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?”
Brenner's wetland-in-a-bottle yields endless discoveries.
She has watched snails mating in the bottle.
The mini-habitat also nurtures damselfly nymphs.
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.
Find more profiles, tips, and inspiration in The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife, due for release from Princeton Architectural Press on April 18 Learn more about the Humane Gardening Heroes series, and tell us your story.
*All photos by Kelly Brenner/Metropolitan Field Guide.