When my husband and I bought our three-quarter acre, pie-shaped lot in 2001 and prepared to build our house, the only thing growing were weeds! The lot was flat and boring. Over the course of 13 years, we spent most of our free time digging, sculpting, planting and readjusting our backyard. We made mistakes. We over-planted for certain and learned from our errors. As our yard evolved it soon became obvious it was atypical for our neighborhood. We were the house on the corner with a lot of trees. And I have to be honest, I wasn’t always pleased with how it looked. But something happened that made us realize we’d been landscape mavericks all along. Our unconventional residential plot embraced a new landscape aesthetic. Once we made that discovery, we applied and received certification as a wildlife habitat. In November of 2013, we received the following certificate and sign to display:
Two lectures had raised my awareness and gave me confidence that I was not the neighborhood oddball, but actually an instinctive innovator! New Master Gardener trainee classes had been going on for several weeks where I work in Georgetown. I sat in to offer tech support for a lecture taught by Dr. Sue Barton, horticulturist for the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension. Barton was teaching from the UD’s main campus in Newark and the class on Sustainable Landscaping was broadcasted live to the students in southern Delaware. The gist of the lecture? We need to reassess what is considered “beautiful” in landscaping design. Lush lawns and sculpted “just so” landscapes are pushing out native wildlife. Why not try and live in harmony with them?
Later, I sat in on another training taught by Dot Abbott, UD Extension expert on renewable resources and wildlife. Her lecture to the Master Gardener trainees illuminated the advantages of attracting wildlife into the landscape and said three things were needed to make it happen. Water, shelter and food. Most landscape designs exist to please humans. It should do that of course, but we also should be mindful of the wildlife that surrounds us and which needs our help to survive. All the while my husband and I had created a unique landscape design that had encouraged diversity. One that provided us with an endless display of sight and sound – an oasis for wildlife. We had been on the right track all along!
Our first landscape project in our new home was a pond. We had no pond experience whatsoever. We just knew that we wanted one. So in the fall of 2001 my husband hand dug a random shaped pond. He used the excavated soil to build the mound for the waterfall:
As the pond and surrounding plants matured, it became a haven for toads, bullfrogs and visits from many birds. As the pumps move the water from the pond to the waterfall, it first collects in three shallow pools which the birds especially favor. Most of the plants shown above were removed to make room for trees that partially shade the pond. In 2002 we had our first mallard couple who tried unsuccessfully to raise a clutch of eggs. A lack of vegetative shelter made the eggs easy pickings for a red fox. As the pond edge plants got bigger, mallards found it to be a safe, well-hidden nesting place and in 2013, 12 mallard ducklings took their first dip in our pond. I had a field day with my camera that afternoon!
A little tweaking and growing and our pond evolved into this:
We planted a double row of Leyland cypress on both sides of a split rail fence. Leylands are very popular evergreens in Sussex County, due in large part to their rapid growth and overall affordability, but I would not recommend them as privacy screens. Wanting instant privacy, we planted them too close and the double row was not necessary. Because they were too close, as they grew, their interiors did not develop well and the blizzard of 2010 exposed their weakness. We ended cutting down 60 percent of what we originally planted, and stacked the wood in piles along the fence. Leylands are also susceptible to bagworms. Had we to do it over again we would have used Skip Laurels, which are native and can form a lovely privacy hedge. Nevertheless, any variety of evergreen will provide birds with a sheltered home in the winter, and a place to court and raise their young in the spring and summer. Other evergreens we have added are Arizona cypress (a pretty blue-green color), Deodar cedar (a graceful favorite of mine) Douglas fir, American holly, Nellie Stevens holly, and spruce.
Using our pond as a focal point, we hand dug and crafted out two garden paths which came to a point at the storage shed.
In the interior, we planted Atlas cedar, Chinese elm, white and Japanese pine, Japanese cryptomeria, (cedar) crabapple, several varieties of dogwood and red maples, and river birch. Later, we added varieties of crape myrtles. A good density of shrubs (nandina, inkberry, spireas) and trees thrived, but soon overshadowed the waterfall area! It takes effort to keep a balance between function and aesthetics. I no longer recommend planting multiples of Japanese cryptomeria. They drop a great deal of brown prickly vegetative material.
Our pond was originally stocked with four koi. Pond plants and a net were necessary to protect them from Blue Herons which are frequent visitors. We placed a dozen small copper shepherd hooks around the perimeter and strung the net taut across the pond so it is raised off the water. This allows frogs and ducks to come and go and not get tangled. The net does not deter beneficial insects such as dragon and damselflies which eat mosquito larvae. They even rest on the copper hooks!
The standard for most residential developments has been lush green carpeted lawns, beautifully manicured ornamental shrubs, arranged perfectly to show off a feature of your house – enough of a variation to make your house a little different looking than your neighbor’s home, but pretty much each home falling into a similar formula. These were the kinds of homes that had always made me a little envious – the kind of landscapes that offer conservative curb appeal. I did not confess to my husband that I thought our yard was beginning to look unruly and overgrown. Textbook we were not!
Yet as textbook pretty as these landscapes are, they offer little for our native friends. This is a Google Earth shot of our property approximately 2004. You can see the pond (the dark blob in the center) and garden paths that wind around the pond – and the double rows of Leylands matured quickly. To the left of the main house, we reserved a rectangular area as a future vegetable garden. This is where we built a compost bin made from recycled pallets.
A few years later, you can see the substantial growth – still no vegetable garden, that came in 2012. This is from 2011:
As you can see from this second shot above, our lawn is not perfect. The only thing we apply is crab grass pre-emergent herbicide. Other weeds we remove by hand. We thinned out every other Leyland in the bottom run. In 2013 we removed every other Leyland from the top row of the V. This allows more sunlight into the main garden area, which had become very shady. We plan to fill the gaps with native plants.
To qualify your backyard for certification, you will be asked to demonstrate sources of shelter, food, and most importantly water for birds and insects. Our pond is edged with stacked rocks and many critters live in the nooks and crannies. I have encountered many a harmless garter snake while gardening without gloves! Although our pond is a major source of water, we wanted other isolated pockets where fresh rain water could be obtained. Dot Abbott suggested turning empty wine bottles upside down. Plunge the bottle’s neck into the soil – the large dimple at the base of the wine bottle is a great reservoir. Off to the wine store we go! Might be time to buy a bottle of Blue Nun just so I can get the blue bottle! Blue is my favorite accent color I use in the garden.
Place birdhouses throughout the property:
We hang a variety of birdhouses – and plan to get more. Everyone we hang is quickly occupied. We enjoy sitting on benches and watching the families come and go! I don’t know what type of bird it is, but the tiniest, most unremarkable birds that prefer our elm trees give us quite a scolding if we get too close to their man-made homestead!
And of course, bird feeders:
You don’t need a bird feeder to feed birds however! Plant native perennials and seed bearing flowers. I get a lot of my wildflower seeds from American Meadows, which has a wide variety of annuals and perennials suitable for my region. The biggest hurdle for our particular yard has been increasing shade. Admittedly we overdid the planting the first two years of home ownership. By thinning out the Leylands along the V of our yard, we hope the additional light will help with perennials. This fall I planted quite a few rows of wildflower seeds and also hand scattered several into the beds- so we will see what comes up! Stay tuned.
Not every breed of bird will use a house. Cardinals seem to prefer our cryptomerias and a large camellia shrub as nesting sites. The sturdier the tree and shelter the better. We try and provide nesting materials. Surprisingly a weather-beaten blue nylon tarp we used to cover wood became a favorite nest-building material. We have found plenty of blue fibers inside most of the tree nests! One winter I forgot to put away some planters lined with cocoa mats – the birds made quick use of them. While in the backyard, the most important gardening tool is your camera. Always bring one with you – to capture moments like this:
Let sleeping logs lie:
All of our corrective tree cutting has produced an abundance of rustic lumber. We have made neat woodpiles which serve to provide shelter, but we have let a few simply lie in place. Don’t be in a hurry to clean everything up! In nature, leaves fall and branches tumble and provide resources that wildlife appreciate.
In the back of our shed we store medium-sized branches taken down in storms or from pruning. The pile, which we call a “thicket” provides shelter for rabbits. We enjoy seeing the bunnies romp around the yard and many have safely raised young. The rabbits don’t bother our vegetable garden as we have raised beds. We have not had to use any pesticides in the garden because all the birds we have attracted to our property keep insect pest populations very low. It is all very balanced. We also have several more organized and well-disguised woodpiles, under tarps, which we tap into for evenings by a fire pit. It will take years to deplete our supply. The log piles sit upon cinder block so they are raised up from the ground. This provides additional shelter and the slow breakdown provides a level of warmth.
A diversity of trees brings a diversity of birds!
In addition to Northern Cardinals and North American Robins, we are visited by Blue Jays, Eastern Bluebirds, Northern Mockingbirds (who quickly recognize their humans) various sparrows and wrens, woodpeckers, doves, grackles (who we try to shoo away) Red-winged Blackbirds, Tit-mouses, and when we put out thistle seeds, Goldfinches. I am sure there are others – I am just learning to identify them. I hope to erect some Purple Martin birdhouses soon, as they really help cut down on the mosquito population. I am saving up for a good long -ranged telephoto lens so I can capture more pictures without being too intrusive.
Bring on the volunteers:
Because of all the birds visiting, bathing, eating and performing other bodily functions, we get our fair share of shrubs growing in locations we never planted. I try to make as many of these work into the landscape or transplant them to another area. Each spring I am treated to new surprises, and because I didn’t plant them, I do some detective work to see if I have a weed or native plant! We enjoy three unplanned butterfly bushes – and so do the butterflies! (I now know these are listed as invasive plants and removed all but one, but do not let it go to seed once it blooms.)
Don’t be in a rush to rake:
Let it rain and collect it in barrels:
We have four rain barrels that we bought for a low cost through DNREC. Many Master Gardener workshops are devoted to using rain barrels and making your own from large drums or trash cans. They have an insect screen barrier on the top. Ours were old olive shipping barrels from Greece. Eventually I would like to paint something artistic on these. If you Google “rain barrel art” you will see some amazing designs! Slowly, I am trying to convert our existing design into a George Harrison-themed garden! Harrison was my favorite Beatle (didn’t we have to have a favorite?) and my admiration for him grew as I learned of his passion for gardening. Harrison was famous for his psychedelicly painted home Kinfauns, his Mini Cooper and his 1961 Fender Stratocaster “Rocky.” I hope to use some Sixties’ psychedelia as inspiration for my rain barrels!
Finally, create a place to interact with your new habitat. Every year I try to add a wooden chair or bench. Remember that movie Phenomenon with John Travolta and Kyra Sedgwick…her character made these really cool chairs from willow trees? Well, I’d love to repurpose some of our excess wood to make some rustic chairs or arbors. I want to rid our backyard of any plastic! Ugh!
Cookie cutter plots of residential paradise may be a realtor’s dream, but they push out the flora and fauna that would naturally occur otherwise. In nature, limbs fall, leaves settle, and seeds from native plants blow across the wind and re-sprout to beckon native insects and plants. It’s a beautiful cycle that can happen in your back yard! It doesn’t have to look wild to be wildlife suitable!
The Delaware Nature Society has an application and a criteria checklist to get your backyard certified as a wildlife habitat. For additional small fees you can get a nice sign to post and also register with the National Wildlife Federation. You don’t have to check the box for every single criteria, but by making simple changes – reducing the need for fertilizer, composting, recognizing the value of native plants, and providing food, water and shelter for wildlife, you demonstrate a commitment to create or preserve an environment that welcomes and sustains wildlife who are quickly running out of places to thrive! Our backyard isn’t perfect, but as our awareness rises, we adjust and reshape what we can to progress toward harmonious co-existence.
Each state in the U.S. has a county or regional Cooperative Extension office with experts who are happy to provide you with information for your particular area or interest. Within Cooperative Extension are volunteer Master Gardener experts – many who share this passion for wildlife habitats and would love to help you create a suitable environment for your yard. Also check with your local nature societies. The National Wildlife Federation has great resources on how to garden for wildlife in your region. Our goals for 2014 are to incorporate more native perennials – specifically Beebalm, Purple Coneflower, Coreospis and many others. You can look up recommended wildflowers for your state or region here.
Update (2019): I would not recommend Japanese Cryptomeria as I have discovered they are a dirty tree, dropping huge and ugly dried foliage. River birches, when they reach maturity, as one of ours have, sends out millions of seeds and pollen. Each year we pull thousands of new baby river birches out of the landscape. Please consider native trees in your landscape.