As a human in the modern world, I’m experiencing a bit of habitat envy. I crave more chances to sleep longer, pick my own fruit, and curl up with loved ones under a tree. If the universe determined our fates based on personalities and preferences, I’d likely be assigned to sloth-hood: slow-moving, plant-eating, tree-dwelling. The bumblebee lifestyle would be a good fit, too, allowing me to visit flowers all day and cozy up with family at night.
But I’m not complaining. This year has yielded extraordinary opportunities to spread the word about the importance of caring for wild plants and animals in our backyards. If it’s meant less time in my own garden, I don’t regret it. And I’ve learned to live vicariously through the creatures taking shelter there. Even brief strolls through our little oasis have brought countless insights into their often hidden world. Follow along as I recap 11 unforgettable moments in our 2017 humane garden.
1. The Eclipse Wasp
When her iridescent blue wings close, she is twilight. When they open, she’s as brilliant as the sun. How fitting, then, that I first discovered this otherworldly wasp in my garden just as the solar eclipse was starting on the afternoon of August 21. The sight of such a brilliant animal just feet from the ground was even more spectacular than anything I could have spied in the sky. Known scientifically as Trogus pennator, she appeared to have no common name, so I dubbed her the eclipse wasp. Harmless to us, she has an unusual nesting site: the caterpillars of swallowtail butterflies. She injects a single egg into each caterpillar she finds; when the egg hatches, the wasp larva feeds on and eventually kills her host. To those who find this gutting of butterfly babies distasteful, I suggest remembering that birds devour caterpillars, too, and we don’t hold their predatory ways against them.
2. The Devoted and Drenched Dad
A summer downpour didn’t stop this papa cardinal, spotted one day through a screen door to our deck, from feeding his hungry family. Wondering about the identity of the unlucky soul about to end up in a baby bird’s belly, I checked my copy of Caterpillars of Eastern North Americaand discovered his name: Abbott’s sphinx moth caterpillar. Though I’d never seen one before, I guessed that we had plenty, as this species’ host plants—grape and Virginia creeper—proliferate in our gardens. Most chicks need an abundance of caterpillars in their diets, so these volunteer vines provide a plethora of baby food to young bird families.
3. The Superman Ant on a Mission
Taking a quick break from writing to refresh the birdbaths one day, I happened upon a familiar-looking butterfly skating oddly across our patio. Closer inspection revealed an ant carrying the wing of a silver-spotted skipper. How that butterfly met her demise, I’m not sure, but the scavenging ants made sure she did not die in vain.
4. The Hitchhikers
At first glance, this might look like the opossum of the insect world, a devoted mama carrying young ones on her back. That’s what my husband, Will, and I assumed when we came upon this scene under our ash tree last spring. But the diminutive hitchhikers are no mini-mes. They’re a completely different species. Called fire-colored beetles, they are attracted to cantharidin, a caustic chemical exuded by the larger blister beetle to deter predators. The tiny passengers may lick, chew or nip to extract the coveted potion, which some beetle species pass along to females while mating to confer protection to their offspring, according to the book Beetles of Eastern North America.
5. The Special Delivery
Whenever Will says, “Nancy, come here and look at something, and come quietly,” I know I’m in for a treat. This time it was a special delivery in the patio garden right outside our basement door. All our outdoor plans ceased that late spring week; we barely set foot into the backyard for fear of disturbing this newborn fawn. Except to stand, stretch and turn around, she didn’t move much either. We knew her mother must be close by, calling her baby to nurse but otherwise keeping her distance to avoid attracting predators. We saw no signs of distress—no crying, no flies, no indication of discomfort or confusion. Still, I couldn’t help but worry. Just as I started to wonder aloud if we should be concerned about her well-being, we woke up one morning to find our baby had left as quietly as she’d arrived. She was strong enough now to join her mother, who would find new spots to hide her precious cargo each day and plenty of food for her family in our deer-friendly garden.
6. The Buzz That Fell on Half-Deaf Ears
Being half-deaf all my life, I’ve missed a lot. Punchlines elude me amid roaring laughter, and having them repeated to me is of no use when I’ve already missed half the joke. But maybe this forced tuning-out of human noise has given me more sensitivity to nature’s music, including the dramatic soundtrack of bumblebee buzz pollination. Turn up the volume on the video, and between the lower drone of wing flapping, you’ll hear it, too: the distinctive high pitch of the bee’s flight muscles vibrating at a rapid clip to shake the pollen out of the anthers of this wild senna. It’s an amazing trick that some flowers—including those of tomatoes, blueberries and other human food crops—require for pollination. Only some bees can perform it, though, and the honeybee, a domesticated animal originally introduced from Europe, isn’t among them. We’d be awfully hungry without our buzz-pollinating wild friends—yet another reason to skip the hives in favor of nurturing habitat for the native bees already in our midst.
7. The Bird Who Thought Our Yard Was a Forest
When this scarlet tanager joined our happy hour one evening in the height of summer, I knew it was a rare event. Little did I know how rare until I posted the photo and received responses from avid birders saying they had yet to spot one on their treks through the woods. Described by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as “frustratingly hard to find” because of their preference for high canopies of “large, undisturbed tracts of forest,” scarlet tanagers seem unlikely candidates for suburban backyard stopovers. This one kept us company for at least 20 minutes while feasting on the ripening fruit of staghorn sumac trees.
8. The Ant Hill That Wasn’t an Ant Hill
I’d read about it, written about it, and seen it from a distance in the past. But until this summer, I’d never actually gotten close enough to photograph a ground-nesting bee emerging from her hole, gathering pollen, and returning to her nest repeatedly. That seems strange in retrospect, since these soil dwellers are everywhere, comprising about 70 percent of our 4,000 or so native bee species in North America. They’re generally small and solitary, so it takes patience and a zoom lens to stake out such minifauna. One helpful clue to their whereabouts is the presence of mounds that look like anthills. Though they work alone, many bees create these nests near each other; I found mine along the edge of a mowed path that runs through our meadow down to the compost pile.
9. The Frog Who Thought He Was in a Jungle
As their name implies, tree frogs like to hang out high in the canopy. And sure enough, their vocalizations led my binocular-aided eyes to one atop a sassafras tree this summer. But sometimes the diminutive frogs descend to much lower altitudes during breeding season, seeming to take a particular liking to our potted rubber trees. In mid-May, just hours after I’d moved a few from their winter home in the basement to their summer spot on the patio, this little guy made himself right at home atop one of the sturdy leaves. Thin-skinned amphibians are especially vulnerable to the onslaught of chemicals and power equipment in a typical home landscape, so I feel especially protective of each one I find.
10. The Hamburglar Bun Gourmand
Our birdbaths serve many purposes: quenching animals’ thirst, helping birds clean their feathers, and—apparently—giving crow connoisseurs a place to prepare their meals. This hamburger bun of unknown origins got a thorough soaking last March before the bird took off with the dripping mass gripped firmly in his beak. Was he cleaning off the human refuse before deigning to eat it himself? Was he softening it up to make it more palatable? Theories abound, but this is a common behavior among our highly intelligent feathered friends. I’m just happy I got to see it, even if through a fuzzy window screen.
11. The Plant That Inspired Our Neighbor to Go Wild
How many species can one plant support? At some point we stopped counting, but our neighbor walked by when we were still trying. “What is this plant called?” she asked. “Can you give me some seeds?” I was surprised by the sudden interest. She’d never wanted tall plants but didn’t seem to care that this boneset towered above her. She’d never wanted prolific spreaders but could clearly see this self-starter had sprouted from a crack in our driveway. What sold my friend on Eupatorium serotinum? It certainly wasn’t me. Nothing I can say comes close to the sales pitch made by the bees, butterflies, mating wasps, bee flies, and moths crowding every bloom each summer. The moment confirmed my belief that wildlife of all kinds are the best ambassadors for the native plants that sustain them. We just need to have the courage to let them shine in our gardens for all the world to see.
Featured images, top: Tachinid flies also use caterpillars as a nesting site; when eggs hatch, the fly larvae feed on the caterpillars. Despite all this predation on baby butterflies and moths, we have dozens of winged beauties making it to adulthood in our garden, including the mourning cloak who emerged from winter dormancy in early March. (All photos by Nancy Lawson and Will Heinz)
The ducks have eaten the water lilies. The chickens have eaten the vegetables. Raccoons and hawks occasionally try to eat the chickens. And dogs help keep them all in line in this garden oasis for domestic and wild animals alike. Learn more about this peaceful coexistence in the latest dispatch of the Humane Gardening Heroes series.
It’s almost dinnertime at Sharon Patterson’s house, but if she’s hungry at all, she’s not complaining. Besides, her own belly will have to wait. There are too many other mouths to feed here.
As she peels corn on the small deck overlooking the garden, the chickens at her feet squawk and trill in anticipation. Golden retrievers Sadie and Waldo wander among the flock protectively. Elderly Max, a Rottweiler mix, shyly keeps his distance inside on his bed, while ChaCha, one of two sister cats, perches on a chair on the front porch. In a pond behind the deck, there are also fish to be fed.
By far the most demanding gourmands are the ducks, who get the royal treatment as soon as they wake up. Today’s breakfast for all the big birds included oatmeal mixed with seed and lettuce, as it does every day, Patterson explains. Whenever they don’t receive such delicacies in a timely manner, they let her know. “I put their bowl of food by the pond because they like to eat and then jump in the pond,” she says. “And so if I don’t feed them this now, they’re so spoiled that they’ll run out to where the food should be. And if it’s not there, then I’m hearing ducks: ‘Honk, honk, honk, honk, honk. Where’s our breakfast?’ ”
Despite the hand-delivered meal service, the animals on this quarter-acre farm in Indianapolis also enjoy foraging for their own treats. “Good girl!” Patterson says encouragingly to one chicken scratching the ground. “Mavis, come out!” she calls to another who has gone into a prohibited area of the vegetable garden. But Patterson laughs about their haphazard cultivation skills: “I always have so much ‘help.’”
Listen closely, and beyond the contented murmuring of the domesticated birds, you can discern the soft songs of wilder feathered friends and the chirping of crickets backed by a low airplane roar overhead and the splash of the ducks’ waterfall. Lining paths that wind their way to the vegetable gardens and ponds are elderberries and pokeweed, hibiscus and bee balm, black-eyed Susans and sea oats—a buffet for all the wild visitors to this urban oasis.
It’s a scene Patterson couldn’t have imagined when she first moved to her house in 1987 and planted a few hostas passed along by her mother. Growing up in Chicago, she relished the evenings spent on the front porch with her dad as he proudly watered his small patch of grass. But Patterson didn’t come from a gardening family and was too busy to think much about plants in her earlier career. She worked for IBM, raised a daughter, Erin, and eventually started a medical transcription company. Once an avid runner, she also completed three marathons and 25 half-marathons.
Since finding her new calling as an urban farmer, she says, “I’ve learned stuff I had no idea I would want to learn.” She knows how to cure chickens of a common foot disease, and she can grow kale in straw bales. She sometimes uses blackberry leaves from her garden in her soap making—a craft she studied so intensively that she now has a company named after her granddaughter, Azure’s Secret Handmade Soaps.
The gardening adventures started after Patterson left the corporate world in 1993 and began planting a few tomatoes and greens and peas. “And then one thing kind of led to another, and eventually I started thinking, I really need to be more serious about this because I want to take care of myself and I want to be responsible for what I’m eating. So that ultimately led to finding more ways to grow stuff.”
When Patterson learned about the plight of hens in factory farms, where the birds are squeezed so tightly into cages they can’t even turn around, she could no longer countenance buying eggs at the grocery store. “It just made me very, very sad,” she says. “And I thought, this can’t be good. You can’t be getting something good out of something so horrible.”
Patterson’s first chicken took an instant liking to her, sitting in her lap for naps and even jumping onto her head. That sealed the deal. “She was the sweetest girl. That’s when I fell in love with them.”
Seven years later, “the girls” are her beloved pets. Each morning, after she and the dogs walk a few miles, Patterson lets all the birds out to have the run of the yard. She takes her morning coffee to sit with them for a while; in the winter she bundles up and brings along a heat lamp to keep warm. Sadie serves as mother hen, protecting the birds from would-be predators and barking when danger is in their midst. “These are her babies,” Patterson says.
Juvenile raccoons have twice found their way into the coop while it was being remodeled to make higher perches. But with the help of the dogs and a broom to bang on the outside walls, Patterson humanely evicted them. She doesn’t blame the raccoons and even laughs about the time she failed to fully secure the birdseed container, finding a mess on her hands the next day. “He ate some of the peanuts, and there were sunflower seeds everywhere,” she says. “He must have been sitting inside, just eating, so he had a great time.”
Everyone is out to eat something or someone here, so Patterson finds a careful balance between open invitations and humane exclusions. Fencing surrounds many of the plantings to keep the chickens from pulling them out of the ground, but at the end of the season, she opens up parts of the vegetable gardens so they can chow down: “I say, ‘Have at it, girls!’ ” The ducks made short work of the water lilies in the pond when they first arrived, so Patterson fenced them out and built a new water feature just for the birds.
“It’s not up to me to decide whether they have the right to be here or not,” says Patterson of the local wildlife. “Of course they have the right to be here.”
Squirrels have tried Patterson’s patience from time to time, eating her hazelnuts just as they’re ripening. But she’s made a game of it, trying to time the harvest so she can enjoy a few nuts too: “Whoever gets there first gets them.”
“It’s not up to me to decide whether they have the right to be here or not,” says Patterson of the local wildlife. “Of course they have the right to be here. This is where they were first, and we’ve taken their space. Many of them, of course, have acclimated so that they’re OK working alongside humans. But it’s got to be tough for them.”
All creatures find empathy and safety here: Fun-loving Sadie wasn’t always so happy; when a friend found her at 6 months old with a rope tied around her neck, Patterson took her in. Max the Rottie mix still bears emotional scars from his puppyhood; Erin discovered him abandoned and nearly dead in a neighbor’s garage. “He was so emaciated,” says Patterson. “I looked at him and thought, this dog’s not going to make it through the night.”
Max is 14 now, timid but happy and often snoring through the household’s busy days. In the years since he joined the family, Patterson’s packed schedule includes active involvement in organizations that teach food self-reliance. She joined a community garden and is president of the Marion County Master Gardeners Association, where she’s hosted speakers like Jonathan Lawler, who is addressing an urgent need for access to healthy food. Once the owner of a for-profit farm, he transformed his operation after hearing about his son’s classmate who couldn’t afford lunch. A young visitor to the farm provided further inspiration. “There was a little black girl who was out with her school. And [Lawler] said, ‘Would you like to be a farmer?’ And she said, ‘Well, I can’t be.’ And he said, ‘Well, why can’t you be?’ And she said, ‘Well, because I’m black.’ ”
Brandywine Creek Farms now helps other organizations start urban farms amd donates produce to food pantries. Lawler is someone who makes things happen, says Patterson, and it’s part of her mission to spread the word. “There’s so many really cool people out there doing so many different and cool things,” she says. “It’s exciting to be able to share that.”
All the animals have eaten their evening meal now, and it’s almost time for the annual potluck dinner at the community garden. Patterson has prepared a pie made of homegrown sweet potatoes. More sweet potatoes are drying on a rack by the deck, awaiting winter storage. On the pergola—which was built by a neighbor in exchange for an old camper Patterson was giving away—six Long Island cheese pumpkins will will soon be ready to harvest, too. Coral honeysuckle vines wind up the posts and invite hummingbirds, who also enjoy the canna lilies in the front yard. Over the course of the season, blue jays, cardinals, finches, red-winged blackbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and Baltimore orioles will come through to feast upon insects and seeds of Joe Pye weed, goldenrods, and other wildflowers.
A blue parakeet even makes an appearance every year with the same flock, and Cooper’s and red-tailed hawks visit. The neighborhood is in a flight path for more than airplanes, situated only a half-mile from Indianapolis’s Monon Trail, a tree-lined wildlife corridor that follows an old railroad.
Patterson’s small but lush property stands as an example of how easily that corridor could be extended across neighborhoods and entire communities. “My yard is not something anyone would consider beautiful except for me, possibly,” she says. But it’s exactly what she intended. “I knew what I liked. I knew what looked pretty to me, and I wanted to do something that was beneficial, too—not a tulip but something that was beneficial for the environment and for the other critters.”
The neighbors also get to share in the bounty; when the sunchokes grow so robustly they start pushing up bricks lining her beds, Patterson digs some up and puts them in a bucket on her front porch, posting messages for anyone who wants some tubers. She shares her divided canna lilies, too, spreading the goodness of the Earth well beyond her own backyard.
Parks and Natural Areas: A gem for nature lovers in the heart of the city, the Monon Trail follows the path of an abandoned railroad, inviting runners, bikers and many wildlife species into its canopy. A walk from the Broad Ripple neighborhood toward the river feels like a hike into a hidden forest, where owls begin hooting at dusk. The native plantings of the Bill Brink Memorial Garden, named in honor of the wildlife photographer and naturalist who cofounded INPAWS, are an inspirational addition to the trail.
Community Gardens: Indianapolis has a number of urban agriculture programs to help increase access to nutritious food. Public Greens, a restaurant that grows produce on-site and donates all profits to the Patachou Foundation, aims to feed healthy meals to food-insecure children. Growing Places Indy creates and manages urban farm sites, while local endeavors like the Keystone-Monon Community Garden in Patterson’s neighborhood strive to grow community connections by growing and harvesting food together.
A visit to this suburban property outside Washington, D.C., feels like returning to a land time forgot, a place where salamanders, hummingbirds, chipmunks, caterpillars, and deer thrive among the humans welcoming them back to their long-lost home. Learn more about the rare transformation in this fifth dispatch of the Humane Gardening Heroes series.
When neighbors kick fallen leaves to the curbside for county pickup and discard tree trimmings like trash, Toni Genberg thinks of the wilder residents of her community who would appreciate these natural treasures: the robins and white-throated sparrows who like to peck through the leafy layers, the salamanders who take cover in the moisture, and the firefly larvae who make “happy meals” out of the earthworms and slugs beneath. She considers the pileated and downy woodpeckers drilling for insects in logs, the chipmunks making prostrate branches into superhighways, and the squirrels lying on top of it all like lounge lizards claiming their domains.
These are just a few of the animals who have made a home in Genberg’s quarter-acre humane garden in Falls Church, Virginia, where dead plants take center stage among the living. Even in a habitat filled with lushly blooming native species in every layer of the canopy—silky dogwoods, persimmons, elderberries, milkweeds, asters, sweetspires, coneflowers, columbines, coral honeysuckles, false indigos—decaying organic matter takes on a life of its own. “Planting the plants is one thing,” says Genberg. “Equally important is leaving the leaf litter and branches and logs. I have on many occasions dragged branches home from nearby curbs.”
In this magical space, it’s not hard to imagine a hobbit joining the animals peeking out from beneath the logs lining the stone pathways. From behind a moss-covered stump topped by an Easter Island Maoi carved by a friend out of a declining oak tree, a squirrel surveys his surroundings. Into a brush pile covered by Virginia creeper vines, a chipmunk dives for cover. Next to the patio, a newer pile of stems and small branches that Genberg had intended to distribute elsewhere already shows signs of occupancy. “That wasn’t supposed to be there,” she says. “But someone’s living in there now, so I have to leave it.”
She didn’t intend to have so much jewelweed under the dogwoods either, but now she has to leave that, too, because deer eat it and hummingbirds sip from the blooms. But though these sound like laments, they are really more of a celebration, representing to Genberg all the life that a small yard near a major thoroughfare in the middle of mowed-down suburbia can support. The hummingbirds who catch gnats in midair and the bird who once landed on Genberg’s head are favorite visitors, but everyone else is welcome here, too. “From aphids to leafhoppers to milkweed bugs, we embrace them all,” Genberg says. “I understand that ‘pests’ have a place in our habitat, too.”
A lifelong nature lover, Genberg doesn’t just rescue discarded decaying matter destined for the county compost pile. She also helps save plants, volunteering at Earth Sangha, a nursery that propagates species from wild-collected seeds for use in restoration projects and sale to gardeners. In her role as a transporter for Wildlife Rescue League, she has picked up and delivered opossums, barred owls, crows, ducklings and other injured and orphaned animals to area rehabilitators.
Closer to home, she has been so incensed and heartbroken by the effects of rodenticides that she now conducts a mini-campaign against them. After finding a rat bleeding from his nose, she hand-delivered 50 copies of an educational letter to neighbors. As a Virginia master naturalist, she created a display for the City of Falls Church Farmers Market that shows images of the victims of secondary poisoning—the hawks, owls, foxes, and pets who eat smaller animals killed by rodenticides. Children are especially moved and bring their parents to take a look. “People are attracted to the photos and then they end up reading what the message really is. … I had one person say after checking it out, ‘Well, I’m not ever doing that again.’ ”
Respect for all creatures started young. One of Genberg’s earliest memories is of her mom throwing the tin cans she used for growing plants at the side of a neighbor’s house during a drenching rainstorm. “She finally got them to come out because they had left their dog out in the rain. She was so angry and so upset,” Genberg recalls. “It’s stuff like that that kind of gets ingrained in you.”
Even the typically less appreciated animals did not fall outside her mom’s purview. Once when Genberg and her sister commented that they’d heard stories of putting salt on slugs, “my mom was like, if you put salt on that slug, you’re going to have to eat it. So that made us think, ‘Oh, OK, maybe we won’t do that!’ ”
The caterpillars of spicebush swallowtail, monarch, and black swallowtail butterflies munch away at their native host plants. (Photos, left and center: Toni Genberg; right: Nancy Lawson)
Decades later in Virginia, Genberg applied the same ethic to her garden, shunning pesticides and delighting in the sight of deer and foxes who meander along her backyard creek. After she and her husband, Marc, purchased their home in 2005, they even added a few native plants. But it wasn’t until Genberg heard University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy speak three years ago that the true transformation began. Like many gardeners, she was astounded by Tallamy’s research showing that most baby birds subsist primarily on a diet of caterpillars, who in turn rely mostly on native plants they’ve evolved to digest.
The new information was a revelation, inspiring Genberg to plant milkweed for the monarch caterpillars and golden alexanders for the black swallowtail caterpillars, goldenrods and asters for bees and butterflies, coral honeysuckles and cardinal flowers for the hummingbirds. She created a website, ChooseNatives.org, where her skills as a longtime video editor help her convey a big-picture view of the importance of wildlife-friendly plants and minimizing hazards to animals. Though she grew up with cats and her father fed the ferals in their Hawaiian community (“I fancied myself a cat,” she says), she’s now particularly concerned about the effect on wildlife and pleads with cat owners to keep their pets indoors.
Creating a safe space for all animals has meant learning to coexist with squirrels who once wreaked havoc on her raised vegetable beds. “I used to curse the squirrels,” she says, “but you learn to cage things.” She even names her resident nut lovers, including the one with the worrisome hip problems whom she and Marc call “Hipster.”
Deer are welcome to the wild strawberry, heuchera, asters, and suckering elderberries. “They can have as much as they want of the elderberry because that shrub is so huge, and their browsing is not going to kill it,” she says. “They have so much to eat that they just kind of nibble, nibble, nibble. Everybody complains that deer eat their hostas. I have two hostas and the deer don’t even go near them because there’s this huge native smorgasbord.”
They even help to prune some of her plants: “One of my friends came over and said, ‘Oh my god, your New England asters! How do you keep them looking so low and tidy?’ And I’m like, ‘The deer are doing that—they’re awesome! They come in and then they prune for me, and everything looks great.’ ”
There’s plenty for the smallest of creatures to eat, too. Where once there was mostly lawn and invasive plants—privet, bush honeysuckle, English ivy, pachysandra, and vinca—Virginia creeper, white wood asters, wild strawberries, and wild basil fill the spaces instead. Native thistle and Joe Pye weed beckon goldfinches while woodland sunflowers and golden ragworts provide food for bees. After learning that many native bees are specialists, collecting pollen for their larvae only from certain species, Genberg began planting for them, too.
Genberg’s involvement with the master naturalist program “continues to open my eyes to things,” she says. “Every moment is a learning moment or a teaching moment. … It’s really this evolution you go through as you get older. You just see what’s a priority and what’s really important. We need to be supporting our wildlife because really, without them, what are we?”
Resources for Northern Virginia and Beyond
Gardening for Wildlife: On her website, Choose Natives.org, Genberg provides thoughtful advice about native plants and humane cultivation practices, as well as links to local plant sales and events. Among the many resources offered by Plant NOVA Natives, a collaboration of public and private groups, is a free downloadable guide with profiles and colorful images of recommended plants for the region.
Native Plant Source:Earth Sangha is a unique nursery in Springfield, Va., that offers local ecotypes grown from seed collected with permission from natural areas—a method that helps preserve genetic diversity and resilience. The nursery participates in many public and private restoration projects and holds plant sales for gardeners.
Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education: The Wildlife Rescue League, where Genberg volunteers to transport injured and orphaned animals to rehabilitators, also operates a hotline to provide advice and resources to the public. The Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy advocates for animals and the environment through educational programs, citizen science projects, and habitat restoration projects.
Gardening for Deer and Bees: The habitat needs of wild animals large and small are often misunderstood. To learn more about how to help some of the ones mentioned in this article, see “Gardening for Deer” and “How to Really Save the Bees.” For inspiration on using native plants to help bees, watch this beautiful video Genberg created in honor of National Pollinator Week:
Yes, you read that headline right. Deer eat my plants, and I let them. But I also barely notice the nibbling. Here’s why (and how) I favor coexistence over resistance when it comes to these misunderstood animals.
The baby left in May as quietly as she’d arrived, disappearing while we slept. For two days, she’d nestled in fallen leaves, resting and grooming and standing up on wobbly legs to stretch.
Her departure was a relief, a sign that her mother was still caring for her. To avoid attention, does forage without their fawns, leaving them in dense vegetation and summoning newborns only when it’s time to nurse.
Still, I worried. As my husband and I peeked through the basement door just a few feet away from where the fawn lay, I wondered what would happen if she wandered so close to other members of our kind. For all the camouflage offered by our lush patio garden, her resting spot was surprisingly exposed to us humans, historically the most harmful predator of white-tailed deer.
It’s hard to imagine now, but white-tailed deer were once nearly extinct in dozens of states due to hunting and habitat loss. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, they had vanished from Vermont, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. It wasn’t the first time deer populations went scarce. Shooting the animals out of existence was a national pastime for hundreds of years after European settlement. In the 20th century, efforts to transport them across regions so they could be “restocked” and hunted all over again were so successful that these animals now face different threats. High on the list is the wrath of gardeners calling for their heads.
My rejection of this attitude makes me an object of curiosity (and sometimes ridicule) in the gardening world, where I can count on rants against deer in almost every conversation. “I’ve been through my Bambi phase,” one woman told me, characterizing kindness toward animals—and my questioning of cultural narratives about them—as infantile. “I got over it.”
People ask me whether I’ve taken into account the “carrying capacity” of the land for deer. I like to pose a different question: What is the carrying capacity of the land for turfgrass? Why don’t we challenge the wisdom of our planting choices before ruling out the ability of our landscapes to support life?
I prefer to “get over” our uniquely human arrogance and take a broader view. I don’t know everything about the ecology of deer in forests, where they’re blamed for degrading wildlife habitat. But neither does anyone else. Yes, deer eat plants, but that’s not new. What is more recent are accelerated human-driven changes to plant and animal diversity: the imported earthworms that degrade soils in northern forests, the introduced Japanese stiltgrass and European garlic mustard that suppress the growth of native plants, the fragmented landscapes exacerbated by an insatiable desire for large lawns, and the decline of large predators caused by hunting and habitat destruction.
Occasionally people ask me whether I ever factor the “carrying capacity” of the land for deer and other species into my thinking. Reversing this concept, I like to ask a different question: What is the carrying capacity of the land for turfgrass? Why don’t we question the wisdom of our planting choices before ruling out the ability of our landscapes to support life? The carrying capacity of my land for deer is likely greater than that of my neighbor’s land down the street, even though his is twice the size. Why? Because mine is filled with plants that deer can eat; his is filled with lawn.
I don’t blame deer for being deer in the same way I don’t blame cats for being cats or earthworms for being earthworms. Rather than casting aspersions on other animals, I examine instead the contributions of our own species to degraded habitat—and the ways we can learn from those mistakes and mitigate or even reverse the damage. I garden not just for wildlife but with them, giving weight to their survival needs more than to my own cosmetic preferences. Just because I can’t rejuvenate all the forests around me doesn’t mean I have to keep mowing down my own property. Deer visit our backyard daily to eat, but the following experimental methods have been so successful that we barely notice the nibbling in our prolific gardens.
Nurture nature’s deer food.
When creating habitat for wildlife, it’s important to remember your goals are different from those of conventional landscaping. To meet their mission of making the world safe for lawns (and profitable lawn products), pesticide pushers and turfgrass totalitarians urge us to remove Canada goldenrod, jewelweed, wild grape, and countless other plants that would otherwise nourish deer.
There’s no better way to learn about this special brand of cynicism than to come across a new mystery plant and turn to the Internet for help with identification. Online searches related to one of my recent finds gleaned reviews negative enough to make a grown plant cry: “A grass imposter” that causes “infestations,” pronounced a book on mid-Atlantic gardening. A “Weed of the Month” with an “unsightly” brown appearance in winter pastures, offered a horse magazine. “Often troublesome in pastures, lawns, orchards, nurseries and gardens,” warned university extension specialists.
It was a lot of bad press for a plant that does so much good. Muhlenbergia schreberi, or nimblewill (as it’s known more commonly by the few people who even know it at all), is a pretty native grass. It can outcompete Japanese stiltgrass, which is difficult to eliminate by other means. And perhaps most interesting of all, deer sometimes graze on nimblewill. Yet consumer need for unnatural green is so strong that Syngenta developed a selective herbicide to kill it, while other companies shamelessly encourage homeowners to spray even more broadly. “Don’t be fooled by its cute name,” advises Monsanto on its Roundup website. “This aggressive grass sets seeds in the fall and hides until spring.” (Never mind that Monsanto helped create a monster in the form of a genetically engineered grass now threatening to wreak havoc on sensitive wildlife habitats in Oregon—and later abdicated responsibility for righting the wrong.)
Let woody plants spread.
“Trees could solve the problem if people trying to improve things would only allow them to take over,” writes German forester Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees. He’s referring to the benefits of dense canopies along rivers and streams, where trees could naturally shade out giant hogweed and other invasive species.
But the sentiment hits close to home—and my own backyard—for another reason. Trees and shrubs have been integral to our peaceful coexistence with deer, who count among their favorite treats the staghorn sumacs and sassafras that have suckered into our former lawn. Though we didn’t know it when we began ceding turfgrass to nature, a later reading of the literature confirmed these two species as favorite browse plants for deer in our region. (And contrary to popular belief, staghorn sumacs are not the same plants as poison sumacs; they are not even in the same genus.) Other vigorous spreaders like elderberries, blackberries, and dogwoods are high on the deer menu, too.
Left to their own devices, these plants provide an endless supply of food because of their rippling growth habits. As Wohlleben writes of the trees nibbled by deer in his homeland, “Usually, the deer don’t destroy all the little trees in one small group, so there are always a couple that escape damage and battle on upward.”
The deer don’t destroy all the budding trees and shrubs on my land either; they prune some while leaving dozens of others alone. Most of the time in my community, it’s the humans doing the destroying, usually without even knowing it. “These shrubs can be important for wildlife,” notes a University of Missouri article about deer habitat, “but they are often mowed before they can provide any benefits.”
Let lawn go to meadow.
Deer are attracted to open foraging areas adjacent to woods, or “edge” zones that provides both food and cover. Landscaping standards of modern suburbia mimic the basic framework of this habitat—with open lawns and tree-lined borders—but the food offerings are scant by comparison. In the more natural setting of a sunlit clearing in an intact forest, a diversity of grasses and wildflowers sprout, followed by shrubs and tree saplings.
By contrast, deer looking for nutrition in acres of manicured turfgrass have much less to choose from: typically a couple of hostas, a few daylilies, maybe some tasty rosebuds. In the context of expansive lawns, what looks like abundance to a gardener seems like half-empty grocery shelves to animals, and they’ll take what they can find to support their dietary needs.
In the context of expansive lawns, what looks like abundance to a gardener seems like half-empty grocery shelves to animals, and they’ll take what they can find to support their dietary needs.
As we’ve let the trees and shrubs sucker along our woods’ edges, we’ve also let the back acre of formerly mowed grass come into its own—and discovered a diversity of plants that had just been waiting for the right moment to sprout. Some, like broomsedge and purpletop grass, were probably already in the seedbank. Others, like late boneset, may have spread from elsewhere on the property. Goldenrods have popped up for the first time this year. Though deer wander around the edges of the meadow each evening, the only lasting evidence of their presence are depressions in the grasses where they curl up to sleep.
Let plants choose their destinies—and their allies.
A proliferation of spreading shrubs, trees, and meadow plants not only ensures there’s enough food to share; it also mixes things up enough to keep deer guessing. “I have noticed over the years that plants in a meadow rarely suffer from significant browsing by white-tailed deer,” writes landscape designer Larry Weaner in Garden Revolution. “Even the plants that deer favor seem to escape this form of attention when intermingled with plants that the deer don’t eat.”
Incorporating these observations into his gardening techniques, Weaner adds less tasty plants such as ladyferns to the same spot where he’s planting known deer snacks like white wood aster, ensuring that “the deer can’t get to the plant they like without also encountering the one that they don’t.”
While I’ve never actively employed this practice beyond the vegetable garden, I’ve noticed nature doing it for me. Where Joe Pye weed grows in a large stand I planted, the deer find it not long after its first tender leaves appear. But where Joe Pye reseeds itself among other species—swamp sunflower, boneset, and blue mistflower—the deer leave it alone. Similar strategies have kept our asters from being munched on en masse.
Incorporate harmless sensory deterrents.
Though my main strategy for peacefully coexisting with deer is to plant for them rather than resisting their need to eat, their attraction to tender growth of new plantings occasionally calls for gentle repellents.
Sometimes those repellents come in the form of more plants, even dead or invasive ones. Over the past two years, I’ve created natural caging out of trimmings of invasive multiflora roses growing at our woods’ edge, placing them around the nibbled Joe Pyes. Allowing the surrounding lawn (or whatever is left of it) to grow taller at the edges of the garden where the plants reside also provides a visual and tactile deterrent.
For isolated young trees or shrubs, caging is simplest, but such exclosures may be impractical in larger areas. In those cases, I hang bars of soap or ask my husband to defend the borders by relieving himself around the perimeters of new plantings (a locally sourced, humane and free range alternative to inhumanely produced “predator urine”). I’ve even been known to add a stake and place an upside down plastic pot on top—a lazy woman’s version of a scarecrow. None of these methods requires much time, but because deer quickly adapt, rotating gentle repellents helps keep them on their hooves long enough to ensure we have an ever-growing supply of food for them and all the other fauna, both macro and micro, who share our land.
I’m old enough to remember when deer sightings were rare events; as a little girl, I longed to see one on our camping trips to Virginia—and certainly wouldn’t have dreamed of spotting a herd in our suburban backyard. But I’m also young enough to have missed the chance to see other animals who were common only a few decades ago and have now vanished from these parts. The northern bobwhites my next-door neighbor admired in the 1970s are all but gone from our community, having long ago vanished along with the hedgerows and grasslands they relied on for cover and food.
Rapid declines of such species are now the norm; witness the passenger pigeons, who went extinct when the last one died in a zoo in 1914, just decades after millions of them still filled the skies across much of North America. If history has taught us anything, it’s that we should take no animals for granted, even the common ones—and we should stop blaming other species for their mere presence in the environment and start examining what we can do to help them. It’s not that hard. My small suburban plot of land is living, vibrant proof.
While reading Garden Revolution by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher, I nodded my head in enthusiasm at the turn of nearly every page; most of the planting and cultivation strategies mirror my own, but Weaner has proven their success in large-scale projects. For further inspiration and ideas on identifying and nurturing plants that are valuable to wildlife but often yanked from gardens, check out my #WeedsNotWeeds series.
Though lists of so-called “deer-resistant plants” are easy to come by in gardening circles, finding species actually preferred by deer is trickier. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but you have to know where to look. Illinois Wildflowers, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the Forest Service fire ecology database have helped me make many flora-fauna connections. More deer-specific information is available from natural resources agencies, universities, and hunting organizations that post guidelines for creating deer food plots. Their motivations for feeding deer are usually different from mine, but I’ve found the advice helpful in learning how to plant for the animals. Some interesting articles include “Know Your Native Deer Foods” and “Whitetail 101: What Do Deer Eat?”
Vegetable Gardening with Wildlife
If a farmer can produce enough plants for commercial sale, feed her own family and nourish the many deer, squirrels, birds and other animals who visit her property, it’s a good bet she’s got some great advice for others, too. Tammi Hartung’s book, The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener, provides a wealth of practical information for home gardeners. (Tammi is also profiled in my book as a humane gardening pioneer.) For quick tips, check out my latest All Animals column on the same subject, “Sharing the Bounty.”
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.
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.
Last year, a friend emailed to say she thought my proposed title for an upcoming presentation—”Creating a Wildlife Garden”—was a little silly. “If a vegetable garden grows vegetables, then a wildlife garden grows wildlife,” she wrote. “It sounds like you’re planting the seeds of baby rabbits!”
She was a marketing director with expertise in areas I hadn’t even thought about, so I certainly wasn’t going to question her. Besides, she had an interesting point.
In some sense, though, we do “grow” animals when we garden for wildlife. By adding plants and other habitat elements where they can eat, take shelter and raise their young, we are nurturing entire life cycles of species who may otherwise have nowhere else to go in the surrounding grass-dominated landscapes of suburbia. It’s just sometimes hard to see them. More often than not, my camera picks up on treasures I’ve failed to notice with my own eyes, serving up wonderful surprises in magnified images on my computer screen.
Often it feels like a game of hide-and-seek, adding to the joy of discovery in my own backyard. “Peekaboo!” I like to whisper when I do catch them diving into the flowers and taking cover under the brush. “I see you!” But mostly I keep my distance, grateful for a camera that allows me to watch them without disturbance. As these photos show, simply observing native plants provides a wonderful glimpse into the quiet worlds of animals who make their homes among the leaves and flowers.
How’s a person supposed to get any work done when such exquisite creatures are flying in front of her face all day? That’s the question I’ve posed to the birds and bees and butterflies doing their best to distract me from a book project this summer. They’ve remained conspicuously silent on the matter, but my sister has confirmed my suspicions about this winged conspiracy: “There are so many,” she said of the pollinators crowding the swamp milkweed and green coneflower near my patio, “it’s hard to look away!”
Although my blog writing has become more sporadic in light of the looming deadline, I can’t let this week—the one-year anniversary of the launch of Humane Gardener—go by without paying homage to all creatures great and small who’ve made it possible. With gratitude to them and to the many wonderful members of our two-legged species I’ve met along the way, I offer these tips.
Step 1. Make Friends.
You don’t need to earn a landscaping degree or hold a PhD in bee biology to start a wildlife garden. But it helps to have people in your life who are willing to share with wild abandon.
If it weren’t for my friend Sally, we would not have such a proliferation of great spangled fritillary butterflies. Though they’re attracted as adults to the nectar of many native species, their caterpillars can eat only violets. From the three plants Sally uprooted 15 years ago, we now have thousands that provide essential habitat for these little beauties.
At only two weeks old, our newest milkweed patch is much younger than Sally’s violets. But I’ve already found monarch eggs on each of the seven little transplants. And that’s thanks to Molly, who generously offered up her extras at a time when my battered milkweed in the front yard seemed to be getting too tired to support fall migrations.
My gardens are filled with such gifts: the aptly named “queen of the prairie” flower from Lisa, the tasty strawberries from Janet, the sweet-smelling mountain mint from Stephanie, the exotic-looking native hibiscus from Jan, the misunderstood but much-beloved-by-pollinators dogbane from Angela, the giant late-flowering asters from Christine.
Whenever I see all these plants and the life they sustain, I am grateful for the friends who care so much about our earth that they want to share its bounty.
Step 2. Give Back.
Preying on insecurities of new gardeners, a whole industry has grown up around promotion of fancy bagged products and potions. But more often than not, these external inputs are counterproductive, disrupting natural soil cycles and maiming bees, butterfly larvae, and countless other sensitive creatures who feed and reproduce on our plants or in the ground.
Using what you have on hand—and returning materials back to the earth—is more sustainable and infinitely more doable on a small budget. On our own two acres, carving gardens out of the sea of turfgrass used to be a daunting task. After spending too many sweltering afternoons jumping up and down on a shovel wedged into hard clay, I began papering it over instead. This method preserves both rich organic matter and my fragile back. It also means I can use natural materials already on site, as Maryland natives grown in their preferred light and moisture conditions usually thrive in existing soil.
While the most commonly recommended method is to layer paper or cardboard beneath compost or mulch and let it all sit a few months before planting, I prefer not to wait that long. To make an insta-garden, I dig holes in the grass, put my plants in, surround them with paper, soak the paper with water to hold it in place, and top it all off with whatever else I have handy—leaves, old coconut fiber from hanging pots, potting soil from transplants, and (when I run out of options) mulch from the landfill. The beauty of this method is that, even as the new plants grow taller and the surrounding materials start to break down, animals and wind begin sowing seeds of other species in the spaces between. And before I know it, the earth erupts in flowers sown by both me and by nature.
Step 3. Think of the Children.
Much attention has been paid to the plight of monarch butterflies, and for good reason. The wanton destruction of the only plants they can lay their eggs on—those in the milkweed family—has led to a steep decline in their numbers. But milkweed is only one host plant among hundreds needed to support the life cycles of many butterfly and moth species in our gardens.
A pearl crescent reminded me of that last week while I planted Molly’s Magic Milkweed to expand my monarch offerings. She made quite a show of enjoying the damp newspaper and mulch used to smother the grass of the new garden, but her presence had broader meaning for me. This milkweed is nice and all, she seemed to be saying, but I need asters for my babies! While I happen to have many species of aster in my garden—including heath asters, smooth asters, and New England asters—I can’t say I planted them intentionally for pearl crescent caterpillars. In the fall I will add more in honor of my small-but-mighty friend.
Step 4. Call in Quality Control.
Host plants for caterpillars? Check. Nectar plants for butterflies? Check. Is there something you’re still forgetting? You can always count on the catbird to let you know. Like many birds, and especially baby birds, they are voracious consumers of insects. To ensure you have a plentiful supply, stay away from pesticides and other chemicals that kill grasshoppers and ants and everyone in between. Manufacturers of these products like to promise you the perfect rose garden, but a garden too toxic for a bee and too nutritionally deficient for a bird is no garden at all.
Birds also need native fruits and seeds in varying supply when migrating, breeding, and overwintering. Shrubs offer both berries for sustenance and dense habit for nesting and cover from predators. Fortunately I was able to let my catbird friend know that this garden-in-the-making would soon be a thicket of native roses, a family-friendly spot for rose-hip dining and baby bird rearing.
Step 5. Let the Team Take Over.
Once you have a few spots planted with species native to your area, sit back and watch the magic happen. Leave as much of your garden as possible the way nature intended: Let perennial stalks stay up overwinter so the seedheads can feed birds and stems can shelter bees. Provide bare, undisturbed patches near your pollinator plants so ground-nesting bees can raise their babies. Let leaves fall where they may to give shelter to caterpillars, pupae, salamanders, and many other animals during the cold, dark days.
You’ll be amazed by how many furred, feathered, and antennaed friends swoop in to offer their help once you make your home theirs, too.