Category Archives: Natural Gardening

Great Gifts for Humane Gardeners

Image of shrubby St. John's wort with Hylaeus bee
The gifts that keep on giving: This shrubby St. John’s wort, bought with a certificate that old friends purchased for me at a native nursery, now draws new friends to my yard. Though this bee in the Hylaeus genus looks more like a wasp, I was able to correctly identify him with the help of another gift, a book titled The Bees in Your Backyard. (Photo above by Nancy Lawson. Featured image of bluebird by Joyce Wagner/ReJoyce Photography)

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!
Image of Virginia rose with syrphid fly
A Virginia rose, purchased with a gift certificate to a native nursery, is a treasure for me and the syrphid flies. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

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.
Image of house finch on heated birdbath
A house finch visits a heated birdbath in Ohio. You can choose a bath with a built-in heating element or purchase a de-icer for an existing birdbath. (Photo by Dave Lundy/Creative Commons)

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.
Image of screech owl
A natural birdhouse looks like this, but there aren’t enough tree cavities to go around anymore. (Photo by John Harrison)

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.

Books that save lives.

Gardening tomes about creating pleasing plant designs are a dime a dozen (sometimes almost literally, as I know from scouring the bargain bins at big-box stores in my early gardening days). But rarer are the books that convey a deeper understanding of the wild animals who depend on those plants for survival. Experienced humane gardeners likely have already read Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants; less known but just as valuable is his follow-up book with Rick Darke, The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden.

Image of stack of book coversThe Xerces Society’s Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies is an authoritative but accessible guide packed with little-known facts and practical advice for creating habitat, while Joseph Wilson and Olivia Carril’s book The Bees in Your Backyard helps readers identify and empathize with the nearly 4,000 native bee species who don’t make honey and don’t live in hives but help make the world go round.

Moles and The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating provide rare insight into the lives of overlooked creatures. More visible but highly misunderstood animals such as skunks and raccoons are the subject of Wild Neighbors: The Humane Approach to Living with Wildlife, an essential part of any humane gardener’s bookshelf.

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.

Lifelong learning.

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.

Image of Eastern-tailed blue on blue mistflower
My hori hori knife, recommended by a friend, helps me dig and divide blue mistflower, which I then give away to other human friends, who plant it to attract yet more wild friends like this Eastern-tailed blue … and the gifts of love and friendship continue. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

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.



Life After Death

Image of moss on stump

It’s not easy to accept that all things must eventually come to an end. We often go into denial in the face of the inevitable and airbrush away the aftermath when it does occur.

So it probably shouldn’t have surprised me to read about a gardener who glossed over the demise of an entire tree with spray-paint, covering every crevice as if it were a rusty old chair. Just days before a public tour, he explained in a magazine article, the tree had lost its leaves, and in his panicked state he coated it in cobalt blue.

In the 15 years since I first saw the photo spread showcasing this spectacle, not much has changed in our approach toward death in the garden. Even the imagery of everyday language reinforces a lack of respect for plants past their prime: No one wants to become “dead wood” in his career or run into a “snag” in his plans. Nor is it desirable to have “debris” or “litter” lying around our homes.

Image of jelly fungus on fallen pine tree
Fungi are unsung heroes of the forest, working alongside countless other organisms – from bacteria to beetles – to recycle fallen leaves, logs and branches into soil nutrients. Some fungi are wood and leaf decomposers, some are parasites, and some transmit food among trees. This jelly fungus is thriving on a fallen tree in our backyard. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)
Image of mole mounds
We can’t see him, but we know he’s there: A mole has helped aerate our soil this fall while he feasts on grubs and earthworms. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

But the elements we all too often chop down, rake away, chase with leaf blowers, bag up to be hauled off like trash—and, inexplicably, spray-paint—are homes for other species, not to mention restaurants, kitchens and nurseries. For so many animals, life begins in the decay. Some are nature’s homebuilders: Where beetles have tunneled into dead trees, wood-nesting native bees raise their young; where wood-peckers carve out holes for nests, bluebirds, squirrels and owls move in after the original family moves on. A diverse array of other animals—fly larvae, moles and prairie dogs, to name a few—recycle and till the soil, enriching it as they eat near the surface or build chambers underground.

Image of Life in the Soil bookIn death, plants and animals return more to the earth than they ever take, writes University of Illinois research scientist James Nardi in his book Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners. Recently I asked him, somewhat rhetorically, if it’s safe to say that statement no longer applies to our own species, which sends millions of tons of organic material to landfills each year. “Yes, we’ve really broken the cycle,” he said, adding that there’s no need to fertilize soils artificially. “It’s a natural process, but we humans have interrupted it by removing leaves from our yards and planting lawns.”

Here’s how—and why—we should welcome nature back into our gardens.

Let Fallen Leaves Lie

redbanded hairstreak butterfly
Rich natural layers shelter the young of this redbanded hairstreak butterfly, who lays her eggs on fallen sumac leaves. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)
Image of snowberry clearwing moth caterpillar
This caterpillar of the snowberry clearwing moth – one of the beauties who reminds many people of a tiny hummingbird – needs the live leaves of coral honeysuckle and his other host plants to survive to the chrysalis stage. But to get through the winter, he needs the dead leaves under the plant, where he pupates while waiting for spring. (Photo by Molly McElwee)

As we sit by the fire in the colder parts of the continent, queen bumblebees and gray tree frogs are spending winter under blankets of leaves and loose soil. Pupae of hummingbird clearwing moths are cocooned beneath coral honeysuckle vines and other host plants, and red-banded hairstreak butterfly babies await spring in fallen sumac leaves.

Image of jack in the pulpit
Leaves also nourish new growth of plants like jack-in-the-pulpit, whose fruit may create offspring if not eaten first by birds and other animals. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Leaves also provide structure to the soil and food for countless creatures. A square meter of soil can contain more than a trillion microbes working hard to decompose organic remains and make essential nutrients available to plant roots. Alongside them is a diverse community of larger predators and recyclers—including springtails, millipedes, snails, earwigs, crickets and worms—who together make a rich banquet for toads, birds and other foragers.

Image of American toad
This American toad, not much larger than my thumb, has likely burrowed deep into the soil for winter. But some frogs cannot dig as easily and instead take shelter among thick leaf layers. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Recognizing their essential role, Nardi rescues leaves from neighbors before they’re sent to the landfill. He also avoids tilling and chemicals to protect his microscropic helpers. “The birds
and the mammals—they’re dependent on these creatures,” he says. “I have a lot of shrews in my backyard. They’re wonderful little guys, and they feed on these insects in the soil, and if the soil’s poisoned, there’s nothing for them to feed upon.”

Without the humid leaf layer, we wouldn’t have fireflies to light up our nights; their larvae feed on earthworms and other invertebrates within. “They’re never going to live in an area that gets sunbaked and completely dried out,” says University of Delaware entomology professor Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home. “It’s our propensity to clean up and make sure there’s nothing on the ground, but bare soil is instant death to these guys.”

Image of white throated sparrow
White-throated sparrows kick up leaf litter with both feet to dislodge seeds. Many birds find sustenance among the leaves, and some, like ovenbirds, require them for nesting. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Leaving the leaves where they fall or piling them under shrubs may also invite ovenbirds, one of 54 bird species that breed in Tallamy’s Pennsylvania yard, once a barren hayfield he’s let bud into a forest. They make their oven-shaped nests on the ground out of leaves, says Tallamy, so “they will only nest where you’ve got good leaf litter.”

Give Trees an Afterlife

Tallamy’s 10-acre property attracts rare salamanders, but you don’t need that much space to entice these unique visitors. Paula Goldberg assumed the salamanders she’d seen at her urban Maryland home 30 years ago had long since vanished in the face of increasing development. To her delight, she found a red-backed salamander and a dusky salamander under some logs last spring. Left there temporarily “because I was too lazy to haul them out,” the logs will now be permanent fixtures of the garden, says Goldberg, the executive director of City Wildlife in Washington, D.C.

Image of pileated woodpecker
Casing the joint: Landscape designer Mary Sper watched this pileated woodpecker examine every cavity of a sycamore tree. (Photo by Mary Sper)

Dead wood can become a “free sculptural asset” for homeowners, says landscape designer Mary Sper of Natural Resources Design in Washington, D.C. Fascinated by tree snags, Sper sees fantastical shapes in their branching, finding representations of antelopes and other creatures the way some might imagine them in clouds. She’s also observed an abundance of real creatures finding snacks within, including one woodpecker recently chiseling away at an oak snag after systematically casing every cavity of a sycamore by a stream near her home. “That bird would not let that tree go until he checked every hole in it,” she says.

Image of oak snag
Sper found this example of woodpecker artistry on a walk in the woods. Tree snags not only support countless species but are also beautiful in gardens, she says. (Photo by Mary Sper)

The experience illustrated the tremendous value of snags. “They’re supporting as much wildlife if not more than they did when they were alive,” says Sper. When woodpeckers abandon their nests to make new ones each year, they create a condo for other cavity nesters. Raccoons, martens, porcupines, foxes, bobcats and even bears use snags and hollowed-out logs. Owls and hawks perch atop dead trees to survey their domain. Brown creepers nest inside strips of loose bark pulling away from the tree.

Image of fallen log hideaway
A matter of perspective: Fallen logs may look dead, but they feed and shelter a vast number of organisms, from microbes to raccoons to bears. This log in my backyard is about 10 feet long with holes bigger than my head at both ends. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Home gardeners can attract some of these animals by training a vine such as Virginia creeper up a snag and planting serviceberries, redbuds, fruiting shrubs or other understory species native to their regions, says Sper. Mimicking nature gives the feeling of shelter and safety to cautious songbirds needing quick cover from predators. As a purposeful part of the habitat garden, this technique also may satisfy skeptical human neighbors.

Image of a brush pile
Instead of hauling fallen branches to the landfill, create brush piles for wildlife. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Perennials and deciduous shrubs may look dead to us as well at this time of year, but seed heads feed birds and pithy stems shelter larvae of cavity-nesting bees. Wait until late spring to cut them back, and scatter the stalks under shrubs or around the garden. To provide shelter for turtles and insect meals for birds, create handmade brush piles from branches and twigs, says HSUS senior scientist John Hadidian. The piles can be neatly arranged and managed or left to develop more naturally, depending on your neighborhood and your tastes. “Let your imagination work,” Hadidian says. “There’s no limit to what you can do.”

In the meantime, enjoy watching goldfinch acrobatics and hearing brown seed heads rustle in the winter winds, advises Sper. It’s what nature intended. “No one cleared the forest before we did to move dead wood out,” she says. “Dead wood is not dead; it really has a second life.”

Learn how to give Christmas trees a second life for wild animals in your yard at

The text of this article originally appeared in my Humane Backyard column in the January/February 2016 issue of All Animals magazine.