December 1, 2016


We all want beautiful gardens, but is one – however gorgeous – that doesn’t consciously make room for wildlife a good idea?  That thought first came to mind back in October.  The native dogwood tree (cornus florida) we planted eighteen months earlier outside our library window seemed to be having an epileptic fit.  The whole top of the tree was shaking violently.  It turns out that the tree’s fruit had just ripened and a dozen birds were noisily staking their claim to it.
We are now a certified wildlife habitat
I mentioned the ruckus (which went on for three days) to a friend and asked if he had experienced a similar display.  No, he had not.  But he also said his was a cornus kousa, the Asian dogwood cultivar.  The response puzzled me and so I did some research.  It turns out that the fruit of the kousa dogwood is larger than that of its American cousin; too large, in fact, for most birds.  We had set out an autumn buffet for multiple bird species.  My friend’s tree was just an attractive ornamental tree with large, bright red berries.
I was reminded of that conversation last week when we drove a wooden pole into the ground at the front of our property and affixed to that pole a sign.  We are now a Certified Wildlife Habitat.
A bowl cast from a hosta
leaf provides fresh water
Certified Wildlife Habitats are part of the National Wildlife Federation’s ‘Gardens for Wildlife’ program.  Surprisingly, certification isn’t limited to people with acres of land.  You can certify an apartment building balcony or a college campus as well as a suburban home site.  In all, there are more than 200,000 such spaces in the U.S. encompassing 1.5 million acres.  That’s a lot of wildlife-friendly habitat.
Our property likely goes to the extreme end of the wildlife-friendly spectrum.  For example, to be certified your habitat needs to provide three of the following food sources: seeds from plants, berries, nectar, foliage and twigs, fruits, sap, pollen, suet, a bird feeder, a hummingbird feeder, a butterfly feeder, a squirrel feeder, and nuts.  We can tick the box for all but two of those.  We have no intention of ever feeding squirrels, and so we will never put up a feeder for them; and putting out nuts will attract squirrels, so ix-nay to that idea, too.
We feed the birds, but
draw the line at squirrels
Properties should have a source of clean water.  It could be a birdbath, a butterfly puddling area (perfect for a balcony), a river, a rain garden, a spring, or a seasonal pool.  We had no fewer than three birdbaths in operation, plus we have vernal pools on the land we own behind our home.
The NWF says that wildlife needs at least two places to shelter from predators and the weather.  It could be a wooded area, a rock pile or wall, cave, roosting box, brush or log pile, water garden or pond, evergreens, or a meadow or prairie.  We don’t have a prairie or a cave, but we check the box on all of the rest.  Some we created as we built our landscape.  One was the product of my laziness: when we acquired the property on which we would build our new home there was a pile of logs and brush adjoining the wetlands.  Betty told me to clear it out.  I said I wasn’t getting anywhere near it.  It remains; a perfect wildlife shelter.
This pile of wood and brush is both
shelter and a place to raise young
And a habitat should have a place for critters to raise their young.  These include mature trees, nesting boxes, dead trees or snags, thickets, wetlands, or host plants for caterpillars.  There are roughly fifteen acres of wetlands behind our home that are permanently protected.  We own an acre of that wetland.  We’ve also left up several dead trees specifically for nesting sites.
This dead tree was left
in place for bird roosts
Sustainability is also part of the certification process.  How about soil and water conservation?  Do you capture rain water from your roof?  Do you practice water-wise landscaping?  Do you have a rain garden? Use mulch?  In our case, we could check every practice. Boy, do we have the mulch question covered.
Is your property organic?  Have you eliminated chemical pesticides and fertilizers?  Do you use compost?  For us, the answers were yes, yes, and yes.  And, finally, are you controlling exotic species?  Ways to do that include practicing integrated pest management, removing non-native plants and animals, using native plants (like that American dogwood), and reducing lawn area.  I don’t know if having no lawn at all earned us extra points, but it should have.

Our pollinator garden
will stay up for the winter
Garden certification is both a good and a clever idea.  It rewards good behavior with a sense of satisfaction (and a sign) and provides gardeners with a tangible list of achievable goals to help them do more for the environment.  If you’re interesting in seeing if your property qualifies, check it out here.

1 comment:

  1. Neal, as you know our acre of NC mountain land was a no-brainer for this certification. And we continue to work hard to make it even better. One thing I learned while doing an article on bees was to put small sticks and twigs across the top of the birdbaths so bees (yes, and even wasps) can take a sip without drowning. Live and learn! Congratulations to you and Betty. I think it is exciting for us all.