Tuesday, July 25, 2017  

Creating a Habitat in Your Backyard


Gardening is the most curious of hobbies.

It goes through ecological adjustments along with lots of other things in our lives. Look at children for instance. You start in the nursery with high hopes and visions of glory. You nurture, feed and love… even water and expose them to sun and they grow. Sometimes they come down with diseases or decide after years of violin lessons to play the drums or join a football team. Frustrating but well worth it.

The similarity to gardening is phenomenal! Picking up that seed catalog or going to a nursery in early spring and walking amongst millions of healthy, colorful seedlings inspires visions of mature, prolific gardens…right in your own backyard. Most gardeners knowingly nod when they are informed that these healthy specim ens are greenhouse grown in ideal conditions by experts in the field of horticulture. But that information remains in one part of our brains, but we figure we can make up for it with loving care. The damp, rich soil beckons. We load up  and sharpen our trowels, get out that new pair of garden gloves and plunge in.

The battle begins! First there is too much rain or too little, gusts of damaging wind and finally the onslaught of disease, insects and pests (defined as anything that interferes with your plans).

Gardening approached in this manner can be extremely frustrating to the gardener. So I am suggesting a reverse
approach. Look at gardening as you would a lovely natural meadow or woodland. Observe what likes to grow there and what survives and learn.

Start backwards! Observe your conditions, wind exposure, light and moisture, soil type (soil test kits available at your extension offices) and begin to think habitat.

This land belonged to the insects, animals and birds long before we arrived. In fact we found it charming. So instead of fighting them we need to give serious thought to coexisting and creating a habitat for this coexistence.

Habitats can be created with guidance from the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation. Look
at their web pages for tons of information on establishing a certified habitat.

Get to know your forester. The forestry department offers a homeowner service which will enable them to provide history on the larger wooded areas of your land.

Carefully examine the areas you live in. Then broaden your views and look beyond the borders of your land. Does a healthy woodland lie just beyond your property line or is there another property divided into neat organized gardens or vast expanses of lawn? Sit quietly on your porch. Are you surrounded by birds, busy squirrels, the buzzing of bees and graceful dragonflies? Listen, for this is the sound of nature.

Create a Meadow

Creating a meadow can be as complicated as tilling and seeding with meadow seeds. The drawback is that many of the “meadow seeds” are not native and after a few years or even sooner they fail to reproduce. So the viable option is to simply “let go and let grow”! Stop mowing. Did I say stop? Yes! Look at the space where you currently have lawn and lay out a hose to define the edge of your meadow. Think of mowing a path to a destination which can be a bench or birding area in the middle of the meadow. As in nature, soft curvilinear lines make the most pleasing boundaries. Most natural meadows form beautifully in a couple of months. After a few years, you may notice seedlings of trees which you can control by removing if you do not desire their growth or consider that they make wonderful perches for birds and nests for their young.

Tree snags (a dead tree) or fallen trees make special woodland habitats. Dead wood allows for new life. They are not recommended close to your house as they can harbor insects such as termites. But in the woods they become riddled with holes and become homes to birds, insects and soft mosses and ferns of varied textures and colors. They are termed “nurse logs” for their ability to promote growth, all the while decomposing and providing nutrients for the soil. The National Wildlife Federation recommends three snags per acre.

If you are in a neighborhood of mowed lawns, consider establishing a border corridor in your neighborhood. Corridors are natural areas that act as living habitats providing animals, insects and birds the ability to move from one area to another while maintaining shelter and cover. Animals, birds and insects have specific survival needs. They need food, water, cover and a place to raise their young. So allow natives to grow up at the edges of your lot. Encourage them to expand and eliminate areas of lawn. Watch the magic!
Tap into other sources: Virginia Master Gardeners, educated volunteers who assist the homeowners; Master Naturalists; Water Stewards; Audubon; Native Plant people and bee keepers. All these people spend time focusing on ways to improve our habitat and quality of life.


It is difficult to find someone who does not enjoy spotting an eagle or ruby throated humming bird. Bluebirds delight us as they search out nesting areas and flit about flashing their brightly colored mature feathers. Their melodic calls are a joy. Their insurgence has been encouraged by the Audubon’s studious building and installation of bluebird houses. Simply purchase a bluebird house, installing it facing south or east, and tend to it to keep out encroaching species (snakes and other more aggressive birds). Clean it out for the new arrival of the species. The installation of a baffle on the post of the house discourages intruders.

Douglas Tallamy author of Bringing Nature Home encourages the concept of supply and demand. Instead of spraying and selecting plant species for their insect resistance, you reverse the whole deal. Birds need protein to feed their babies. Worms, beetles and other insects are protein. Douglas, professor of Entomology at the University of Delaware, believes that instead of removing the “protein” from our gardens we simply need to allow it to happen. More protein=more birds to eat the protein and it all comes out even. No need for insecticides and toxic sprays! In his focus, the need to remove the invasive plant material is key. Invasive plants, often non native species, overcome the natives and eliminate habitat and food for wildlife. The native plant society will assist in informative programs in this area. Check NNVNPS website for local chapters and meetings.


These delightful colorful creatures add a new dimension to every outdoor area. They can fill your soul with wonder. Watch a child around a butterfly and you will learn. Planting a habitat must include plants that the butterflies love. Milkweed is for the monarchs. Dill, fennel and parsley host the larva of the black swallowtail butterfly. Plant some and do not remove the nice green worms. Let them eat until they leave to become butterflies. Then simply whack the host plant down to about one foot of height. The plant will respond with vigorous growth and host new larvae. Soon your yard will be filled with graceful black swallowtail butterflies. Plant aesculus pavia and paviflora, bottle brush buckeye. These varieties of chestnut display a beautiful plume of either red or white aromatic blooms that attract a crowd of butterflies of all kinds.

The mention of cabbage moths causes most gardeners to cringe. But simply intersperse your cabbage crop with radish seeds and do not harvest. Allow them to go to flower and seed. The tiny white moths are attracted to the blooms instead of making themselves a nuisance on the cabbage. This has the added benefit of a nice fall crop of radishes. Also do not forget a source of water for birds and butterflies.

Deer, Rabbits, Squirrels and other Critters

Talking about these animals can be a dangerous discussion. If you look at this backwards you see damage and destruction and then your expectations at planting time. But if you examine the whole picture as an opportunity you can see more clearly. Voles, moles, mice, squirrels, rabbits and our old nemesis, deer, are not dreaded because of being the creatures they are but rather that they have heightened their status to “pest”. Because of the development of spaces that once were habitat for them they are populating our yards. Hunting is not allowed in neighborhoods for safety reasons so their population continues to expand. There are some controls such as using their olfactory senses and physical barriers such as fencing, and the use of native plants to lessen the damage to desired plantings. Any nose-sensitive spray has a limited effectiveness. Changing aromas seems to help.

Plants to Use

There are plenty of plants that resist damage, grow robustly and help to keep the balance of nature versus people going. Low growers such as: creeping thyme, common cinquefoil, wild strawberry, violet (common) and sedum are good examples of plants that fit the bill. Little blue stem and Indian grass are grasses that work well as lawn replacement because fescue is not a good habitat. Plenty of flowers will do. Try milkweed with its many varieties, heath, aster, monarda, goldenrod, coneflower, tickseed, sunflowers, common boneset and phlox. Joe pye weed and iron weed like wet areas. Coneflower and tickseed work well for migrating monarchs. The insertion of lavender and yucca in gardens discourages foraging deer.

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, considers  the possibilities of saving our children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. We need to consider possibilities of integrating with nature in our lives rather than moving away from it. Walk with a child in a meadow or woods and see the magic.

All of this is easier when you think about it. Don’t plant what your neighbors have...plant diversity. Be comfortable looking at planting canopy trees of oak, hickory, black gum, beech, cedar and loblolly away from the house for safety. Plant or encourage an understory of dogwood, winterberry holly, serviceberry, beauty berry, fringe tree, smooth sumac, pagoda dogwood, blue berry for quail. Plant cardinal and spice bush for swallowtail butterflies. Try arrowwood, viburnum and  elderberries for their wonderful nutritious berries.

Watch in mid April as the cross vine and trumpet vine and coral honeysuckle come out and then along come the
hummingbirds from South America.

It is important to remember that we live in remote areas that have previous inhabitants. Just as the jellies or nettles populate our waters, we must learn to adjust our lifestyles to the various animals that populate the land. Promote a habitat in your community or local school.

So welcome to spring and the glorious colors, aromas and life that make up the habitats in our own backyards.