Writer and naturalist Nancy Lawson cultivates compassion for all creatures great, small, wild and wonderful. A columnist for All Animals magazine, she is the author of the forthcoming book, The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Wildlife Habitat, to be released in April 2017 by Princeton Architectural Press.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)
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.
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.
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.”
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?”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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?”
Flatworms with cartoonish eyespots reside there too.
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
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.
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?”
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.
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 was 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?
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
*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)
What’s to love about native plants that spread like crazy? Everything! Enlist these hardy troopers to help reclaim habitat from invasive species.
They were the last lonely leftovers: seven pint-size transplants I couldn’t even give away. Other beauties—boneset, coneflowers, bee balms, asters—had flown off the shelves of my cubicle wall, where a “Free to Good Home” sign invited friends and colleagues to give them a new spot in their own gardens.
But the golden ragworts, still small and fairly nondescript, had a harder time selling themselves. It didn’t help that their name sounded like “ragweed,” the plant everyone loves to hate, or that I repeatedly responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” when asked: “Does it spread?” My fellow gardeners, trained to panic in the face of plants that refuse to be kept down, backed away in terror, eyeing the pots as they would a petri dish of ebola virus.
So it was that the remaining stash of this underappreciated groundcover—which feeds bees and shelters many other creatures—ended up back in my yard, though not in its rightful place in the ground. Putting the plants aside under some sassafras trees by our driveway, I intended to give them a better home, but life got in the way. As the leaves dropped and the snow fell and one season passed into another, there they sat, neglected and trapped in their plastic pots.
That spring, though, the plants gave me an unexpected gift in spite of my poor stewardship. As I headed past the driveway to tackle the onerous spring ritual of removing garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), a persistent invasive species, I discovered the little ragworts had gotten a head start on the task. Refusing to be held captive, their roots had burst forth from the holes in the bottom of the pot and rambled fearlessly into the garlic mustard patch.
To understand what a revelation this was, it helps to know a little about garlic mustard. Originally from Europe and Asia, it’s allelopathic, releasing chemicals that inhibit the growth of other species. It’s a threat to forest understories in the U.S. and Canada and also to the West Virginia white butterfly, which seems to mistake garlic mustard for its host plant, laying eggs of caterpillars doomed to die on leaves they can’t eat.
But in my yard, garlic mustard has finally met a worthy contender. Watching a habitat-harming plant succumb to an equally hardy native has opened my eyes to a more creative, life-affirming method of curtailing invasives on my property. Since it’s not in my nature to want to fight nature, I find the process of cutting, digging and pulling plants—no matter their provenance—a little heart-wrenching. And because I don’t want to support products that harm the land and the creatures who survive off it, I avoid herbicides. Besides, I’d rather not remove any vegetation that’s providing even minimal habitat if there are few other alternatives for nesting and food. Even my preferred, seemingly harmless method of laying down cardboard to kill grass has its consequences, potentially smothering the homes of native bees and other creatures nesting in the ground.
The idea of adding more wildlife-friendly plants while gradually removing less helpful ones, then, appeals to my sensibilities much more than declaring chemical and mechanical warfare to clear the land—and, in at least some cases, it can be more effective in the long term. Here are a few experimental methods that have proven successful on different types of sites, including my own.
1. Guerilla garden: Insert natives into patches of invasives.
Following the ragwort’s unexpected coup, I added more to the 12-by-12-foot garlic mustard patch and watched delightedly as it claimed the whole territory. And it took only three years—about the same length of time a similar experiment played out in the yard of Sue Barton, a University of Delaware associate professor and extension specialist. In her original attempts to eliminate Japanese stilt grass (Microstegium vimineum), an invasive species that crowds out other plants, she’d tried all the standard approaches—mowing, herbicides, replanting with low fescue, and pulling the remaining scattered interlopers that sprouted. Ultimately, the effort had failed. “It’s now just solid stilt grass,” she says.
When she later confronted a second patch of stiltgrass in the backyard, Barton changed her approach, manually weeding out the space before planting a combination of native woodferns (in the Dryopteris genus) and Japanese painted ferns (Athyrium x ‘Branford Rambler’). By spring, the fall project had taken hold and the plugs were thriving. “But the stiltgrass started to grow, and so that summer, it was like a treasure hunt, looking for the little fern plugs in amongst the two-feet-tall stilt grass,” Barton says. She again weeded the stiltgrass out by hand, and in the third year, the 1,000-square-foot space had filled in entirely with ferns. Disliked by deer, the plants were also large enough to shade the ground and prevent further germination of stiltgrass.
“I don’t necessarily know that ferns would work in every situation—what works in one instance is not guaranteed to work another,” says Barton. “It’s just our best guess.”
2. Employ Defensive Linebackers: Practice preventive planting.
Some native plants can hold their ground even against the most impressive offensive lineup. At one Maryland site, Southeastern wild rye (Elymus glabriflorus) has been observed staking its claim in a garden otherwise overtaken by invasive Canada thistle. Proactively planning for this type of “competitive exclusion”—a term for describing species duking it out for the same resources—is the best way to ensure long-term sustainability in landscapes expected to thrive on their own, says Claudia West, coauthor of Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes.
“I’m on a consistent mission right now to find highly aggressive and thuggish native plants,” she says. “I am looking for native species that have all the ecological value, that can outcompete some of the invasive stuff we’re dealing with.”
I’d rather have a very thuggish, vigorous native plant take over an area than have it covered in honeysuckle or autumn olive. … We’re looking for plants that can stand their ground. —Claudia West
In planting projects she undertakes as the ecological sales manager for North Creek Nurseries, West sometimes sneaks in tough native spreaders like wild petunia (Ruellia humilis) and native sedges—species that provide food and cover for wildlife who’ve evolved to depend on them. Though some of the plants won’t leave room for much else, the tradeoff is worth it. “I’d rather have a very thuggish, vigorous native plant take over an area than have it covered in honeysuckle or autumn olive, especially for landscapes that we know from the beginning will not receive a lot of care,” says West. “Think about all the storm water maintenance along highways. Think about parking lots. We’re looking for plants that can stand their ground.”
It’s a useful strategy in many home landscapes as well, especially for gardeners with a heart and mind for helping wildlife but a property covered in turfgrass edged by invasive vines and shrubs. Preventing further encroachment of these plants in my own yard are mountain mint, blue mistflower, bee balm, elderberry, gray dogwood, Pennsylvania sedge and other stalwart defenders. Planted little by little over many seasons in areas where they can freely spread their wings—and roots and seeds—they’ve started to fill in previously barren or invasive-prone spots in our two acres.
3. Recruit Volunteers: Encourage self-starters.
“If I do nothing, what will happen?” asks pioneering landscape designer Larry Weaner in his 2016 book, Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change. While not advocating for a cessation of gardening, Weaner encourages readers to use the question as a guiding principle for creating an ecological landscape or restoring a degraded site. In other words, what native plants are already lying dormant in the land, waiting for us to stop mowing them down? What valuable seeds might migrate into the garden on the breeze or in the bellies of birds? Weaner has seen this strategy come to fruition in his planting projects, as when he added Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) to a client’s meadow and later saw it thriving in an adjacent lawn that a neighbor had let go—and grow.
Refusing to be held back, such unexpected visitors are an increasingly common occurrence on my property as well. Learning who they are and how they grow has been one of the great joys of gardening (or what I’m starting to think of as “un-gardening.”) Some are diminutive, like the blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) that came up singly in a patch of old turfgrass by our back deck. Others make themselves known with wild abandon, like the hyssop-leaved thoroughwort (Eupatorium hyssopifolium) that shot up high above an old bulb garden we inherited from previous homeowners, beckoning fall-migrating monarchs. An entire field of broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus) and purpletop grass (Tridens flavus) graces our backyard where there used to be only mowed lawn, making way for more wildflowers—and eventually trees—with each passing year.
Two summers ago, as I pondered how to address invasive ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) in the front yard, my husband stopped mowing there so the bees could feed on the plant’s early flowers and nest in the bare patches of soil between. By fall, when the ground ivy had continued to spread and I was still plagued with indecision, we discovered that nature had been thinking much more creatively. An inspection of the area revealed nine baby Eastern red cedars peeking up through the leaves, humbling me once again: The previous spring, I’d spent $30 on three diminutive plugs of the same species, and here were three times as many coming up for free. They were healthy and strong and ready to provide nesting, cover and fruit for many bird species, as well as food for foxes, rabbits, raccoons, and butterfly caterpillars who call that tree species home.
Ground ivy, the plant I didn’t want, was serving as a kind of nurse plant for the one I did—something that could only have happened when we’d stopped cutting everything off at the knees.
A fox family under the deck, snakes slithering in the stone wall: This Austin landscape architect welcomes them all, even the rock squirrels who root around his vegetable planters. Learn why in this third dispatch of the Humane Gardening Heroes series.
As thousands of people come and go each day on the busy Texas highway near Tait Moring’s home, many other species navigate a slower-paced thoroughfare just outside his back door.
Among those making the daily rounds is a roadrunner who likes to visit the yard’s most popular watering hole—a fountain Moring built from stone—and snack on some lizards while enjoying his libations. Great horned owls stop in for a chat, and a bobcat’s been known to show up on the back deck to check out the scene.
“And for the first time ever, I saw a woodcock!” Moring recently marveled while tallying the list of his favorite visitors. Ground-dwelling birds, woodcocks feed on an abundance of earthworms, often in forested areas with edge habitat. “I had no idea they were even here.”
But given the way he cares for his land, it’s perhaps no surprise that so many creatures want to stop by. Some, like the fox mother who raised her kits in his yard, even make a life here. “She had them under my deck,” Moring says. “It was a lot of fun. They played just like puppies.”
Birds, frogs, and many other animals come for the abundant insects, berries and other food provided by the native plants on the 22-acre property just minutes from downtown Austin. They also find other forms of habitat: Bull snakes slither into gaps in the walls made from stones found on site and gathered from Moring’s childhood rock collection. Little brown salamanders proliferate in the zoysia grass lawn that’s occasionally fertilized with compost but is free of the chemicals that can harm such thin-skinned amphibians. Every year or two a tarantula wanders by.
“Years ago, I really didn’t believe the people that said, ‘Oh, if you just go organic, everything is easier,’ ” says Moring. “I always thought, well, that sounds good, but I don’t believe it. But it really turned out to be true.” Once he began replacing roses, azaleas and other exotics with natives, he noticed less disease and more resilience. “With native plants, if you do have a few aphids or something, well, it doesn’t decimate the plant. A lot of people panic if they see an insect or a disease or something, but usually it kind of takes care of itself.”
A landscape architect with a love of nature, Moring is something of a rare native species himself: an Austin resident who’s actually from Austin. “In fact, I was at a party, and when someone found out I was born here, they’re like, ‘I have never met one of you before.’ ” Raised by parents who appreciated plants, animals, and seasons (his mother grew up on a ranch, his dad on a farm), Moring frequently went hiking and camping with them and gained a head start on his knowledge of wild species.
“When I first started my practice 30 years ago, I was very gung-ho about using natives,” he says. “My parents were big environmentalists and taught me a lot about native plants. Well, you couldn’t find them except for a few things. But it’s much easier now.”
Moring’s own home includes many naturally occurring natives like ashe juniper, red oaks, and live oaks. His innate respect for the interdependencies of plants and animals is apparent when he describes the value of these species to wildlife. Ashe juniper, often thought of as a weed, is critical to the survival of the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, he explains, as the birds use the shedding bark to make their nests. Though Moring hasn’t spotted the species, he hopes to one day; the oak-juniper forests of Central Texas are the only place in the world where they breed.
Texas natives on the property also include prickly pear cacti, red yuccas, native sedges, bigtooth maples, big Muhly grass, and mountain laurels—a bush with beautiful purple blooms and a fragrance Moring likens to that of grape Kool-Aid. (It’s not the mountain laurel in the Kalmia genus that East Coasters would be used to, he notes; the scientific name is Sophora secundiflora.) To help butterflies and other pollinators, he seeds Texas wildflowers and vines, including bluebonnets, gaillardias, wine cups, salvias, blackfoot daisy, primrose, coreopsis, and passionflower. He has an affection for Virginia creeper vine, another species often thought of as a weed despite its gorgeous fall color and abundant berries for birds.
“I like survivors,” he says. “I just like things that are natives because they’re much less likely to have problems.”
Though many Tait Moring & Associates clients embrace natives, Moring has to use his powers of persuasion with others. “I always know if I’m going to put a mesquite tree in somebody’s landscape that I’m going to probably get cussed at,” he says. “I have to talk them into it and try to convince them. It doesn’t always work. I think the last guy said, ‘Over my dead body.’ They’re a beautiful tree, and it’s just that because ranchers have had to fight them for their rangeland, they think they’re an awful tree.”
The turkeys, quail, javelina, and small mammals who take cover in mesquites would agree with Moring, as would the rabbits and coyotes who consume the pods and the bees who pollinate the flowers. And though the species stands accused of interfering with livestock production, it actually provides shade for cows and can enhance soil fertility.
Moring’s defense of mesquites recently persuaded a satisfied customer to add them to a courtyard. “But we still get people that move here from other areas, and it doesn’t matter where they come from; they often want what they had back home,” he says. “I try to gently educate and change minds.”
Moring knows that while humans can easily relocate across the continent, many other species have evolved to make a life only in certain ecological niches. Even those with broader ranges can’t just hop on a plane and relocate when their homes are razed. That knowledge informs his attitude toward all the creatures in his yard, including those others might fear or dismiss. When he finds poisonous coral snakes, he ignores the common advice to kill them and simply moves them deeper into the canyon. When yellow jackets take up residence, he lets them be, remembering the helpful role they play in preying on plant-eating insects.
In nature, there’s a pretty masterful design … Once you get a balance going, everything sort of seems to take care of itself.
Rabbits often graze, sampling the buffet but never decimating anything. Occasionally when Moring has left the gate open to the cultivated area of his property, deer stop by, and recently a coyote came through. His own cats enjoy the great outdoors from a caged-in area. “They think they’re in the wild,” he says. “It protects them from the coyotes and it protects the birds from them.”
Rock squirrels have presented a bit more of a challenge for Moring, whose vegetable planters built from rock just happen to be their preferred habitat. “They’re really cool to watch,” he says. “They can wreak havoc on the vegetable garden, and so the only way that I’ve figured out to deal with that is just to cover everything with chicken wire and little fencing stuff.”
“The squirrels have driven me a little bit crazy,” he says, “but everything seems to have a place. In nature, there’s a pretty masterful design … Once you get a balance going, everything sort of seems to take care of itself.”
Tips Inspired by Tait Moring’s Garden
Recycle on-site materials into functional art.
Moring works not just with the plants indigenous to his property but also with the stone and wood he’s collected there over the years. Rocks left over from client projects have supplemented those found on site to create stone walls and planters. Carved stone found at an abandoned quarry have become columns for holding plant containers and supporting climbing vines. A stock tank made of recycled hardware provides water for wildlife.
Texas gardeners and naturalists—especially those in the Austin area—are lucky to be so close to one of the nation’s best resources for wildlife gardening, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. But most places have botanical gardens and arboretums where you can observe the growth habits of different species. Garden clubs and birding experts can also be wonderful resources, Moring notes, providing information about plants that attract birds and other wildlife.
Celebrate local flora and fauna.
The limestone, granite and thin soils of Texas hill country make for a rugged but lush landscape across 25 counties in the central part of the state. Plants there are uniquely adapted to survive periods of hot, dry weather. Wherever you live, local flora and fauna have evolved for millennia to adapt to soil, moisture and temperature conditions. “To me, every region has its own beauty, and that’s the fun of going somewhere different,” says Moring. “It’s great if Texas looks like Texas and Maryland looks like Maryland, instead of having this homogeneous [landscape] where everything looks the same everywhere.”
Rather than trying to create a dream home for yourself from species originating in distant lands, encourage the ones who’ve already been making a life in your region long before you arrived. “Don’t try to force something that wasn’t meant to be in your region. Embrace your local region as much as you can,” says Moring. “That doesn’t mean you can’t have a favorite plant or something that your grandmother had, but don’t try to recreate the whole environment.”
Native plant resources: Showcasing native plants of Texas, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin is also a national treasure, operating the Native Plants Database of species native to the United States and Canada. Searching by scientific or common name, gardeners can access detailed fact sheets about a plant’s natural habitat, distribution, soil and light needs, and benefits to wildlife.
Wildlife gardening: A helpful guide produced by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas Wildscapes: Gardening for Wildlife, provides a basic primer on creating wildlife habitat as well as more specific information on Texas native plants and animals. Though a section on conflict resolution occasionally mentions less humane methods such as trapping and relocating certain species, the book generally encourages conflict prevention and compassion for wildlife living among us.
Pollinator advocacy: The Texas Pollinator PowWow helps communities and individuals protect pollinators and their habitats. Serving as a hub for education, resources, networking opportunities, and information about the latest research in pollinator conservation, the Texas Pollinator PowWow also organizes yearly conferences. Speakers and steering committee members include scientists, horticulturists, natural resource professionals and advocates from universities, government agencies, private institutions and local communities.
Though Austin is famous for its mass gatherings of bats under the Congress Avenue Bridge, the animals still face a host of challenges, from disease and development to human fear and misunderstanding. Information and resources are available from Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation and Austin Bat Refuge, which also cares for bats who are orphaned, injured or otherwise in need.
Conversion to a wildlife-friendly haven doesn’t have to be expensive. One seed at a time, this Ohio animal lover has brought back the hummingbirds and fireflies to her formerly barren yard in just a few years. Learn how in this second dispatch of our online series, Humane Gardening Heroes.
She has great affection for snakes and moles. She loves her pet chickens but welcomes predators to her yard. She may be one of the only people in the U.S. who has actually bought pokeweed, a species that, though nutritious for birds and other animals, is often maligned by gardeners. And when she’s not adding more plants for wildlife on her 3-plus-acre property just outside Cincinnati, Paige Nugent spends her spare time providing advice and encouragement to help others to do the same.
She does so even when they haven’t actually asked for it, especially at big-box centers where invasive plants that wreak havoc on natural habitats are still sold in high volume: “I have been known while shopping at Lowe’s to stop an individual, look in their cart, and say, ‘Put that back; you don’t want that.’ ”
A nurse by day, Nugent moonlights as a passionate advocate for other species. Her efforts started in her own backyard, where she planted hazelnuts, elderberries, brown-eyed Susans, and many other natives beneficial to Ohio’s wildlife. In a formerly barren lawn that once had few wild visitors, the coral bells and columbines she’s grown from seed now attract hummingbirds. The dog fur she places in baskets for birds lines the nests of cedar waxwings. Bluebirds visit her DIY waterfall. Fireflies, once banished from the mowed-down yard, have come back.
It’s taken only four years for nature to return to the once-scarred land. And though Nugent describes much of her garden as still looking “like a bunch of sticks with cages around them”—referring to her strategy of wrapping young trees to prevent deer nibbling—the garden’s promise is already showing in the form of a thriving sycamore. Planted as a knee-high sapling just after Nugent moved in, it’s now 15 feet tall. “The other day my husband walked out and goes, ‘When did this tree get here’?” she says.
The Seeds of her Obsession
But it’s not just the majestic and commonly admired species that captivate Nugent, who learned from an early age that animals rely on many of the plants we take for granted. After she and her brother carelessly smashed a stand of pokeweed covered in ripening berries in their backyard, her disappointed father asked one pointed question: What are the birds going to eat this winter? “Suddenly I was horrified,” writes Nugent on a website she recently created, agirlinhergarden.com. “Never again did I knock down the pokeweed.”
That experience—plus years of camping trips with her family, tree ID lessons from her father, and eventually a college degree in biology—gave Nugent a different perspective on what it means to garden. Two of her favorite underappreciated plants are Virginia creeper vine and Eastern red cedar, both natives that offer food and shelter to many wild species but get little respect from gardeners. Though Eastern red cedar is one of the few evergreens in Nugent’s region, “everyone I talk to goes, ‘Don’t plant that; it’s junk,’ ” she says. “But it has such a dense branching that you can put so many birds in there. It’s a perfect windbreak. It grows fast.” In fact, the row she added at the edge of her property is now four times the size of the Norway spruces she had also planted there.
Long before milkweed species received exalted status for their role as exclusive feeders of monarch butterfly caterpillars, Nugent revered these often maligned plants too, feeding their leaves to monarch larvae by hand. As a young girl in the early 1990s, she raised the caterpillars to adulthood, inviting fellow elementary school students to join her in magical butterfly releases.
Since then, habitats for monarchs and other butterflies have vastly diminished, and Nugent’s methods for helping them have evolved. Rather than captive-feeding, she adds plants for butterflies in the wild instead. This year she hadn’t even removed her new spicebushes from the pots yet when their namesake species found them. “I go out there, and all the spicebush leaves were gone,” she says. “And I looked, and a spicebush swallowtail had laid an egg, and the caterpillar was eating them. I hadn’t even gotten them in the ground yet!”
Spicebush leaves feed caterpillars, while the berries are a boon for fall-migrating birds.
Possumhaw viburnum berries are another fall food source.
Nugent grows old-fashioned favorites like zinnias and natives like royal catchfly from seed.
Liatris and black-eyed Susans were started from seed, too.
Purple coneflowers offer seed to goldfinches, one of the only bird species that feeds seed instead of insects to newborns.
As a humane gardener, Nugent views such experiences as life-affirming and knows that plants were meant, in part, to be eaten. She understands that all animals, from the hawks who pass through during migration to the moles who tunnel underground, have a role to play. “I got asked by my neighbor if I wanted any mole traps last week,” she says. “And I said, ‘No, that’s fine, they’re eating the Japanese beetle grubs.’ ”
Nugent is accustomed to such attitudes; it’s why she started her website. After hearing her coworkers talk about killing spiders and hating snakes and spraying their lawns with toxic pesticides, she decided to begin educating. “I really started to see when I worked with non-science people how much they didn’t understand that these animals are fine,” she says, “and that they should be there because we’re the ones who displaced them.” Covering a broad range of topics that span everything from the merits of golden mantled ground squirrels to DIY tutorials on creating backyard prairies, Nugent looks first for concepts and species that people naturally relate to—birds and butterflies, for example—as a gentle segue to topics that tend to inspire more fear. Her efforts have already garnered some loyal fans among her colleagues, who recently enthusiastically accepted her offer of free milkweed pods, bringing them home to plant the seeds of new life-sustaining gardens.
Top Tips Inspired by Paige’s Garden
Protect the flock.
To safeguard her pet chickens from hawks, foxes, and other
animals, Nugent fortifies her 300-square-foot coop with field fencing and hardware cloth. She also keeps her feathered girls safely confined during hawk migration season, rather than letting them out of the coop to play in the yard. At the same time, Nugent is careful to care for her chickens in a way that doesn’t harm other animals as well. “Chicken people like to throw diatomaceous earth around like it’s candy,” she says, referring to a common method of trying to prevent mite infestations. “And it really bothers me. You can’t throw that into the air because you’re going to kill bees.”
Show your neighbors some plant love.
To help people better understand the plants and animals they fear, it’s sometimes effective to start a conversation about less intimidating species—or to even add them to your yard. “I have redbuds out the wazoo,” says Nugent. “Our next door neighbor said he loves redbuds, so I put a row of them on our property line.”
Order bareroot seedlings, and grow plants from seed.
To make the task of filling her yard with native species affordable, Nugent has planted many trees and shrubs as bare-root seedlings. Available from state conservation agencies and private nurseries, they’re a fraction of the cost of potted plants and can become established with less care. Because they are small and dug up while still dormant, they are usually quicker to adapt to new soils. Nugent’s thrifty gardening methods, which also include growing flowers from seed, have helped her fill her yard with bur oaks, flowering dogwoods, five types of viburnums, American cranberry bushes, three kinds of sumacs, currants, winterberries, New Jersey tea, great blue lobelia, royal catchfly, and many other plants.
Though Nugent has taken on major projects in her backyard, including the planting of a prairie, she’s learned to divide her ambitions into manageable chunks. “I have actually finally calmed myself down,” she says of her initial frenzy to convert the entire yard as quickly as possible. “I’ve divided it into three phases, so I’m going to kill parts of my lawn each year and work on certain areas of the prairie.” The strategy will allow her to grow and nurture each section until it’s largely self-sustaining.
Keep cats safely confined.
Nugent’s cat, Castiel, has plenty of indoor entertainment in the form of a window seat onto the world. Nugent keeps him inside for both his own safety and that of area wildlife—something she hopes more cat owners will do to protect their pets and prevent predation on birds and small mammals.
Plant a caterpillar garden.
Planting flowers for butterflies is still more top of mind for the average gardener, much to Nugent’s lament. “It’s always about the butterfly, but you can’t forget the caterpillar,” she says. Their needs are completely different; rather than sipping nectar from blooms, the larvae of moths and butterflies eat leaves and occasionally other plant parts. You can use the searchable database at Butterflies and Moths of North America to learn more about their lifestyles and nutrition preferences; for gardeners in the East, Caterpillars of Eastern North Americais also an invaluable resource for identification and information about species’ life cycles.
Visit public gardens for ideas.
It wasn’t a nursery or website that introduced Nugent to her favorite shrub of all; she fell in love with buttonbush after a recommendation by creatures even more discerning than her fellow humans. “I saw it at the arboretum, and I could actually hear the bush buzzing,” she says. “I was like, ‘What is that noise?’ And there was a bush bigger than me covered in bumblebees.” Taking time to observe such interactions between plants and animals can help us make the right choices for our gardens. After all, who could be more credible in recommending a plant’s value than a bee?
Wildlife gardening: Nugent’s website, agirlinhergarden.com, provides advice about native and invasive plants, misunderstood animal species, and planting methods.
Native seed seller: For native plant seeds, Nugent recommends Ohio Prairie Nursery, which offers individual packs and seed mixes as well as on-site consultations for homeowners.
Nature center education: The Cincinnati Nature Center has restored 50 acres of former farmland to prairie grasslands and offers resources to homeowners and others wishing to learn about restoration of their own properties.
Field education. Western Wildlife Corridor preserves sensitive habitats for wildlife, primarily by removing invasive plant species. By volunteering to help or signing up for wildflower walks, you can learn more about identifying native and nonnative species in the region.
I welcome human immigrants to my community, but my botanical preferences are for natives. Some people think the two concepts are mutually exclusive. Here’s where they’re wrong.
Two years ago while attending an entomology lecture, I was surprised to hear the professor describe native plant advocates as “borderline xenophobic.” The comment seemed to appear out of nowhere, a defensive-sounding remark delivered amid a heated discussion about pesticides.
Since then I’ve learned that this type of characterization is nothing new. In a 1994 New York Times essay titled “Against Nativism,” Michael Pollan called for a kind of “multihorticulturalism,” portraying native plant advocates as goofy and misguided at best and racist at worst. Sociologists, ecologists, and historians have since written extensively about the politicization of native species, echoing Pollan’s reflections on what he described as a dangerous cultural obsession with European plants in Nazi Germany.
Whether or not Hitler really had an opinion on the provenance of plants is subject to debate; at least one researcher offers compelling evidence that cynical landscape professionals jumped on a political opportunity, attempting to garner attention by cloaking their agendas in the sentiments of German superiority. Nazi authorities, he writes, appeared somewhat indifferent to the whole matter.
Whatever the case, a fear of repeating history (or even interpretations of that history) is often invoked as a way to discredit the ecological case for native plants. Especially in this age of sweeping anti-immigrant sentiment fueled by the new U.S. administration, some wildlife-friendly gardeners and horticulturists are struggling to find new ways to describe native plants in an attempt to distance themselves from the semantics of hateful ideologies.
Aside from the obvious point that our country’s agricultural and horticultural history has brutal roots in the colonization and extirpation of indigenous people, plants, and animals, there’s a more fundamental flaw at the core of all these discussions: By projecting our own politics onto the millions of other creatures with whom we share the planet, we are comparing not just apples to oranges but one apple to all the other fruits across the globe.
Here’s what I mean: We humans are all of the same species. We are all mobile, and we can all technically survive in a variety of habitats around the planet. We are generalists on a global scale. But we are only one among nearly 1.5 million known animal species, many of whom have evolved to be specialists, surviving on or in certain flowers, leaves, rocks, and waters. These animals and countless other organisms (up to an estimated 1 trillion when accounting for microbial life) often need certain plants that in turn have evolved to grow on certain topographies, in certain climates, with certain rainfalls or dry spells or soil profiles. From bees to butterflies to birds, many creatures can live only in regions or even narrow niches in which they evolved.
We are generalists on a global scale. But we are only one among nearly 1.5 million known animal species, many of whom have evolved to be specialists, surviving only on or in certain flowers, leaves, rocks, and waters.
That’s why I plant Maryland species in Maryland for the animals who depend on them, and it’s why I hope gardeners in Oregon will plant species that have coevolved with animals in the Pacific Northwest, and those in Japan will plant species native to their regions, and so on. Conversely, it’s also why I can and do welcome all humans to my community: My habitat is their habitat, my home their home. Unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, we all need the same things to survive. And we can’t meet those needs without protecting and restoring the healthy ecosystems we, too, depend on for clean air, water, and soil.
When Pollan wrote his article, we didn’t have as much data on the value of native plants to wildlife and the harm caused by some nonnatives, which can displace habitat and even poison animals unfamiliar with vegetation from outside their historic ranges. But now an ever-increasing body of research supports the case for planting as many natives as we can, not for selfish human reasons but on behalf of all the other life forms now dependent on us to nurture their last remaining habitats.
Does that mean those advocating for wildlife-friendly landscaping want a return to the exact plantings that grew in some nebulous, pre-human era, as detractors so often claim? No. Such claims feel like cheap shots from tired playbooks that attempt to discredit compassionate, progressive, science-based causes by portraying them as extreme. Even if such a state were desirable, we all know it’s outlandishly unrealistic. You don’t have to be a gardener for long to understand that. My yard still has turf grass that was here when my husband and I bought the house 16 years ago, and it still has plants that threaten wildlife habitat. But it also has hundreds more native species than it did back then. I look at it as a lifetime project—and a lifeline project for the many more creatures who have now made a home here, simply because they can find what they need.
Far from being mutually exclusive, environmental justice and social justice are inextricably linked. Unfortunately, the new administration appears to care little about either, implementing policies detrimental to both humans and animals. Wildlife don’t recognize geopolitical borders, let alone those demarcated by impenetrable barriers that restrict their movement and may destroy their last remaining habitats. They’re already deeply affected by climate change, the science behind which our president chooses to ignore. Some of their last refuges, our public lands, are under siege by silencing orders, corporate pressure for oil and gas drilling, and threats to further defund their operations.
It’s more important than ever that we do what we can in our own communities for both animals and people—and that we ourselves pay attention to the science, not political rhetoric, behind native plants and other critical habitat needs. We can’t take care of the planet in the long term unless we take care of each other now. And we can’t take care of each other in the long term unless we take care of the planet now. I believe in human rights, and I welcome the other citizens of this earth with open arms. I believe in the rights of our fellow species to make a home here, too, and I welcome them with the plants they need to survive. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.
For Further Pondering …
Many journal articles, essays, books, interviews, and discussions with friends and colleagues have informed my thoughts on these issues over the years. Countless words have been written and spoken on the subject. Here are just a few of those writings that may be of interest to you.
Books: Understanding the Science Behind Native Plantings
Bringing Nature Home by entomologist Doug Tallamy provides well-researched proof of the value of native landscaping to wildlife, particularly birds who rely primarily on insect specialists to feed their young. His second book, The Living Landscape, written with Rick Darke, adds helpful ideas for applying this knowledge. In Planting in a Post-Wild World, Claudia West and Thomas Rainier explain why ecological plantings have long been unfairly cast as difficult to establish and maintain, outlining a roadmap for more successful cultivation through greater understanding of plants’ natural growth habits. Carefully explaining their view that natives are an important but not exclusive part of sustainable landscaping, they attempt to defuse what they view as loaded terminology by emphasizing the need to evaluate a plant’s ecological function just as much as its origins.
She loves plants. She also loves the animals who eat them. In this first dispatch of Humane Gardening Heroes, learn how they all thrive in her lush Minnesota backyard.
No one is turned away from Lisa Taft’s garden buffet: not the raccoons who used to feast on fish from her pond, not the deer who dined on her tasty tulip buds, not the coyotes who make their nightly rounds in search of rodents, and definitely not the birds who swoop in to gobble up the fruit on her trees. “I can go to the grocery store and get cherries,” she says as she passes a cherry tree underplanted with Minnesota’s state flower, showy lady slippers. “For them, it’s survival.”
With its mixture of cottage garden favorites and native species—including roses and blazing stars, clematis vines and milkweed, Japanese anemones and Joe Pye—the gardens at her suburban St. Paul property recall dreamlike settings of glossy magazine spreads. But this landscape is no static fantasy propped up just-so for a photo shoot. Though Taft loves the heady blooms and lush green leaves cascading around the waterfall built into a wooded slope in her backyard, it’s the wild visitors dependent on the mini-habitat who bring her the most joy.
Flowers are pretty, but the animals that come through a garden give me even more sensory pleasure and spiritual joy. I plant to attract animals. —Lisa Taft
“You can admire a flower, but it is not the same as watching a living being go about its life in your garden,” says Taft, a lawyer working in health plan regulation for the state of Minnesota. “The cardinals feed each other seeds during mating season and bring their offspring to my feeder. They light up the winter when they first start to sing. The does with their fawns and stags with their antlers are so beautiful it is worth a little plant damage. If there were no animals in the garden, it would be just a sterile collection of plants. I want something whole and rich and mysterious and beautiful. I want to watch all the beauty and drama of life in the garden and watch it change with the seasons. The animals bring this.”
Though her lot sits on only a third of an acre, it’s a miniature animal kingdom, with each week bringing new surprise visitors. On the morning of the winter solstice, Taft raised the blinds in her bedroom to find a flock of cedar waxwings devouring the juniper berries. On another day last fall, a wild turkey passed through. Some summers, the tree frogs are so prolific she has to stop mowing to avoid inadvertently harming those nestled into the small lawn. Years ago, she got to know her frequent fox visitors so well that she named them all.
Many animals not usually seen near the city are attracted to the waterfall, constructed at the suggestion of Taft’s husband, John. Scarlet tanagers, summer tanagers, and a variety of warbler species find respite in the oasis. Watching these birds and larger mammals meander across the steep incline, which sits at an elevation as high as a drive-in movie screen, is one of Taft’s favorite pastimes. Because the municipal water department owns the land behind her home, it has remained undeveloped, and Taft suspects wildlife have been following the same routes through the corridor long before humans began encroaching on their habitat.
When she first moved in with John after marrying him in 1999, the yard looked much like any other nondescript suburban tract: mostly grass and rock. Though she welcomed animals, her initial gardens were planted more traditionally, inspired by English perennial borders. That style remains, but as her knowledge and tastes have changed, the plant selections have broadened. Taking a cue from a schoolyard prairie near her house, Taft has now filled about half her gardens with native species. In the partial shade of the aspens to the left of her waterfall, she has planted sensitive fern, sedges, and grasses that provide food and shelter for birds and caterpillars, including wild rye, bottlebrush grass, switchgrass, and prairie dropseed. In the sunnier area on the other side are asters, blazing stars, and common milkweed. A courtyard garden by her patio includes maidenhair ferns, trillium, and lady’s slippers—one of her favorites.
Taft’s open invitation to animals might come as a surprise to fellow plant aficionados accustomed to poisoning, trapping, or otherwise maligning those who nibble on their prized blooms and leaves. But Taft is not that kind of gardener. She avoids pesticides and rejects the very sentiments that underpin their widespread use. A truly humane gardener doesn’t practice selective compassion, inviting in certain species while shunning others as “pests” and “nuisances.” “People should try to understand that they are creatures just trying to survive in a harsh world,” Taft says. “If you help them by giving them food, water, sanctuary, they will reward you with their beauty.”
Beyond Her Backyard
When a coyote pair began visiting in the evenings, Taft at first felt fearful for her dogs. After educating herself about coyote behavior and the unnecessary harm often inflicted on the species, Taft fears more for the safety of the coyotes. “I learned that it was my responsibility to be careful as a dog owner,” she says. She leashes her two dogs in the evenings and is considering banging pots and pans to gently instill fear in the bolder coyote—a recommended practice for preventing conflicts with people. “Coyotes are magnificent, beautiful, intelligent creatures, and I hate to haze them,” Taft says. “But I know if I don’t teach him to be afraid, he may get into trouble and end up in an incident where he is killed.”
Taft’s efforts extend well beyond her backyard. When foxes were a common presence in the community, she frequently emailed neighbors to explain that the animals were simply looking for rodents to feed their families. After the coyotes began taking the foxes’ place as top canine in the area, Taft began providing specific tips for peaceful coexistence, encouraging neighbors to follow her lead by leashing pets and bringing them in their front yards where the coyotes are less likely to wander.
This planet does not exist solely for humans—it is also here for all the other species. —Lisa Taft
After discovering that the city had been hiring a contractor for decades to round up and kill geese on public and private property, Taft also worked with wildlife staff at the Humane Society of the United States to educate municipal officials and homeowners about proven alternative methods for preventing human-goose conflicts. Now a volunteer training is held every spring, and Taft, her husband, and another animal lover locate nests and oil eggs to prevent hatching. “It is very hard for me to oil the eggs, which we only do in early gestation,” she says. “But I tell myself I am saving them from a worse fate.”
Before taking on the goose project, she’d never tried to implement community change by herself before, she says, but the roundup “violated my philosophy that this planet does not exist solely for humans—it is also here for all the other species.”
Top Tips Inspired by Lisa Taft’s Garden
Here are tips for fellow gardeners who want to share their space with other creatures:
Remove more turf grass each year.
Rather than taking on a large area all at once, complete your transition to a more wildlife-friendly yard in stages. It’s likely to be more effective, more rewarding, and less disruptive to animals already using existing habitat.
Plant early-flowering fruit trees and shrubs.
Plums and other spring-blooming trees provide food for emerging pollinators in Taft’s yard. “I can hear my giant pussy willow buzzing with insects before anything else is in bloom,” she says. The fruits of elderberries and cherries sustain squirrels, chipmunks, and birds later in the season. Though some gardeners shy away from crabapples, considering them “messy,” the animals do a great job of devouring all the fruit of the two crabapples in Taft’s yard.
Add moving water.
Taft’s waterfall draws uncommon birds, raccoons, coyotes, and many other animals. But even a birdbath with a drip feature will be music to the ears of resident and migrating songbirds, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. A DIY birdbath could be as simple as stacking two plant pots and adding a tray on top; a dripper can then be made from a plastic bottle or watering can suspended above.
Leave wild areas for shelter.
Unmanicured spaces are the best kind of refuge for many creatures. Ground-nesting bees will be grateful for sunny, pesticide-free patches of bare soil where they can lay eggs; birds will find abundant insects and seeds in the undergrowth; and small mammals will take cover in the vegetation and leaves. Leaving more for the animals may also lessen the nibbling of treasured plants, says Taft: “I think it helps to have a wild area where the deer can browse.”
Use humane deterrents.
When she wants to protect something likely to be popular with the grazing set, Taft plants it close to the house where the animals are less likely to browse. Occasionally she has applied strongly scented, nontoxic repellents to plants. A motion-detecting sprinkler helped her keep predators away from the fish she used to keep in the pond. But Taft’s favorite method is tolerance of plant nibbling; she knows the animals passing through need their nutrition just as much as she does.
Wildlife rehabilitation and education: In the Twin Cities, the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota treated nearly 13,000 sick, injured, and orphaned animals last year. In Duluth, Wildwoods cared for more than 1,000, nursing them to health for eventual release back into the wild. Both organizations also provide helpful information about preventing conflict and minimizing unintentional hazards to wildlife.
Native Plant Education:The Minnesota Native Plant Society hosts lectures, workshops, and field trips to further native plant preservation and awareness. Wild Ones Twin Cities, a local chapter of the Wisconsin-based national organization Wild Ones, organizes native plant sales, conferences, presentations, and other activities to educate the public about the importance of native species in encouraging biodiversity. Find other chapters in Minnesota and beyond at the Wild Ones national site.
Native Plant Retailer:Prairie Moon Nursery is not just a Minnesota institution; it’s a national treasure for native plant gardeners, long dedicated to ecological restoration and preservation. The nursery’s site offers seeds, plants, books, tools, and indispensable advice.
In a few short months, the sweet scent of thawing soil will have me searching under trees, along streams and in gardens for new life peeking into the frosty air. During the dark days of winter, it’s hard to imagine anyone more excited about spring’s brave first blooms.
But just below ground, creatures on a more important mission than mine will be getting ready to greet the plants, too. Mother bumblebees will emerge from leaves to start new colonies, timing their arrival for the flowering of Dutchman’s breeches and Virginia bluebells. Ground-nesting bees will dig through blankets of dirt to indulge refined tastes: Andrena erigeniae will turn to her exclusive culinary supplier, spring beauty flowers, to make pollen cakes for her babies; Habropoda labiorosa will get her groceries from blueberries, redbud trees, oaks and Carolina jessamine. Cavity-nesting bees—who’ve waited out the cold in logs and twigs—will also join the party.
As we awaken from our own kind of hibernation, many of us will walk by these animals without even noticing them. Though everywhere in the landscape, they occupy little space in the cultural mindset, much to the chagrin of scientists working to save them. If he had to pick one fact more people should know about North America’s 4,000 wild bee species, says conservation biologist Rich Hatfield of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, it would be this: “That they exist.”
Their solitary nature, hidden nests and often diminutive sizes have made most bees historically difficult to observe, even for scientists. “Go back 20 years,” says biologist Olivia Messinger Carril, coauthor of The Bees in Your Backyard, “and the number of people that studied bees could be counted on your hands and your feet, total.” The obscurity of native pollinators also stems from a disproportionate focus on a single species imported from Europe 400 years ago. “Most people, when they think about bees, they have an image that pops into their head, and that’s the honeybee,” says Hatfield.
Critical to current agricultural systems that manage hives for food crops, the domesticated honeybee dominates headlines as beekeepers struggle to stop mass die-offs blamed on disease, mites, habitat loss and pesticides. But just as hard at work in our forests, fields and gardens are mason bees, mining bees, bumblebees and others whose services have produced fruits and seeds for countless animals—including people—for millennia. They, too, are at risk, dependent on ever-shrinking habitat to accommodate lifestyles that bear little resemblance to those of their captive-raised cousins.
Instead of adding hives, which may further increase competition for floral resources and transmit disease, add habitat.
The needs of wild bees are so different that, as some experts say, raising honeybees to save pollinators is like raising chickens to help birds. Though many homeowners respond to “save a bee” campaigns by purchasing hives, the practice is unlikely to improve honeybee health and may harm other bees by increasing competition for floral resources and exacerbating the risk of disease transmission. In the turf-dominated landscapes of suburbia, native bees need all the flowers they can find.
To benefit these special creatures as well as many other animals, take these steps to enhance your backyard habitat:
Plant diverse native species and other bee favorites.
While some bees have long tongues to access tubular flowers, those with shorter tongues tend to visit shallower blooms. Many are dietary generalists, but pollen specialists rely on certain species. A succession of native blooms ensures there’s something for everyone. In my mid-Atlantic yard, that means leaving violets for their biggest fan, a mining bee known as Andrena violae, or evening primroses for the Lasioglossum oenotherae, a sweat bee they host. In the Southwest, it means nurturing cacti for Diadasia bees partial to their pollen. Across the continent, asters, goldenrods and sunflowers provide seasonal nourishment in autumn as other flowers wane. Bee experts also recommend supplementing native blooms with herbs and cottage-garden annuals attractive to bees such as hollyhocks, lavender, and zinnias.
Set up maternity wards for mother bees.
Mother bees ask for little: Most nest alone in sunny dirt patches left unmulched. Some lay eggs in stalks of goldenrod, elderberry and other plants left standing, including dead or dying trees. Bumblebees, a more social species, colonize grassy tussocks, rodent burrows and other unmowed areas, where fallen leaves also shelter overwintering queens. The less you indulge your urge to “clean up” in the garden, the more you’ll help these hard-working creatures. Let fallen leaves lie, and resist the temptation to add mulch to exposed earth. Leave last season’s leftover stalks wherever you can; if you need to prune, give bee larvae a chance by propping the twigs against a tree or scattering long pieces between plants in your garden.
Lay down your weapons.
Some pesticides contaminate pollen and nectar, and others kill on contact. Before grabbing spray bottles, observe what’s really happening. Holes in roses may be the handiwork of leafcutter bees lining nests with petals and foliage. Instead of treating such phenomena as aggressive acts, be proud that you’re helping generations of bees—and many other animals depending on the incalculable services these unsung heroes provide.
Don’t blink or you’ll miss it! Check out this video of a bee returning to her underground nest by Dr. Jim Cane of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Logan, Utah:
For further information
Specialist bees: About a third of the approximately 450 bee species native to the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern U.S. are pollen specialists, relying on blooms of plants of a certain genus or even single species. In other regions like the Southwest, that ratio could be even higher. Read more here.
Citizenscience: Of the thousands of native bee species in North America, only 46 are bumblebees. But these social creatures are some of our best pollinators. At least a third are thought to be in decline, however, and one hasn’t been seen since 2006. Help these animals and the scientists who study them by joining Bumble Bee Watch, a citizen science program that teaches you how to identify bees as you document sightings in your own backyard and community.
Field guide: With the help of The Bees in Your Backyard and its authors, I’ve already learned to identify bees so tiny they used to look more like flies or wasps to me. Mixed with detailed descriptions of anatomy and lifestyles are fascinating facts about bee behavior and natural histories.
Mini field guide: IfBee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees doesn’t make you fall in love with native bees, nothing will. This lavishly illustrated guide from the USDA Forest Service and Pollinator Partnership provides a gorgeous, empathetic look at everything you never knew about native bees and their lifestyles.
Planting guides: Created with more than bees in mind, these region-specific Selecting Plants for Pollinators guides from the Pollinator Partnership briefly explain why different kinds of blooms attract different species. PDFs tailored to 24 regions in the U.S. and Canada help gardeners learn how to plant for bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, hummingbirds and bats.
A shorter version of this article originally appeared in my Humane Backyard column in the January/February 2017 edition of All Animals magazine. A special thanks to MaLisa Spring, Megan E. Leach, Christy Stewart and Jim Cane for generously allowing the use of their spectacular photos and video.
What do you want for Christmas? When my mom calls around this time of year with the same question, you’d think I’d be prepared. I almost always draw a blank.
Socks? Nope. As long as I can double up on my well-worn pairs for maximum warmth, I’m set in the sock department for another winter.
A shirt, skirt, shoes? Nope, nope, and nope, because if I’m not at my desk working, I’m in the dirt—or I’m talking to other people who would rather be in the dirt too. (If a gardener wearing fancy footwear falls in the forest and no one is around to see it, why is she even wearing dangerous fancy footwear in the first place?)
Isn’t there anything you need or want? My normally patient mother grows exasperated. I’m not getting you a gift card to the grocery store again!
Well, sure, there’s an awful lot I want: a ban on pesticides and leaf blowers, a mass rebellion against lawns, enough plants for all animals and humans to never go hungry, a kinder society, world peace, a cellar full of wine and vegan cheese and pickled peppers, that sort of thing. But there’s not much I really need.
It’s not that I’m some kind of saint who’s reached a higher form of enlightenment than my fellow humans. But the season of giving in our country is so far removed from my season of truly living—when the sun is high, the days are long, and the plants are so impossibly lush and green I can’t see the birds anymore but still hear entire orchestras among the treetops. If my mom could ask me at that time of year what I want, it would be a challenge to narrow down the list: more viburnums, elderberries, bayberries, sumacs, oak trees, meadow grasses, sunflowers, cardinal flowers, asters, milkweeds—more of anything that feeds the wild animals who currently visit, have ever visited, or are even thinking about visiting my little sanctuary.
Though my mom’s nearly done with her shopping this year, I finally gave more thought to her question. Exasperated families and friends of other humane gardeners, take note: Here’s what we’re asking Santa to bring us this year!
A gift certificate for—what else?—plants!
Over the years, I’ve given and received birdfeeders, but they aren’t nearly as helpful to animals as real habitat. A certificate to a native plant nursery is truly a gift with compounding interest for both the humane gardener and her wild friends. When I walk past the hedgerow of Virginia roses and shrubby St. John’s wort in my backyard, I delight in the bees covering the flowers in summer and the birds enjoying the fruits and seeds in fall. The plants also remind me of the friends and colleagues whose thoughtfulness made this garden possible, after they pooled their money to buy a certificate from Herring Run Nursery in Baltimore. Other plant sellers, including Prairie Moon Nursery, also make it easy to order gift cards online. If you’re not familiar with suppliers in your region, check out these resources.
A water heater for wild friends.
As I write, the outdoor thermometer says 23 degrees, but the largest birdbath in the front yard is still toasty, thanks to a heating element I bought a decade ago for about $20. The male cardinal who took a long and boisterous bath yesterday afternoon is returning for a sip, accompanied by chickadees, female cardinals, a tufted titmouse, and a junco now lining up along the branches and fallen leaves for happy hour. A pair of blue jays has also stopped by for a drink.
Access to open water is just as critical to birds in winter, both quenching their thirst and, scientists believe, keeping their feathers clean for flight. But it can be harder to find during a deep freeze, and birds waste precious energy searching. Options include a birdbath with a built-in heater or, if you’re looking for something more economical, a de-icer like mine that can be inserted into an existing birdbath.
Emergency housing for all.
Hundreds of wild species build their houses from the same materials we do: dead wood. Before the era of chainsaws and highly manicured landscapes, cavity-nesting birds had a lot of real estate choices. But now their options are far more limited. The best way to help these and other animals is to leave tree snags—or dead and dying trees—in the landscape wherever possible. For gardeners who don’t wish a quick death upon their live trees or can’t wait around for decades (and sometimes centuries!) while the majestic plants complete their life cycles, well-made birdhouses and bat houses can provide alternative nesting and resting spots. Even handmade or store-bought toad abodes will attract intended visitors, but don’t bother with butterfly houses, which likely won’t; most butterflies overwinter as eggs, pupae, or chrysalises and couldn’t even get themselves inside if they wanted to.
Plants, too, are plagued by misperceptions, often thought of as static ornaments rather than living beings. Three fascinating books–The Hidden Life of Trees, Brilliant Green, and Braiding Sweetgrass—put that notion to rest. Garden Revolution shows readers how to take their cues from plants and nature rather than from practices long recommended by the traditional landscaping industry.
While it’s too cold to dig in many parts of the country, it’s never too cold to dig into the latest research about ecological gardening and the animals it benefits. Webinars and online classes allow homebody humane gardeners to do it all from the comfort of their desk chairs. Prices range from $199 for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s bird biology course to $10 for the Ecological Landscaping Alliance’s one-time webinars about topics such as plant communities, water conservation, and invasive species. ELA members can take webinars for free, so an even more economical option might be to purchase a membership for your favorite humane gardener.
Also consider giving the gift of a state native plant society, local nature center or arboretum membership; these organizations often offer talks, events and invaluable field experience in the form of hikes, canoeing and other day trips.
A tool of the trade.
Since humane gardeners don’t use pesticides, good tools are critical to easing the strain of manual labor, especially when removing invasives the old-fashioned way. A hori hori knife cuts the mustard (invasive garlic mustard and otherwise), offering a long, narrow blade that also allows for precise, careful transplanting of young native seedlings that will grow up to spread even more plants that support wildlife large and small in your favorite humane gardener’s yard.
Do you have a gift idea for the humane gardener in your life? Add it to the comments to help all those last-minute shoppers (and to give my mom some hints for next year!).
*Featured image of bluebird in heated birdbath, by Joyce Wagner/ReJoyce Photography, is licensed through Creative Commons.
In more than three decades of animal welfare work, Sally Fekety had rarely seen anything more brutal. Stuck in the narrow space between two rails of a wrought iron fence was a young buck fighting for his life. Suspended horizontally over a crossbar a few inches off the ground, he’d tried in vain to free himself for so long his sides were open wounds. The pile of fur that once covered his now-raw skin lay behind him. One of his antlers had snapped off. His hooves were buckled from nerve damage.
Fekety’s friend had come upon the scene first while visiting her father’s gravestone one November afternoon. Marking the perimeter between Forest Hill Cemetery and surrounding houses in Ann Arbor, Mich., the fence had become a death trap. “She called me, and I went running over,” says Fekety. “I threw a blanket over his face that calmed him down.”
But it didn’t last long. Soon enough the deer tossed the blanket off his head and began struggling again. With so many years of experience handling animals in distress, Fekety has an intuitive sense for how to use quiet movement and expression to keep deer calm. “But this one was so far gone in the stress of his predicament,” she says, “that he just couldn’t see I was trying to help him.”
No one present that day—not Fekety, her friend, or the local humane society officer who also showed up to help—could understand how the deer had wedged himself past his rib cage into only a few inches of space. But far from being unusual, the scenario has become all too common. Wildlife rescuers respond to numerous calls of deer caught in the crossrails or, sometimes even worse, impaled on the spikes. “Those are some of the most heartbreaking calls we have to go on,” says Candice Haskin, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologist who helps free animals from such hazards, often in people’s backyards. “And those fences have gotten really, really popular.”
Caught in unintentional traps
Among the many challenges urban and suburban wildlife face, getting stuck—whether in fencing, leftover food jars, open window wells, soccer nets, even hammocks—is one of the most difficult to survive without early intervention from human helpers. Nationwide,
state agencies and private wildlife rehabilitation centers rescue and treat raptors, foxes, bears, skunks, snakes, and many other animals who have traversed through the wrong place at the wrong time. Often that time is at night, when obstacles are harder to see. In the morning, frantic homeowners call for assistance after hawks have flown into volleyball nets or foxes have gotten their legs tangled up in fallen fences.
Hidden traps are particularly hazardous to bucks because, as Haskin says, “anything that’s got holes, they’ve got the potential to get their antlers hooked up in it.” Though she and her colleagues have saved many animals from such fates, sometimes nothing can be done. One deer caught in a soccer net had waited too long before the homeowners spotted him. “By the time I got there,” Haskin said, “it had wrapped [the net] up around its nose and actually suffocated.”
Recently Pedro Dieguez had just dropped his daughter off at her bus stop when he noticed a gathering of neighbors in someone’s yard. Stopping to find out the source of the commotion, he came upon a deer caught in a makeshift lacrosse backstop fashioned from fishing nets. Mindful of the strength of large animals, Dieguez used a gardening tool and a knife to carefully cut the netting and free the buck. “I don’t like to see any animals suffering,” he says, “and that would be a heck of a way to go.” But it was too late. “Unfortunately he had already exhausted himself,” Dieguez says. After walking a bit, the buck fell over and died.
Prevention is key
One of the greatest tragedies of such unnecessary suffering is that it is so preventable. To minimize fencing and netting hazards on your own property, consider the landscape from the animal’s perspective and take the following simple steps:
Stow it away. When not in use, put soccer nets, volleyball nets, hammocks and other recreational equipment in the garage or another storage space. If something can’t be moved, try tying bright fabric or a ribbon to it—something that animals with good night vision can clearly see, recommends Haskin.
Find humane alternatives. Intended to keep animals from nibbling the fruits of the gardener’s labor, netting often does far more than that. Snakes, birds, squirrels and chipmunks caught up in the holes can easily wound themselves or dehydrate and die. Flash tape and motion-detecting sprinklers are among the many alternatives, but perhaps the best solution of all is to plant more and share.
Pick up or repair fallen fencing. Wire fencing is difficult enough to see, but collapsed wire can quickly become buried in leaves and plant growth. Broken or unsecured chain link or wooden slat fencing can also ensnare animals. Remove any unnecessary structures, and maintain those you need to keep up for pet safety or other reasons.
Look for safe tree protection materials. To protect young trees from deer nibbling and rubbing, many people use orange plastic wrapping or other small-holed, flexible materials that can strangle or suffocate. Look for something less likely to entangle antlers; tubing, bamboo wrap and wider-spaced wire can protect trees while minimizing harm to animals.
Avoid the wrought-iron fence. They might look pretty, but fences with vertical metal rails are some of the most dangerous, and spikes on top exacerbate their deadliness to wildlife. “Those are some of the worst ones that could be prevented just by picking a different type of fence,” says Haskin.
Add under- and overpasses. When removal of other types of fencing is impractical, landowners can make adjustments. At an Oregon sanctuary where horses need to be contained, wildlife experts at the Humane Society of the United States added underpasses made of PVC pipes for small animals, bridges for bears, window-like gaps for coyotes, and other adjustments to ease the journey of animals just passing through.
Let him not die in vain
As the deer caught in the cemetery fence rallied in a last-ditch effort to free himself, Fekety wished she could put him out of his misery; his external and internal injuries were too extensive to repair. “ ‘I hate guns, but I would give anything to have a gun right now,’ ” she remembers telling the humane society agent. “Because the deer was just struggling and struggling.”
Eventually the police came to help, but the deer had already died. By the end of the next day, he was gone, taken away by municipal officials. The blood had also disappeared. But though no signs of the epic struggle remained, Fekety hopes the deer did not die in vain—and that his story will help other animals live on by making more people aware of what our fellow species see—and don’t see—in the landscapes that they, too, call home.
To most people, the tiny voices rising above the din of traffic would have registered as everyday birdsong. But to Lori Thiele’s finely tuned ears, the high-pitched staccato emanating from a neighbor’s yard last spring was unmistakable, a sure sign of distress.
“I was getting ready to go out on a job,” says the longtime rescuer and wildlife biologist. “I walked out my back door and immediately heard the babies.”
She also heard chainsaws. Crossing the street to investigate, she found young squirrels who’d been placed inside a plastic cat carrier by workers removing a tree. Knowing their mother was likely frantic to retrieve them, Thiele relocated the babies to a cardboard carrier with holes cut in the side for easier access.
When the mom failed to reappear, Thiele waited for the noise to stop and got even more creative, playing these pre-recorded baby squirrel vocalizations from her phone:
“I couldn’t even get out of the way fast enough before the mom started grabbing them—boom, boom, boom,” she says. “She came down looking for them so quickly that I just started putting them out on the sidewalk, and she had them all three tucked back in the next tree over in like 30, 45 seconds.”
Given the chance, wild parents often carry displaced babies to alternate nests. But countless animals never have that opportunity. Though it’s best to prune and remove trees after they’ve gone dormant, many babies end up orphaned because of poorly timed tree maintenance at the height of breeding season. Entire nests are inadvertently—or sometimes intentionally—thrown into wood chippers. Some are so camouflaged that losses are impossible to quantify: Tree trimming is a significant threat to the tiny, lichen-covered nests of hummingbirds. In southern California, orioles raise their young under palm fronds that are often cut away. Woodpeckers nesting in dead limbs are also lost to obsessive pruning.
Simple observation can prevent harm, says Gillian Martin, founder of the California-based Cavity Conservation Initiative, dedicated to preserving dead wood for habitat and encouraging mindful maintenance of live trees. The presence of active parents, combined with the sounds of their young, can alert tree trimmers to a growing family in their midst.
Timing is also key. As an arborist and animal rescue volunteer who helps renest raptors, Mike Fried of Comprehensive Tree Care in Frederick, Maryland, doesn’t hesitate to postpone certain tasks in his clients’ yards if he finds a nest. Last spring, he only partially pruned a dogwood after discovering catbird families, being careful to avoid the nests and the shade that protected them.
Pruning or removing trees in summer can harm more than just animals, often scalding surrounding plants that are unaccustomed to direct sunlight. “The majority of trees are best pruned in the dead of winter when they’ve gone dormant and don’t have any leaves,” says Fried.
Even if branches must be pruned sooner for pedestrian or structural safety, sometimes carefully reducing their lengths can keep nests intact. “The more you leave in place,” says Martin, “the better.” On a recent job, Fried left enough tree trunk for a resident mouse to continue his occupancy. “Typically dead wood is removed for aesthetic reasons,” he says. But provided it’s safe, “it’s still a good source for habitat … and there’s no reason not to leave those things up.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the November-December 2016 issue of All Animals magazine. For great advice about helping birds and squirrels who’ve fallen from nests, see the information on orphaned wildlife compiled by the Humane Society of the United States.
*Featured image of hungry baby mockingbirds by Mike Fried/Comprehensive Tree Care