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!”
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 America is 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.
Raptor rehabilitation: The Hueston Woods State Park Raptor Rehabilitation program, where Nugent once volunteered, cares for injured and orphaned birds of prey, with the goal of releasing them back into the wild.
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.
Find more profiles, tips, and inspiration in The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife, due for release from Princeton Architectural press in April. Learn more about the Humane Gardening Heroes series, and tell us your story.
(Photo of Paige Nugent by Tim Nugent; all other photos by Paige Nugent)