Save the Wildlife, One Yard at a Time: Backyard Wildlife Habitats

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Wild ginger, creeping Jenny and bubblers draw wildlife to Jack Landgrebe's lush Kansas garden.
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With no lawn to mow, Barbara Guthrie and Ken Romdall can kick back and relax at their home near Seattle.
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Poppies and rudbeckia splash across Tom and Mary Guthrie's meadow in the Cascade Mountains.
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Cheryl Thomas cruises through her restored native Kansas prairie, ideal for wildlife.

All around the nation, gardeners are realizing the importance of creating a habitat where creatures and critters can live, find food and raise their young. With urban sprawl ever-growing, fewer and fewer habitats exist for our furry and feathered friends. Creating a backyard habitat is easier than you might think, and making a difference just takes a few simple changes. As an added bonus, native plantings require little to no watering or maintenance, making your yard eco-friendly and easy.

Here, we profile several urban wildlife habitats that employ a variety of methods to create critter-friendly yards and gardens. And these gardeners aren’t alone: The National Wildlife Federation’s Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program, launched in 1973, boasts more than 106,000 certified yards, farms, schools and even urban balconies. Add yours to the list!

Live on the lawn

Near Seattle, Barbara Guthrie and Ken Romdall have transformed their suburban lawn into a woodland brimming with white pine, big-leaf maple, hawthorns, gooseberries, currants, trillium and foxglove. A raccoon family and a small flock of band-tailed pigeons (a native bird in significant decline) reside here. Chickadees stop; butterflies glide past. “It’s a refuge in a place where city is all around us,” Barbara says.

Wildlife-friendly, native yards and gardens can have a big impact, not only supporting wildlife and biodiversity, but also helping keep waterways clean, reducing water use, eliminating carbon emissions from lawn-maintenance equipment and increasing carbon absorption. “If one percent of all homeowners nationwide were to practice green gardening concepts and garden for wildlife, what a difference it would make for the environment!” Barbara says.

When they decided to transform their yard 16 years ago, Barbara and Ken buried large swaths of lawn under layers of newspaper, soil and compost, then expanded those beds yearly. Today, wildlife abounds and the couple hasn’t mowed in a decade. “The birds are happy because we have supplied them with everything they need to raise a family, and we are happy because we no longer have a demanding lawn that needs mowing every week,” Barbara says.

A meadow extraordinaire

Barbara’s brother, Tom Guthrie, and his wife, Mary, splashed a meadow in the foothills of Washington’s Cascade Mountains with purple delphinium, golden rudbeckia and bright red poppies. “Native plants look natural and attract wildlife,” Mary says. “We grow a lot of flowers that seed themselves. In June, it’s red poppies and white daisies; in July and August, sunflowers and rudbeckia.”

Mountain runoff feeds a pond the Guthries built behind their two-story log home. Brimming with bluegill and goldfish and planted with native cattails, this watering hole attracts great blue herons, kingfishers, ducks and osprey. Swallows hone in on the insects the pond attracts. “They’re our mosquito patrol,” Mary says.

After heavy rains, pipes pull excess pond water into a nearby wetland, a nesting site for snipes. Nesting boxes throughout the garden shelter finches, wrens and swallows.

Supplemented with an array of feeders, plants provide seasonal feasts. In spring and summer, red-winged blackbirds dine on blue lupine while goldfinches opt for cosmos. In fall, sunflowers left to dry augment crabapples, elderberries, twinberries and serviceberries to feed wildlife.

Wild, on the tame side

Not all wildlife gardens evoke such a wild feel. Retired chemistry professor Jack Landgrebe tends a woodland shade garden behind his home in Lawrence, Kansas. Neat paths meander through hundreds of species of plant life, each meticulously labeled. “You have to keep things trimmed to keep it under control,” Jack says.

This scientist adjusts for micro-climates and thinks seasonally. In a particularly wet area, he built a bog garden with sweet flag, ferns and horsetail. Cardinals hide in a tangle of Virginia creeper that clings to an old stump. In winter, the garden offers cones, seeds and berries; evergreens provide shelter.

Groundcovers (wild ginger, creeping Jenny, vinca and bishop’s weed) eliminate the need for mulch. A manmade pond, bubblers and fountains entice turtles, herons and possums. Jack calls the rocks around his pond “sort of a Taj Mahal for chipmunks.”

Farms go wild, too

In rural Kansas, Cheryl and Charlie Thomas garden on a much larger canvas. A decade ago, the two purchased a 153-acre former cattle farm, which they’ve converted into one of more than 2,800 National Wildlife Federation-certified farms in the United States.

With help from the Kansas Depart-ment of Parks and Wildlife, they’re restoring most of their land to native prairie and attracting upland game birds such as quail, turkey and pheasant. They’ve planted golden currants, chokecherries, native plums and an array of grasses. They’ve coaxed two dry ponds back to life and built a third with running water.

Speckled eggs lie hidden in swaying grass. Shades of gold and green coat the rolling hills as clouds billow across the wide azure sky. Wild strawberries, blackberries, butterfly weed and bee balm add summer color. In fall, native cedars stand festooned in bright orange bittersweet. A ribbon of woodland draws mountain lions, bobcats, coyote and deer. As he cleared pathways through the dense woods, Charlie left dead trees to provide cover and food for wildlife.

When they lived in Texas, the couple fed their lawn with bags of chemicals. Today, they pull weeds, pick bad bugs by hand and even grow worms for compost in their basement. “This has been totally life-changing,” Cheryl says.

Magic made easy

You don’t need to be certified to make a difference. It’s easy to create a wildlife sanctuary if you’re willing to see your yard from an animal’s perspective, says David Mizejewski, a naturalist and host of Animal Planet’s Backyard Habitat. Does your yard offer food, water, places to hide and to nest? Is it free of toxic chemicals? “A lot of the time, people don’t realize how much they’re already doing,” he says.

A water source, for example, can be as basic as a bird bath, drainage ditch, even a flower pot dish. Adding a few native plants here and a wood pile there can make your site even more attractive. Think in layers, from top to bottom: shade trees, smaller trees, bushes, perennials and groundcover.
Start with a bird bath; plant some berry bushes or native grass; stop using pesticides. As you watch butterflies flit from flower to flower and turtles trundle across your garden path, you might be inspired to do even more. 

Your town, too

The National Wildlife Federation encourages entire communities to participate in wildlife gardening; cultivate habitat in both public and private spaces; and promote sustainable gardening. To date, 26 communities have hit their goals, with 36 others registered and working toward certification.

Writer and master gardener Carol Crupper has reworked her landscape, drastically reducing the amount of grass in her lawn.

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