When Gardeners Grow Wild

For 30 years, NWF's Backyard Wildlife Habitat program has been helping people attract wild creatures to their homes and communities

  • Cynthia Berger
  • Jun 01, 2003
BARBARA AND FRED FELDT have two gardens—a sun garden and a shade garden—and the birds and butterflies flock to both. But don't picture a half-acre in the suburbs. Welcome to Backyard Wildlife Habitat site #20895, an Art Deco apartment building in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. The Feldts' shade garden blooms in the dim, cement-floored space between their building and its neighbor. Their sun garden is on the roof, six stories up, with views of the East River and Times Square.

The Feldts' home is one of more than 36,000 U.S. properties certified by the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Wildlife Habitat program, which took root 30 years ago. And like the nectar flowers and berry bushes planted by participants, it has grown bigger and branched out. Today, other programs complement its original mission. The Habitat Stewards™ program, launched in 1999, trains volunteers to create wildlife habitats in their communities. The Schoolyard Habitats® program, which began in 1996 and includes almost 1,800 schools throughout the country, offers workshops and educational materials. There's also the Community Wildlife Habitat® project, which encourages entire communities—residences and businesses—to make green space a haven for wildlife. And for more than a decade, NWF's Campus Ecology® program has helped transform some of the nation's college campuses into living models of an ecologically sustainable society while training a new generation of environmental leaders.

The programs' roots date back to 1973 when the nation's environmental movement was still in relative infancy. That's when NWF leaders noted a striking statistic: 70 percent of Americans lived in cities and suburbs. "As we become more and more urbanized," wrote Editor John Strohm in the April/May 1973 issue of National Wildlife, "fewer and fewer children will be able to rub shoulders with nature." How could kids "brought up on concrete" grow into adults who would care about wildlife? NWF had a plan: Bring the wildlife to kids.

The idea was that backyards—large or small, rural or urban—could, at little cost, be transformed into wildlife habitats, creating a network of mini-refuges for plants and animals displaced by development. That magazine issue's lead article explained the core tenet of the program, unchanged to this day: Wildlife needs four basic elements to survive: food, water, cover and places to raise young. Readers also found out how to get started in their own yards, with a detailed garden plan and lists of native plants.

One year later, 249 homeowners had certified their yards. Today, many of these original habitats are maintained by the same homeowners—though the landscape around them has often changed. One of those habitats is the home of Fred and Edith Halbut in Brownsburg, Indiana. When they moved there in 1946, their three-acre lot was "out in the middle of nowhere." Now, says Edith, the birdbaths, butterfly garden and handmade marsh create an oasis in the middle of a sprawling city.

As the country grows increasingly more urban, the number of certified backyard habitats has also grown steadily. They range in size from tiny apartment balconies to the sprawling grounds of governors' mansions. And that number may be just the tip of the iceberg. "There are many thousands of people who are using the program to create and restore habitat for wildlife who haven't officially certified their habitat with NWF yet," says program manager David Mizejewski. "We have more than 45,000 individual users visiting the Backyard Wildlife Habitat Web site every month, and we distribute habitat information to tens of thousands of people annually."

Meanwhile, the increasing mobility of American families means some certification numbers represent more than one habitat. For example, Don Hohimer of Alpine, California (Habitat #28685), has moved three times in the last ten years. With each move, he and his family created a new backyard habitat—and the buyers inherited the old habitat. "Our houses sold quickly because of the gardens," Hohimer says.

Some certified "backyards" are actually on the grounds of small businesses, where customers get a free education about the value of gardening for wildlife. At Dover Canyon Winery (Habitat #29356), located in Paso Robles on California’s central coast near San Luis Obispo, owners Mary Baker and Don Panico and their ten-year-old son, Troy, live in a 1920s farmhouse next to the winery barn. The habitat certification sign is on display in the tasting room. "Our visitors are always interested and ask lots of questions," says Baker.

Then there’s Niche Gardens (Habitat #15467), a plant nursery near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that specializes in native wildflowers. Horticulturist Kim Hawkes saw the need for a specialty nursery after purchasing mail-order wildflowers for her own yard. "It was obvious most of the plants had been dug from the wild," she says. "That bothered me." So today she offers her customers sustainably cultivated natives. She also teaches them about wildlife gardening on tours of her demonstration gardens, which include a bog and a "meadow giants" garden vibrant with sunflowers, bee balm and Joe-pye weed. Children from nearby schools visit on class field trips.

Other certified backyards are actually public spaces, including parks, government buildings and places of worship. After Dale and Pat Bulla finished certifying their backyard (Habitat #29482) in Austin, Texas, they enrolled in the Habitat Stewards training program, which involves three days of training on topics such as creating a butterfly habitat and building a backyard pond. The Bullas went on to help create habitats at a neighborhood school and at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Austin. Says Dale, "We’ve had several ‘walkabouts’ after services, where we explain why the plants are here and what they do."

The program’s original mission—to get entire families closer to nature—is still NWF’s main focus. In Cohassett, Massachusetts, Barbara Canney is giving a tour of her wooded yard (Habitat #25511), when Garrett, age ten, comes running up. "Mom, there’s a slug! Come see it!" he exclaims. "My parents taught me to appreciate nature," Canney says. "I want to pass that along to my son."

When she and her family moved into their English cottage-style home nine years ago, the two-acre lot was already shaded by mature oaks, maples and white pines and surrounded by viburnum, holly and mountain laurel. "Making habitat for wildlife here was mostly just letting things be," Canney says. Still, several family projects enhance the habitat: Garrett and his father recently installed a small pond; there’s also a brush pile, a bat house and a songbird nesting box. Even Stoney, the family golden retriever, pitches in to help wildlife. The fur he sheds goes in a mesh bag to provide nesting material for birds.

Jim and Judy Lambert (Habitat #3247) in Selma, Indiana, wouldn’t have known about the backyard habitat program if it hadn’t been for their kids—they read about the program in their son’s Ranger Rick magazine. The Lamberts’ 100-year-old farmhouse sits on six acres in the middle of corn and soybean fields. A portion of the land has been returned to tallgrass prairie, with big and little bluestem grass, Indian grass, gamma grass and compass plants. Close to the house are evergreens that provide shelter for rabbits and songbirds and "food trees" that provide fruit for songbirds and small mammals. A patch of plowed-under wetland has been restored, and Jim designed a large pond that attracts sora rails, double-crested cormorants, wading birds and nesting Canada geese.

Although the Lamberts’ three children are grown now, "They’re still gardeners and environmentalists," Judy says. "Our son in particular is an avid birder and butterfly-watcher." And Jim and Judy continue to educate young people about wildlife. Scout groups and school groups come regularly to tour their prairie oasis.

But having wildlife-friendly habitat is not all about owning a home surrounded by a big yard. Even renters can help attract native species. Take NWF’s Mizejewski. When he joined the NWF staff three years ago, he was eager to practice what he was about to preach. But his home (Habitat #32156) in an urban part of Arlington, Virginia, is a rental house with a postage-stamp yard. "I don’t own the property, so I don’t want to spend a lot on plants," he says. "I also have to pay the water bill, so I don’t want plants that need a lot of it."

To create a habitat on a budget, Mizejewski gets extra plants from his friends’ gardens or picks up specimens at "plant rescues," places such as construction sites where native plants will be uprooted. He has planted more than 20 native species, including columbine, white wood aster, bleeding heart and wild geranium. "In last summer’s drought, my natives did better than my neighbors’ ornamentals," he says.

An old silver maple—a haven for nesting squirrels and birds—shades the yard. So far, Mizejewski has convinced his landlords to keep it. In fact, he says, most landlords are pleased to have a tenant take an interest in the yard. "My landlords have seen what I’ve done," he says. "They think it’s great."

Recognizing the importance of educating people about wildlife-friendly habitat at an early age, NWF started its Schoolyard Habitats program, which, most notably, encourages schools to transform their surroundings into living laboratories. For example, thanks to a renovation in 2000, Tuckahoe Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, is now surrounded by micro-habitats, including a pond with a resident red-eared slider named Tess and a bird-viewing habitat outside the art room, says Beth Reese, the school district’s outdoor learning coordinator.

With nature just outside the door, students at Tuckahoe have a real-life lab within reach. Last spring, when Tess emerged from hibernation, second graders deduced independently that water temperature, not air temperature, had stimulated the turtle to emerge—thanks to the data they had been diligently logging three times a week.

Students also seem proud to leave something permanent behind them. "Every weekend I see families coming to check on the garden," Reese says. "And I hear, ‘Look there’s the tree I planted,’ or ‘Hey, that’s my brick!’"

The movement to create habitat around schools extends to the halls of academe. At Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, the grounds around Jordan Hall now reflect the subject studied inside—biology. That’s thanks to Jennifer Hannink, who recently graduated with a master’s degree in environmental policy and natural resources management. She had enrolled in an NWF-sponsored Habitat Stewards class to complement her course work. Then she looked around campus for a place to translate concepts into action. "It seemed appropriate that the biology department should have some areas planted with native species," Hannink says.

With funding from a Campus Ecology fellowship, Hannink has transformed the massive planters fronting the building from an untended jumble of gravel and invasive species to a gemlike sample of prairie habitat. She grew prairie plants from seed—including purple coneflower, butterflyweed, cardinal flower, columbine and mountain mint—in a campus greenhouse, then moved them to the planters along with dogwood and redbud trees and nest boxes for birds. "There’s all sorts of insect activity around the planters now," she says, "with ladybugs, wasps, bumblebees and butterflies flittering about."

Certainly, gardening for wildlife can transform people’s surroundings, but it can also transform their lives. In San Diego, Jenny Parker is an anesthesiologist at a local hospital. Lately, neighbors have been admiring her yard and asking for help with their own. Now she’s started a small landscaping business with a budding clientele, and eventually she hopes to retire from medicine and do landscaping for wildlife full time.

"It’s funny," Parker notes. "When I first talk to people, they don’t want animals in their yard—because birds make a mess and so on. So I go a little slow. I say, ‘See that phoebe over there swooping down? It’s eating the bugs that are causing problems for your plants. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could keep him around?’

"Then I recommend some plants that work really well to attract hummingbirds. And well, once they start seeing hummingbirds up close, they get hooked! Wouldn’t you?"

Pennsylvania writer Cynthia Berger recently received a certificate from NWF for making her backyard wildlife-friendly.

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