Get Wild in Your Garden

article image
image by Anni Betts

Gardeners are tuned in to the weather; we can’t help it. We grumble over droughts and fret about when the first hard freeze will hit. We notice when lilac and cherry blossoms emerge earlier in spring, and we’re quick to spot an unfamiliar dragonfly or hummingbird in the backyard. But sometimes those aren’t just idle observations; they’re signs that global warming is happening at home.

Wild creatures bear the burden of our behavior as much as we do: Unprecedented droughts, floods, and freezes erode habitat, throw off migratory routes, and make food and water sources scarce. Sprawl only compounds the problem; each year development claims more than a million acres in the United States, making it harder for a bird to find a meal or build a nest. Turning gardens into habitats is one way to fight back, which is why I took the only piece of land that I control–the 6,000-square-foot patch surrounding my home in Eureka, California–and restored as much wildlife habitat as I could.

My earliest forays into wildlife gardening were a few years ago, and my motivation was sheer vanity. The dance of orange painted-lady butterflies and the fierce whir of ruby-throated hummingbirds would, I thought, improve the allure of my flower beds. It turns out these creatures aren’t terribly interested in hydrangeas or roses–not enough nectar–so I found a native fuchsia with red trumpet-shaped flowers for the hummingbirds, and for the butterflies I planted yarrow and tall purple verbena, plants with sturdy, flat-topped blossoms that make good landing pads.

Soon I found myself cataloging the activities of the black and yellow agriope spiders that hung, pregnant and swollen to the size of grapes, from their webs. I began to count on the flock of red-breasted American robins that arrived each December to pick winter berries off the shrubs.

Over time, my backyard became a wildlife haven, a refuge from extreme weather and ravaged ecosystems. Last fall I made it official and registered it with the National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program ( The program has been around since 1973, but it has recently gained momentum. By spring 2008, there were nearly 100,000 certified habitats in yards and gardens near homes, businesses, schools, and places of worship, in both urban and more rural areas.

The designation might not mean much to the critters in my garden (they can find me without the help of a yard sign or a certificate), but in going through the process I made a statement not only against climate change but also in favor of something: in favor of nutritious seeds in wintertime and feathered nests in the spring, in favor of slippery tadpoles, fat grubs, and delicate egg cases suspended from blades of grass.

The application lists five components of habitat gardening and several options for satisfying each requirement. I started with an easy one: sustainable gardening practices. I had already eliminated chemical pesticides, substituted compost for chemical fertilizer, limited my water use, and planted drought-tolerant native plants. “Reduce lawn areas” falls under the sustainable gardening category, and I had ripped mine out several years ago and had planted ornamental grasses, asters, lavender, and salvias.

Next on the list: food sources. I’m guilty of going for the more glamorous options. My showy fuchsias produce nectar; aster and sedum offer a buffet of pollen in late summer; and glorious purple coneflower gives way to dramatic seed heads in the fall. But for herbivorous insects, which birds feed their young, the ideal food source is tree leaves, and a big bushy tree isn’t something I can accommodate in my small garden. I settled on a variety of California lilac, a woody shrub that’s native to my area.

It’s not enough to give wild creatures a bite to eat; they need places for cover too. I don’t have space for a cave, rock pile, or thicket of dense shrubbery, but I’ve got a nesting box for bees, a rotten log or two where bugs can hide, and plenty of ground cover to give small creatures a place to crash. I need only two kinds of shelter to meet the requirement, but I want more. I call Ellin Beltz, author of Frogs: Inside Their Remarkable World (Firefly, 2005). “Frog habitats are incredibly easy,” she says. “Find a damp place in your garden. Turn over a broken flowerpot so there’s just a little opening near the ground. That’s it.”

Beltz also helps me with the trickiest part of the certification: water sources. Birds and other wildlife need clean water to drink and bathe in. But here’s the problem: I live just a few blocks from the ocean, and it rains almost nonstop in the winter. In this soggy environment, I don’t want to install a pond or fountain, not to mention the effort and expense. I also worried about inadvertently turning my yard into a breeding ground for mosquitoes and West Nile virus.

“Don’t make it so complicated,” Beltz says. “I keep a half-barrel filled with water as a frog habitat, and I hang a wind chime above it so that the tail drags in the water. That’s just enough movement to discourage mosquito eggs.”

The only things left are places to raise young. Once again, I’m fresh out of caves, wetlands, thickets, and ponds. But I do have host plants for caterpillars–a native milkweed that monarchs feed on–and a nesting box. I’m not sure you could call my front yard of tall grasses and asters a true meadow, but it’s close enough.

In the end, I didn’t change much. I planted a couple of shrubs, installed a frog house, and added a water source. And while the certificate is nice, the real seal of approval comes on warm nights when the delirious chorus of crickets drifts into my home office from the yard, drowning out the clatter of my keyboard and luring me to come outside.

One night I walked down the street to see how far their song extended. I didn’t even make it to the end of the block before I realized that every other yard was silent. My garden had become a cricket amphitheater for the entire neighborhood. The crickets sang as if they intended to remind us that we are never far from wildlife, even at home.

Excerpted from OnEarth(Winter 2008). Subscriptions: $15/yr. (4 issues), including Natural Resources Defense Council membership, from 40 W. 20th St., New York, NY 10011;

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.