of wren with caterpillar
Bewick’s wrens carry caterpillars and other insects to their nest, which is crafted partly from the fluff of fireweed seeds. (Photo by Kelly Brenner)
Image of Crab spider on California poppy
Spiders are welcome guests in the garden, where a California poppy in the pollinator patch attracted this crab spider. (Photo by Kelly Brenner)

Brenner’s desire to connect with her fellow species tends to slow her down in the garden, where every chore is a chance to explore. “It’s fun to dig in the dirt,” she says. “The problem is I’m always like, ‘Ooh, I’ve got to stop and take a picture!’ And it takes me twice as long to do any sort of weeding.” Sometimes gardening chores are interrupted by an animal in need of rescue, as when Brenner accidentally disturbed a giant house spider nestled in some burlap sacks while cleaning up the yard one spring. Though some people kill or trap and relocate wildlife they don’t understand, Brenner brings many animals even closer to her own domain. Knowing that giant house spiders prefer the indoors, she transported the startled creature to her garage.

Image of Ten-lined june beetle
The ten-lined june beetle makes a hissing noise when disturbed, says Brenner, but it’s “a complete bluff. They are absolutely harmless.” (Photo by Kelly Brenner)

To harmlessly view such animals in close-up with her young daughter, whose child’s hands could inadvertently crush them, Brenner fashioned a DIY aspirator from a jar, a rubber tube, and some fabric; by sucking in air from one end of the tube, they can gently pull a spider, ant or earwig into the jar for temporary viewing. Created last year during Brenner’s “365 Nature Project”—a daily online journal of interesting observations—the tool was one of many that helped her meet the project’s goal of getting to know Earth’s fellow travelers more intimately.

“There’s always something to find—always,” Brenner says, noting the profound experience of observing a beetle go about his routine. “There’s a difference between looking and really seeing what’s going on. Watch how it walks, watch how its antennae move, watch how it acts when it encounters something like a rock. Does it go around it, does it go over it, does it investigate? Is it going to eating something? What’s going on?”

Her lifelong curiosity, nurtured at a young age when she searched for beetles and snakes while camping with her family on the Columbia River Gorge, is infectious. To introduce more people to such marvels, Brenner is now working on a book that will relay the fascinating stories of slime molds, moss, and other wonders of nature in urban environments. In the meantime, she’s also continuing to add more habitat to her own backyard, one project at a time. A large deck built by previous owners for human recreation is long gone, soon to be replaced by something that many more creatures will enjoy: a wildlife pond, one that Brenner hopes will draw more dragonflies and nightly concerts from her favorite musicians, Pacific chorus frogs who’ve been known to lull her to sleep from a nearby wetland.

Tips Inspired by Kelly Brenner’s Garden

Image of Nature journal by Kelly Brenner
Transferring details to paper changes the way you observe nature, Brenner says. (Sketches by Kelly Brenner)

Image of Nature journal 2 by Kelly Brenner

Keep a nature journal. Already experienced
in drawing from the days when she was earning her landscape architecture degree, Brenner started keeping a nature journal after taking a watercolor sketching class and looking for ideas on Pinterest. Though her camera helps her relay the stories of her observations, creating her own visual details brings new understanding. “By sketching it, you see more,” she says, describing the process of drawing a bird. “You can see how the feathers go together and how they’re overlapping each other and how the beak goes with the feathers. It makes you look closer.”

Seek expert help to learn about fellow inhabitants. In a world where a square meter of soil can contain millions of insects and other invertebrates, it’s impossible to get to know even a fraction of the living beings among us. But a few sources can provide insights about those we do find. Brenner receives identification help after posting her photos to Twitter, and she frequently uses BugGuide (bugguide.net), where experts review uploaded images.

Image of Starling_Kelly Brenner
Starlings are as welcome as other birds in Brenner’s yard. (Photo by Kelly Brenner)

Appreciate all the animals in your midst. Brenner resists the urge to engage in selective compassion, appreciating the much-maligned starling as much as she does the rarer species. “They’re pretty, they’re iridescent, they have neat colors, they can mimic and sing,” she says. And in Europe, where she’s traveled several times, they’re in decline and considered a precious bird. “It’s just species bias,” says Brenner. “I think it’s natural, but where do we draw the line?”

Image of dragonfly_Kelly Brenner
Dragonflies from the nearby wetland have been known to stop by. (Photo by Kelly Brenner)
Image of Hawk_Kelly Brenner
Cooper’s hawks also breed in the local wetland and pay regular visits to Brenner’s abode. (Kelly Brenner)

Extend existing natural areas. Many plants now in Brenner’s yard also grow at Pritchard Beach, a nearby park and wetland along Lake Washington where she volunteers to remove invasives and plant natives. Cooper’s hawks who nest at the park also frequent her property, where they perch on the fenceposts. Frogs and dragonflies stop by, and Brenner plans to make her yard even more hospitable to them by adding a rain garden that will divert water from the basement of the house and into the planned pond.

Put down spreading roots. Adding spreading species to the ground layer makes filling an empty space a lot more manageable—and provides a bounty of extra plants. In one of the first beds she made, Brenner planted strawberry, false lily of the valley, and star Solomon seal—all low growers that made many more of themselves and have now been transplanted around the yard. Brenner often buys small starts at native plant sales, and this year she’ll add local seeds to her front-yard pollinator garden.

Work on one area at a time. When creating a wildlife garden, “don’t worry about being perfect,” Brenner advises. “Just start with one plant, and then go on to the next.” Even with a landscape architecture degree and a design in mind, she hasn’t been able to implement all of her plans yet—and that’s OK, she says. The ever-increasing number of species moving into her peaceable kingdom seem to agree.

Planting and Wildlife Resources

Seattle nature guide: Brenner frequently updates her website, The Metropolitan Field Guide, with regular observations from her backyard and beyond. Last year, her 365 Nature project resulted in daily posts about interesting finds throughout the city and beyond. The site also offers book reviews and helpful links to citizen science projects, recommended plant lists, and other topics of interest to nature lovers and wildlife gardeners.

Local seeds of change: After attending a Xerces Society workshop, Brenner ordered native seeds for her front-yard pollinator garden from Northwest Meadowscapes. The company focuses on locally adapted species from western Washington and Oregon.

Wildlife protection, conflict resolution, and rehabilitation: Living with Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest by Russell Link is a comprehensive guide to common backyard species, providing advice for protecting wildlife and preventing conflicts with the animals in our midst. PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood cares for sick, injured, and orphaned animals, including marine mammals, with the goal of releasing them back into the wild; the PAWS website provides information about wildlife rescue, conflict resolution, and coexistence with our fellow species.

Container gardening for animals: Do you yearn to put down the roots of a wildlife garden but have only a patio or balcony? No problem! Read these inspirational tips from Brenner and others about how to garden for animals in small spaces.

Find more profiles, tips, and inspiration in my new best-selling book, The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife. Learn more about the Humane Gardening Heroes series, and tell me your story.

*All photos by Kelly Brenner/Metropolitan Field Guide.

Pocket Humane Gardens: No Yard, No Problem!

Image of Balcony garden with hummingbird
Above: A humane garden in the sky: Five floors up, a hummingbird finds sustenance in a pot of lavender grown from seed. (Photo by Kelly Brenner/Metropolitan Field Guide) Top: Wild bergamot grows well in containers and is bee-approved. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

The distant view from Kelly Brenner’s Seattle living room was enviable, a testament to the engineering marvels of modern human habitat.

Image of balcony garden with ladybug larva
A ladybug larva makes her way across the balcony. (Photo by Kelly Brenner/Metropolitan Field Guide)

But much closer to home were sights even more spectacular than the Space Needle rising hundreds of feet in front of the Olympic Mountains. Against the backdrop of one of America’s prettiest cities, ladybugs quietly made their way into the world, growing from eggs to adulthood in the small space just outside the sliding door. Hummingbirds sipped from potted lavender, and bees, butterflies and hoverflies feasted on native flowers such as sea thrift, nodding onion and red-flowering currant.

“I got so well-acquainted with every little plant and every little nook and cranny that I got to experience really intimately the life cycle,” says Brenner, the blogger behind Metropolitan Field Guide. She even grew some plants from seed on her sixth-story apartment balcony. “It was very rewarding watching the seed grow and become a flower, and then the bee came to see it.”

Image of insect hotel
A spice rack mixed with twigs creates a B&B for insects. (Photo by Kelly Brenner/Metropolitan Field Guide)

What was magical to Brenner was life-sustaining to the species who ate and bred in the mini-habitat. Creatures such as caterpillars, crows and scrub jays took advantage of the gourmet feast offered by native plants and herbs, the watering hole made from a shallow container filled with rocks for perching, and the shelter provided by clumping plants. The space even included a spice-rack-turned-insect-hotel filled with natural materials like twigs and seedpods.

A bumblebee visits chives grown from seed. (Photo by Kelly Brenner/Metropolitan Field Guide)

As the number of Americans living in urban areas has grown—an estimated eight out of every 10—so has the need to make room for our fellow species. According to the global 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, we’re already degrading or using unsustainably 60 percent of the planet’s ecosystem services that benefit humans. That’s not good news for wildlife either, as fragmentation and contamination of habitat diminishes biodiversity and threatens further extinctions.

Fortunately, the opportunities to make a difference are limitless, whether you have a patio, balcony or, like urban farmer Annie Novak, rooftops. Novak’s experiences are a testament to the power of adding plants to all levels of the concrete jungle: She’s spotted the same migrating bird species in vastly different gardens, from a site rising more than 30 stories above the city to the ground-level New York Botanical Garden where she works.

Connecting these green archipelagos into contiguous habitat supports overwintering animals as well. People often emphasize the
importance of such efforts in rainforests and other distant places, says Novak, but nature needs our help in downtown New York, too. “We live in an ecosystem that has lots and lots of wildlife.”

While conventional small-space gardening advice is easy to find, making a mini-habitat requires a slightly different approach. Here’s how to channel other species’ perspectives when creating pocket gardens for wildlife.

Learn who lives among you.
Image of Tiger swallowtail on wild bergamot
It doesn’t make a difference to this Eastern tiger swallowtail whether this wild bergamot is in a pot or not. Many such natives grow well in containers, and some even come back year after year. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Research the fauna and wildlife-friendly flora in your community, recommends Novak, by observing animals and their plant preferences at parks and gardens. Learn what grew naturally in your region in the past. If you see small gardens that attract animals, including insects, find out the names of the plants and consider adding more. Creating strength in numbers enhances habitat corridors and draws pollinators, who are attracted to mass plantings.

“It’s about a narrative,” says Novak. “It’s not like you hang up a Christmas tree and it’s Christmas. It’s not a cookie-cutter kind of project. You really have to think about who you want to attract, when are they in your area, what do they like to eat.”

Plant natural food for wildlife.

If squirrels, pigeons and other generalist species proliferate in your neighborhood, be prepared to welcome them. “I try and emphasize that connectedness of the space,” says Novak. If a hummingbird feeder attracts squirrels, who also love sugar water, rejoice in the knowledge that you’re providing food for any hungry creature who happens to pass by.

Image of hummingbird on zinnia
Zinnia is among the tried-and-true old-fashioned annuals attractive to hummingbirds and pollinators — and is easily grown in a pot. (Photo by Will Heinz)

Just because the habitat is manmade doesn’t mean the food has to be. Instead of just hanging feeders, plant native species that provide berries, seeds, pollen, nectar and foliage for wildlife. Include spring-, summer- and fall-flowering plants that offer a succession of blooms; several species with red trumpet-shaped flowers can sustain hummingbirds throughout the season. Make the most of your space with multipurpose plants; Novak likes sunflowers, which feed pollinators while in bloom and birds after going to seed.

Think: What would nature do?
Image of the High Line in New York
Plants grown on the High Line in New York City can withstand wind and other extreme conditions. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Urban environments can swing more quickly among extremes of heat, drought and flash flooding. Look to the natural world for clues about what will thrive. “While you’re thinking about wildlife, you’re also thinking about what the plant can handle and finding the right plants for the right spot so you can do as little maintenance as possible,” says Anna Fialkoff, a horticulturist at the New England Wild Flower Society.

If your balcony is exposed to sun and high winds, choose plants that grow on ridgetops or on the coast, she suggests. Consider moisture needs, and avoid planting drought-tolerant plants with ones that like to keep their feet wet. Use contrasting microclimates as opportunities to experiment. Situated between two pillars, Brenner’s balcony provided both sun and shade, enabling her to shift plants around.

Give them shelter.

Animals visiting your freshly planted balcony or patio bring along with them evolutionary behaviors developed over many millennia. A mama bird who claims a hanging pot for her nest may preclude you from watering your plant for a while, but you’ll gain far more in return: a close-up view of nature at work and a chance to help your wild friends. Watch carefully for such comings-and-goings so you don’t inadvertently remove, flood or otherwise destroy little lives in the making.

Image of the High Line in New York
Small spaces can even support berrying plants, like this winterberry holly. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Add vines, bushes, small trees and grasses that offer cover and nesting areas, planting straight species rather than cultivars when possible. While some cultivars bred for compactness can be useful, some may have lost nutritional value for wildlife in the process, Fialkoff notes.

Be adaptable.

Small adjustments to existing structures can accommodate the needs of both human and wild neighbors. Brenner laughs at the memory of seeing aphid honeydew—a sticky but unobtrusive substance that likely went unnoticed by anyone else—on the railing below her. She recalls sleepless nights worrying that her terra-cotta pots, even as heavy as they were, would blow off the balcony. But she took care to prevent dousing the people downstairs with water, covering the metal slats of her balcony floor with wood decking atop an outdoor rug.

(Photo by Kelly Brenner/Metropolitan Field Guide)

In spite of its challenges, Brenner still misses her mini-habitat even after relocating to a single-family home. Small spaces have benefits (“almost no weeding!” she says) and their own kind of magic—a chance to connect with nature in places that, in many cases, previously had none. Through her continued outreach, she hopes to engage more city dwellers in the biodiversity right outside their doors.

Maybe they’ll even be inspired to help. “If everybody had at least two or three containers of plants, that could be … equivalent to a meadow for pollinators,” Brenner says. “If all the buildings through the whole city did that, you couldn’t even imagine.”

Regional inspiration and guides

Pollinator Container Gardens: A 5-minute video packed with tips from the New England Wild Flower Society for creating a small-space garden for bees and butterflies.

Captivating Containers with Native Plants: A comprehensive guide from the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia that includes recommended species for attracting wildlife, along with tips for planting, design, and maintenance.

Container Gardening with Native Plants: A primer on small-space gardening with wildlife-friendly plants from the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas. The organization also has recommended plants for containers in central Texas.

Patio Gardens: Experimenting with Native Plants for Containers: A tip sheet on the California Native Plant Society site that includes recommended plants. The author, Pete Veilleux, also has a Flickr page, Container Gardening with California Native Plants, that includes more than 500 photos.

Gardening with Nature: Container Gardening: These tips from the Habitat Acquisition Trust in Victoria include information on growing and maintaining plants for different site conditions in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest.

An earlier version of this article originally appeared in the Sept/Oct 2015 issue of All Animals magazine. To see what Kelly Brenner is up to now, check out this Humane Gardening Heroes profile.

Squirrels: Nature’s Real Gardeners

Image of Eastern gray squirrel in Hyde Park by Monkeywing
Above: An Eastern gray squirrel buries a cache – or perhaps merely pretends to do so in a clever attempt to foil would-be nut robbers – in London’s Hyde Park. Transported to places well outside their range a century ago, the animals have adapted well to their adopted homelands. (Photo by Monkeywing) Top, featured image: A red squirrel in Bas-Saint-Laurent, Quebec, enjoys a maple seed. (Photo by Gilles Gonthier)

By Nancy Lawson

In 1749, Pennsylvania put a bounty on Eastern gray squirrels—threepence per scalp. Their crime? Eating too much corn. It wasn’t the first time humans waged war on the bushy-tailed rodents: Massachusetts had already offered fourpence.

A century later, cities along the Eastern seaboard began releasing gray squirrels into urban centers for the enjoyment of local residents, even supplying nest boxes and community-stocked feeders. Treated more like outdoor pets than wild animals, squirrels were also transported far from their native stomping grounds to cities like Seattle and London, where Eastern grays are now blamed for marginalizing other species.

Squirrels are caught between unbridled admiration and relentless persecution, reflecting our contradictory relationships with animals.

A microcosm of our contradictory relationships with animals, human-squirrel interactions have long been shortsighted. Caught between unbridled admiration by those who delight in their acrobatic ways and relentless persecution by others intent on “doing battle” with them, common tree squirrel species are sometimes subjected to draconian treatment. Though the scene of perceived seed-stealing crimes is more likely to be a birdfeeder these days than an agricultural field, the measures are still drastic; one of my friend’s relatives shoots squirrels to guard the feast he’s laid out for songbirds.

Humans can be cruel and irrational, especially when the motivation is revenge. John Griffin, director of urban wildlife solutions at the Humane Society of the U.S., has seen his share of squirrels left to die after homeowners set traps and never looked back. “There’s a real disconnection from nature that exacerbates the problem,” says Griffin, an expert in humanely evicting animals from attics, chimneys and other structures. “If you have an animal who’s a nuisance or in your house, typically it’s framed as, ‘This animal is targeting me in some way, I’ve got to solve it; I’ve got to solve it on an emergency basis’—without really understanding what’s going on.”

Making a House a Home
Image of baby squirrel in hand
Humane wildlife companies make sure to keep squirrel families together when performing evictions. Mothers bring babies to alternate den sites, which they keep on reserve in the landscape in case anything happens to the original nest. (Photo by Humane Wildlife Services)

If they can intercede before clients act on those instincts, humane wildlife companies explain that a squirrel in the attic is likely a mother seeking a safe space to raise her young. They determine where the animals entered. They remove babies, place them in a box nearby, install a one-way door and wait for the mother to move her family. Once everyone’s out, humane services seal entry points to prevent recurrence. When the call for help comes too late, they are sometimes left to pick up the pieces of botched jobs: In one case, Griffin arrived to find an illegal body-crushing trap clamped down on a squirrel who just happened to be walking by. Beyond the obvious cruelty, such approaches don’t solve the problem, targeting random animals while the squirrel family in question is still cozily ensconced in an attic.

Image of squirrels scaling a wall to get the attic
Squirrels are acrobats, able to scale walls like mini Spidermen to access nesting sites in attics. (Photo by Humane Wildlife Services)

Failure to consider animal behavior or repair structural damage creates open invitations for wildlife. Squirrels’ ingenuity knows few boundaries, and their maternal instincts are so strong they’ve been known to fight off dogs and, on rare occasions, chew through metal to get to their young. They can scale walls and squeeze through 2-inch holes. “There’s no difference to a squirrel in terms of what’s natural and what’s human-built,” says Griffin. “They’re like a house can opener.”

Stocking the Pantry
Image of Eastern gray squirrel by Joseph Palatinus
An Eastern gray squirrel works hard for his food in a suburban Chicago yard. Eastern grays can even dig through snow to find their buried treasures. Late winter can be a particularly difficult time for squirrels because food resources are scarce – another reason to tolerate and even welcome their presence at your bird feeders. (Photo by Joseph Palatinus)

Anyone dismayed by squirrelly bird feeder antics will recognize that description. But understanding more about what Wilkes University professor Michael Steele has called their “high-maintenance lifestyle” may garner sympathies of even the most frustrated squirrel detractor.

Image of Eastern fox squirrel with acorn
An Eastern fox squirrel works on an acorn in a Texas yard. Researchers have documented Eastern gray squirrels, Eastern fox squirrels, and Mexican fox squirrels excising embryos from white acorns before burying them–a food preservation method that keeps their winter supplies intact. (Photo by Ken Slade)

Unlike other squirrel species, tree squirrels don’t hibernate and must regulate food supplies all year. Research by Steele and others has documented their ability to decide which seeds are better eaten immediately and which ones can be stored. Some species can even keep fast-germinating white oak acorns from sprouting by excising embryos before burying the seeds. They remember cache sites, monitoring and relocating food throughout the season.

Image of squirrel on roof
A red squirrel in Camrose, Alberta, where the species can find plenty of its main food supply: conifer cones. Red squirrels are also excellent food preservationists, placing mushrooms on tree branches before storing them; the subsequent drying process kills insect larvae and nematodes that could otherwise destroy winter caches.  (Photo by Marilylle Soveran)

“One of the big misconceptions is that their behavior just seems so random, that they’re just out there popping around,” says Steele. “And the thing [people] have to realize is that just about every minute of every day is a careful behavioral decision that they’re making in order to survive.”

Eastern gray squirrels even engage in “deceptive caching,” digging a hole and pretending to bury a seed they keep in their mouths. “That actually meets the criteria of tactical deception,” says Steele, “which was generally only thought to occur in primates.”

While creating their food caches, squirrels plant trees that feed hundreds of species. Many of those species in turn sustain others; oak trees alone support more caterpillars, the mainstay of most terrestrial baby birds’ diets, than anything else in the forest. “We suggest that the importance of tree squirrels in some biomes or ecosystems may be significant enough to elevate them to the status of keystone species,” write Steele and co-author John Koprowski in their book, North American Tree Squirrels.

The Gifts They Bring
Image of squirrel with walnut
An Eastern gray squirrel in Massachusetts finds a prized walnut. As a “scatter hoarding” species, Eastern grays bury nuts far enough away from parent trees that some will invariably sprout, eventually providing even more food and cover for wildlife.  (Photo by Lorianne DiSabato)

Our backyard squirrels, then, are nature’s ultimate gardeners, returning to earth the seeds of wildlife-sustaining plants that we humans cut down. How ironic is it that animals who help birds far more than any birdfeeder could are the object of such angst among birdwatchers and gardeners? How much more fulfilling would our relationship with other species be if we remembered they all have a place in the landscape?

How ironic is it that animals who help birds far more than any birdfeeder could are the object of such angst among birdwatchers and gardeners?

Even when growing food, we don’t have to issue a bounty on squirrel heads to protect our gardens. Rock squirrels and tree squirrels have made themselves at home on Tammi Hartung’s Desert Canyon Farm in Colorado, eating birdseed and chewing through irrigation system emitters. Rather than chastise the squirrels, Hartung lets them join the feast and plants hedgerows rich in food for wildlife. Realizing the squirrels are thirsty, she places saucers of fresh water near drip lines. A hot pepper-petroleum jelly mixture slathered around emitters offers extra insurance.

Her methods are successful because she avoids jumping to conclusions, says Hartung, the author of The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener. “Just sit for a little while and pay attention to what’s actually going on,” she advises. “Then you can figure out a better way to handle it.”

Through closer observation on my own land, I’ve learned that squirrels and other animals bring more gifts than they take away. We just have to be willing to accept them. Last spring, a friend suggested I remove the oaks, hickories and walnuts popping up in my grass and wildflower areas. Years ago, I probably would have. But now I’ve ceded some landscaping work to nature’s real gardeners, who, if only we’d let them, could eventually plant enough seeds, berries and nuts to feed us all.

Protecting Your Own Nest

Image of squirrel in tree
(Photo by Marilylle Soveran)

It’s easier to prevent squirrel entry than to perform evictions. Limit roof damage by keeping branches at least 6 feet away, recommends HSUS urban wildlife solutions director John Griffin. Cover attic side vents and seal holes at roofline intersections. Just be sure to check for animals first; if a family is inside, wait for them to leave or consult with a humane wildlife company. Avoid those that claim to humanely relocate squirrels, a method that often separates families and leaves dependent young behind. Adults also suffer a cruel fate: relocation even a short distance away is often deadly for squirrels and other animals, who may have more trouble competing for resources with their own kind and avoiding predation from others in unfamiliar territories. Get more tips on coexisting with squirrels »

This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared in the November-December 2015 issue of All Animals magazine.

For More Information

A journey through the science of squirrel behavior: Much of what we know about gray and fox squirrels comes from the research of Michael Steele and John Koprowski, who tell the story of their studies in the engaging book, North American Tree SquirrelsSince its 2001 publication, Steele has continued to make groundbreaking discoveries about squirrels and their role in oak seed dispersal, the subject of a new book in progress with the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation.

A squirrelly encyclopedia: Squirrels: The Animal Answer Guide, by Richard Thorington Jr. and Katie Ferrell, covers everything from where squirrels sleep to how they find the food they’ve buried.

Essay on the history of the Eastern gray squirrel: See The Urbanization of the Eastern Gray Squirrel in the Journal of American History for a fascinating and sometimes disturbing account of squirrel-human relationships.

Resilient Nature: A Q&A with Claudia West

Whenever my father returned home from abroad, I couldn’t wait to see his pictures. A plant scientist for the USDA, he visited Australia and New Zealand, Israel and Palestine, South Africa, Costa Rica, Taiwan, and dozens of other countries. In my eyes, he was a modern-day Marco Polo, laden with treats and tales from distant lands.

But in 1980, his journeys took him to a less colorful place: the shadowy landscape east of the Berlin Wall. After driving straight to Dresden to avoid police interrogation, he met his host, the former owner of one of Germany’s largest horticultural enterprises, at the Central Museum. “He told me that I could come to his home for dinner, but we couldn’t talk politics,” my dad, Roger, recalls now. “He was sure there were listening devices planted in the house.”

Later, they retreated to a garden house across the street to drink wine and speak openly. Longtime employees stood on the lookout for trouble as my dad’s colleague described the oppression of the regime, which had taken over his hundred-year-old business and kept him on as manager. A radio under the floorboards provided the only external communication. Everyone lived in fear of the secret police. “It was always this issue of neighbor telling on neighbor; it was very difficult to know who to trust.”

But what made the greatest impression was the patched-together garden at the home of another scientist—a collection of plants my dad’s host deemed his “cultivated wild,” gathered from whatever popped up in the landscape. “Of course, these workers didn’t have much money,” my dad explains. Even nice clothing wasn’t readily available or affordable, much less garden plants. “People in the streets were kind of walking around hanging their heads. It was terrible.”

It was into this world that Claudia West would soon be born. A young girl when the wall fell, West remembers the devastating effects of uranium and soft coal industries in her East German homeland. Entire villages had been dug up for mining to keep the economy afloat, leaving giant craters and air so ashen and chemical-laden that West and her family couldn’t even hang their laundry outside.

Those early impressions of an abused earth devoid of vegetation and a sky thick with pollution made witnessing the subsequent transformation of the land even more awe-inspiring. After less than three decades of restoration efforts, clear lakes now fill the craters, whole forests have sprung from tree plantings, and even European wolves have staged a comeback. “In such a short lifetime,” West says, “I’ve seen nature return with a powerful force to landscapes where we thought all hope was lost.”

In such a short lifetime, I’ve seen nature return with a powerful force to landscapes where we thought all hope was lost.

As the earth around her recovered, West became enamored with American plants she saw in European parks and couldn’t wait to study them here in their native environments. But instead of the vast prairies of wildflowers she’d envisioned, she arrived to find acre upon acre of land mowed down and mulched over. “It was really a huge disappointment coming here, expecting all these great plants and actually seeing so few of them being used in the landscape. And that’s not only an aesthetic disaster and a disaster for quality of life, but it’s also a disaster for ecological reasons. All these animals have developed intricate relationships with these plants for thousands of years, and we took the foundation right out from under their feet.”

West’s desire to heal that scarred landscape inspires her work as the ecological sales manager at North Creek Nurseries in Pennsylvania. It Image of PPWW coverwas also the impetus behind her involvement with the book Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing plant communities for resilient landscapes, which she coauthored with landscape architect Thomas Rainer in 2015. In this interview, she articulates the urgent need for ecological design—and provides take-home tips for every gardener interested in restoring habitat to damaged earth.

Q: You must have been six or seven when the wall fell?

Image of Claudia West
Claudia West

That’s exactly right. I was a child, but as a child you see things sometimes even more clearly than adults, who get so used to the environment that after a while you stop questioning it. But I do remember very clearly the heavy industries, to the point where air pollution was really crazy—really thick and unhealthy for people. And the immense scars this industry left on the landscape.

It took a really long time to clean up these landscapes, but not as long as anybody ever suspected. Going back now is like going back into a different world. It took us all by surprise that a landscape that had been so abused can now be the home of such incredible biodiversity and be used by a whole new tourism industry as really the gem of Central Europe.

Q: That’s amazing. So it was a combination of human intervention and nature coming back on its own?

Exactly, yes. So there was a lot of funds coming in—I think from the European Union—to clean these areas up, and a lot of people coming together. It was all planned restoration efforts, with millions of trees being planted and meadows being seeded and fish being released back into the waters. So certainly it was a man-guided restoration, and the results are just incredible. I had no idea that nature can come back with such a vengeance. Now a generation that saw that pollution goes for a walk around the lakes that used to be craters in the landscapes. It’s so powerful how these people can now all the sudden enjoy their home. It was not possible for them for so many decades.

Q: Your parents were in the landscaping industry?

My family—since it was eastern Germany—was not allowed to have a business because of the Communist structure, the regime. After the wall came down, the world opened up for us, and we started a nursery. We really started very small with a few tables at the local market and buying plants from the Netherlands and reselling them. And then they quickly grew into several … stores that my mother was managing. The landscape design build was something my father spearheaded. Many of the plant species that we wanted to use weren’t available yet in the local nursery trade. We started to grow a lot of the things we needed in our designs in the nursery, and that’s how the nursery business started … and with the understanding that plants can make life better, that they are very powerful and necessary for life quality. Not just for ecology but for us, for people.

We are so jealous of the vegetation that the United States has, the incredible diversity and just the beauty of these plants.

Q: Did you see American natives while growing up in Europe? Is that where you first got interested?

We did—that’s the fascinating thing, where I was just completely confused when I first came here that so few of these plants are here in cultivation. Because we adore them. We are so jealous of the vegetation that the United States has, the incredible diversity and just the beauty of these plants. Thanks to folks like Karl Foerster or some of the early nursery visionaries, these plants became available for the European market.

Many of the European plants have a cool season, simply based on our climate, and they heavily flower between spring and midsummer. Our gardens look more or less green, and there’s not as much of a second flowering highlight as there is here in the United States. So American native plants really fill an aesthetic need in Europe, basically create a second show before winter comes. That’s exactly how they’re being used. And that’s why they’re so incredibly popular, because they bloom until frost, and they’re just spectacular in color and structure and in attracting European insects as well—generalist insects.

Q: You’ve described feeling shocked when you arrived here and found a “chronically undervegetated” and overmulched landscape. When did you first realize that? When you stepped off the plane? Or was it a gradual process?

Image of Rest stop lupines in Minnesota
Opportunities taken: A rest stop in Minnesota is lush with wild lupines, a species well adapted to the sandy soil. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)
Mowed down landscape
Opportunities lost: In what West would refer to as a “chronically undervegetated” landscape near my home, trees provide cover for birds, but there is virtually no ground layer. A matrix of plants growing at different heights and with varying root systems would filter stormwater and provide seed and other delicacies for birds, frogs, and many other animals. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

I think I felt it the second I stepped off the plane, and it just took a while to communicate that better and really understand the extent of the problem and what that means for the ecology. It’s just really a tragedy on such a large scale—the loss of life quality—and what opened my eyes was seeing these opportunities not being taken. And now these opportunities, they have to be taken if we want our landscapes to be continuously the foundation of a healthy ecosystem. Future nature doesn’t live out there anymore, because out there is gone. Future nature lives here in our backyards, in our developments and parking lots or rooftop gardens—or it doesn’t live. That’s the reality.

Future nature doesn’t live out there anymore, because out there is gone. Future nature lives here in our backyards, in our developments and parking lots or rooftop gardens—or it doesn’t live. That’s the reality.

I know that gardens do not replace restoration and conservation of wild lands, and a designed system will probably never have the same quality that a wild or somewhat semi-pristine landscape has in some of the few nature reserves we will still have left that function. But at least a designed garden or landscape can balance some of it. And it may never be as good, but it still can add up and make a difference.

Q: Is there a native plant movement in Germany like there is here?

It’s not really the same, and I think a lot of it has to do with our history. Hitler was very much focused on only allowing European native plants. And there was a very strong push to beautifying the European or German landscape with real German plants. … I don’t think we’re quite ready for a mainstream native plant movement yet because we’re still digesting that past. A lot of very cautious voices come up as soon as anybody goes in that direction. (See “Depoliticizing the Wildlife Garden” for varying interpretations of this history and their effects on native plant advocacy.)

Q: I saw a talk by a scientist who was a little bit defensive about native plants and said the movement is “borderline xenophobic.” I think it’s the opposite because our ancestors came here and killed so many of the indigenous people and their plants. But I can see why there’s a hesitation in Germany.

Well, of course, there’s an understanding that the European native plants are the foundation of our ecology, but it’s not communicated in the same way as it is here. It’s something that lives more in the world of ecology. There’s a very strong push there to collect seeds off European native plants and protect them because many of them are endangered because it’s such a highly dense, highly populated, cultivated landscape over there. So there’s definitely a push to restoration, conservation, and bringing native plants back. But it’s a very different context, I should say—a cautious context.

There are garden designers who base their work on working with native plants from Europe, but the aesthetics often limit how far they can go with these plantings. That kind of focus on native plants and ecology often brings with it a very naturalistic planting and style, and that’s just something that here in the United States and in Europe, not everybody feels comfortable with. I think we’re struggling with the same problems, and that’s one of the reasons why Thomas and I wrote the book—to help folks who want to create more ecological plantings and make that more mainstream and acceptable—and to help them make better design decisions so that we can meet in the middle. We kind of wanted to deflate that “native” debate just a little bit.

Q: I thought you handled it really subtly.

We wanted to show a message that yes, a native plant palette [can be applied] as appropriate for a site. We wanted people to be more aware of that and how plants fit together—and take away from “native” as just solely being based on location, where really “native” is defined by a plant’s interaction with insects and ecology.

Q: The alternative language used most often now is that plants should “serve an ecological function.” But when it comes down to it, most of those native plants are the ones that meet that need, right?

Yeah, that’s exactly right.

Q: So it’s just a matter of trying to defuse the labels. I’ve been interspersing “native” with “wildlife-friendly plants” for that reason.

Yeah! I love that. That’s exactly what it means. Because the concept of “native” means very little to the general public. It’s not powerful. But if you can sell the quality—that these plants will bring all these beautiful creatures into your garden and you’ll be able to enjoy them—who doesn’t want that? That’s the purpose of gardening. This is where the hobby and the passion lives. That’s powerful and that’s what we wanted to focus on and not location, location, location. I think that is really an exhaustive debate. And what we need are solutions. We need better native planting design to sell this quality.

Tips: Trusting Nature’s Time-Tested Recipes
Image of Eastern tiger swallowtail on ironweed
Knowing how plants behave – the way they spread and change over time – is essential to creating sustainable landscapes, write West and Rainer. New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) is in the lowest ranking on the plant “sociability” scale, meaning it grows singly or near only a few other plants of its kind.

Traditional landscaping is replete with formulaic advice based on appearances and shallow vital stats: Put tall plants in the back, short ones in front. Buy three to five of each kind and place them 12 inches apart. Mulch the remaining earth, add fertilizer and water, and repeat.

But nature is much more imaginative. In Planting in a Post-Wild World, authors Claudia West and Thomas Rainer explain what plants really want—and don’t want—to survive and thrive among us. Here are three top takeaways that can be applied in the home garden.

Plants have social needs.

If you’ve ever watched the proliferation of blue mistflower added to a sunny spot or a Virginia bluebell planted under a tree, you won’t be surprised to learn these species rank high on a “levels of sociability” scale created by German plant researchers, including one of West’s teachers, Hermann Müssel. But while some species are gregarious and don’t mind taking up the whole garden, others are wallflowers, preferring to stand alone or with just a few friends.

Image of Eastern-tailed blue on blue mistflower
Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) takes the highest ranking on the sociability scale – at level 5 – due to its tendency to spread expansively.

Mimicking these natural tendencies can encourage long-term sustainability of planned landscapes, especially on sites under high pressure from invasive species. European designers interested in grouping species based on spreading tendencies can turn to Friedrich Stahl and Richard Hansen’s groundbreaking book Perennials and their Garden Habitats, published in 1993. West has been hoping to develop similar guidelines for American native plants. In the meantime, I’ve found it instructive to read the online plant profiles provided by a variety of sites, including North Creek Nurseries as well as these favorites: Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Native Plant Database, Missouri Botanical Garden’s Plant Finder, and the USDA’s Fire Effects Information System. (The latter offers information on wildlife habitat and plant communities associated with a number of native and nonnative species.) Regional or state-based databases, such as the California Native Plant Society’s Calscape, are also helpful resources for learning more about plant growth habits.

Plants live in a space-time continuum.

Plants’ personalities aren’t solely defined by the number of friends they keep around. Though often thought of as static green backdrops, plants are constantly interacting with the world around them and occupying space in different ways. Some spread laterally by shallow roots, while others anchor themselves deep in the ground. “There are very few plants—things like cattails or phragmites—that grow in monocultures,” says West. “Most other species in the wild are naturally layered. Their entire morphologies are based on that.”

The resulting intermingling of complex root systems below ground can improve storm water filtration, while aboveground layers of vegetative growth provide abundant food and shelter opportunities for insects, amphibians, and small mammals. Blanketing the earth with mulch stymies these natural benefits to the environment, so West and Rainer recommend instead mixing low spreaders among taller perennials to create a continuous matrix. “They are not always the most floriferous plants,” they write of these groundcovers, “but they are the workhorses of designed plant communities. Density is created not by cramming plants together, but by layering a composition vertically with plants inhabiting different spaces based on their forms.”

The way a species changes through time—and especially through one season—also affects the surrounding plant community. Some may roam through the garden in spring but stop spreading in early summer, when taller species begin to shoot up or leaf out and cast shade over the ground below.

Plants adapt to “stressful” conditions.

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and the same is often true of plants. Plants in drier climates have evolved creative ways to withstand drought, including by storing more moisture in their waxy leaves or going dormant during the warmest weather. Many woodland species derive more consistent moisture and nutrients from rich soil and fallen leaves. Plants in both environments form intricate relationships with microorganisms in the soil, sharing nutrients and water through underground fungal networks.

Image of chalk dudleya
Chalk dudleya (Dudleya pulverulenta) is one of many plants that can die quickly from inappropriate watering. It naturally grows on slopes in its native San Diego, allowing it to quickly shed rainwater from its leaves. (Photo by Will Heinz)

The typical recommendations for starting a garden ignore these community-based strategies and weather-specific adaptations. Quick-growth recipes of compost, fertilizers, and irrigation are best left to the vegetable garden, designed for one-season harvest. In other contexts, too much pampering from the gardener can kill plants outright by overwhelming them with inputs they don’t need.

Rather than altering the texture, chemistry, and moisture levels, gardeners will have better luck using plants already adapted to the topography and terrain—supporting the vigorous responses of individual plants to their environment, the long-term sustainability of broader plant communities, and, ultimately, the wild animals who depend on these landscapes for their very survival.

This is the first in a series of Q&As based on interviews I conducted for my forthcoming book, The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Wildlife Habitat, due for release from Princeton Architectural Press on April 18.

*Featured image: A black-throated sparrow surveys his domain from a cholla cactus in a suburban Scottsdale, Arizona, development. Though the species is said to be less adaptive to suburbs than other desert birds, this individual may be faring well alongside humans because the community is brimming with natural areas and native plants. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)


Cultivating compassion for all creatures great and small

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