The Audubon Garden Makeover
By Janet Marinelli
Last summer we announced that Audubon magazine would turn the backyard of one lucky reader into a haven for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. With the donation of bird feeders, a water garden, and more than $2,500 worth of plants from Monrovia, plus advice from National Audubon Society expert Jesse Grantham, we offered to relandscape one backyard to make it a more hospitable habitat. More than 2,000 people responded, telling us why theirs should be the yard we chose. After sifting through the entries and weighing the various claims, we settled on a family in suburban New York whose neighboring woodland had fallen to a developer's chainsaw. Most of the wildlife had fled. Now, a year later, birds and animals are again visiting the family's backyard. Read how it happened--and how you can create the same result around your house.
One evening in early spring 2000, Bonnie Worme was cleaning up after dinner and preparing to whisk the kids off to bed when her husband, Ed, appeared in the kitchen.
"Come outside," he said, leading her toward the back door of their Long Island, New York, home.
Dusk was beginning to settle over the garden, that magical time when colors blur, familiar shapes become mysterious, and the last birds lingering around the feeder retreat to their roosting spots.
When they got out to the yard, Ed stopped and said, "Listen." Suddenly, the hush that often accompanies nightfall was broken by the faint singing of tree frogs.
It was as if long-lost friends had reappeared. Even today, Bonnie's face lights up as she recalls the loud chorus of frogs and insects that once serenaded the neighborhood at night.
"We used to lie in bed listening," she remembers. "It sounded like a symphony."
After two years of quiet, wildlife is finally returning to the Worme yard, a 61H- by 100-foot property located in Massapequa Woods, a suburban neighborhood of comfortable single-family houses surrounded by manicured lawns and a smattering of mature trees. Fourteen years ago, when Ed and Bonnie bought their roughly 40-year-old house, the back of the property adjoined a small but lush deciduous woodland with century-old trees, flowering dogwoods, viburnums, mountain laurel, and native honeysuckle vines. The patch of forest was an oasis of wildlife habitat amid the turf grass. The Wormes enjoyed watching a wide variety of birds, frogs, butterflies, and bees, as well as small mammals such as opossums. "No matter what time of year," Bonnie says, "there was always something happening--always color, always critters."
The biggest thrill was when the hawks showed up. Christmas morning in 1996 remains a particularly happy memory for Bonnie, Ed, and their daughter, Allison, then four years old (their son, Eric, was an infant at the time). A new video camera under the family Christmas tree was barely out of the box when a red-tailed hawk appeared in the backyard. Bonnie grabbed the camera, ran to the kitchen window, and filmed as the hawk, perched in a tree, dined on a holiday meal of fresh pigeon.
Supplemented by backyard feeders, the woodland nourished large numbers of birds that attracted the hawks the family loved to watch. "The ecosystem was there; the whole circle was there among us!" exclaims Bonnie. "We were a part of the circle."
Unfortunately, as is often the case for the few surviving parcels of open space in suburban neighborhoods, the woodland's days were numbered. Developers arrived, the forest was razed, and most of the wildlife disappeared, despite Bonnie's efforts to rally the neighborhood to save the natural vegetation. For two years she battled to scale back the developer's plans. After she collected 400 signatures in support of preserving the trees, a compromise was reached: The developer agreed to build a house that would spare bordering trees and shrubs. "The birds and animals would still have a place to call home," Bonnie remembers thinking at the time, "and we would still have some privacy."
The developer lived up to his part of the bargain, though the house he built was much larger than the others in the neighborhood. But when the owners moved in, down came the remaining small trees and shrubs and up went a daunting, six-foot stockade fence. Meanwhile, new neighbors moved in next door and cut the mature trees and shrubs adjoining that side of the Wormes' tenth-of-an-acre property. They, too, put up a fence, destroying the family's raspberry patch and still more wildlife habitat. "We were boxed in by six-foot fences," says Bonnie.
She was particularly distressed by the loss of the majestic native trees. "It's so upsetting when you see a big tree come down," she says. "I loved the woods. That's why I moved here. They don't plant trees like that anymore."
The Wormes tried to compensate for the loss of wildlife habitat. They transplanted mature shrubs to provide shelter and nesting places for birds. They started a new berry patch to provide the birds with food. They put up additional bird feeders. Nevertheless, the frogs were gone, the number of songbirds was greatly reduced, and the family no longer saw red-tailed hawks. So when they read about Audubon's garden makeover, they leapt at the chance to have their yard transformed back into the wooded refuge it once was.
Jesse Grantham, director of the Audubon Habitats Program and an expert on wildlife-friendly plantings, worked with landscape designer Damon Scott to create a blueprint for the new backyard. "The Worme garden was a typical American backyard, with a lot of nonnative plants that don't provide much in the way of food and habitat for wildlife," says Grantham. So the first objective was to improve the wildlife habitat on the property, especially for birds. In addition, says Scott, "Bonnie made it clear that she wanted us to plant at least a couple of trees" that would eventually replace the tall canopy species that had been lost. She also asked that the large house that now looms over their backyard be screened from view. A fourth priority was to create a focal point in the garden so that Bonnie, Ed, Allison, and Eric would be able to view wildlife year-round from their kitchen window.
The new design accomplished all that and more. Birds have a handful of basic needs: food, water, and safe places for nesting and resting. The new clump of upright junipers (Juniperus scopulorum) against the backyard fence will fulfill the latter function. Such evergreens--dense, with needles year-round--are preferred roosting and nesting sites, and birds seek shelter in them during storms. In a decade or so, the Wormes' new junipers will also grow tall enough to totally block their view of the neighbor's oversize house.
Scott replaced conventional landscape shrubs like forsythia and yew, which offer little for wildlife, with an assortment of trees and shrubs that provide food in all seasons. For example, three grapevines (Vitis labrusca) were planted against the back fence. These vines, in the landscape designer's words, feature "a beautiful, large grape leaf and, in summer, a rack of luscious purple grapes" to which birds flock. The fruits of the American cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum) and winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) persist into winter, providing much-needed food for birds and a visual feast for the family, especially when the bright-red berries stand out against the snow. Scott added several types of bird feeders to the garden to supplement the food provided by the plants. He also included a couple of "dusting areas," where birds can groom themselves by kicking soil up onto their feathers. The soil here is mulched but left unplanted.
A birdbath with a heater provides the birds with a year-round source of drinking water and doubles as a place where they can bathe and cool off in the heat of summer. Birds are especially attracted to dripping water, so the birdbath was outfitted with a drip attachment.
Larger birds also drink from the new pond that is now the garden's focal point. The three- by five-foot pond is lined with flexible plastic and surrounded by flat stones. Gravel lines the bottom, and the deepest area (about three feet) boasts a large rock where fish can find shelter. The pond is planted with hardy species such as water lilies, cattails, and pickerelweed.
The landscape plan emphasizes mass plantings of shrubs with different-size branches on which birds of different sizes can perch. Among them are red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea), a relative of the flowering dogwood (which was already in the Worme yard) that has bright-red winter twigs and grows rapidly into a multi-stemmed thicket, and Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus), another adaptable native shrub with a dense habit that appeals to birds and, in late spring and early summer, has unusual reddish-brown flowers with a pleasingly fruity fragrance. Two flowering horse chestnuts (Aesculus x carnea and Aesculus hippocastanum) were planted in the backyard to replace some of the lost deciduous trees.
The landscape design wasn't confined to the backyard or to birds. In the front yard, Scott enlarged a flower bed that runs along the driveway and sweeps around the front of the house, replacing lawn, which is virtually useless to wildlife, with clumps of beautiful wildflowers to provide nectar for butterflies. Among the butterfly magnets are such summer bloomers as purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), with large, purple daisy flowers, and coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata), which has a profusion of cheerful yellow flowers. In the backyard Scott put a large planting of another favorite nectar plant, gayfeather (Liatris spicata), a showy wildflower with tall spikes of rose-purple flowers that blooms in late summer.
Bonnie, Ed, Allison, and Eric are looking forward to a summer of butterfly watching when the wildflowers, installed with the rest of the wildlife plantings in November, begin blooming. It will take a few years for the trees and shrubs to mature into lush wildlife habitat. Yet in its first winter, the landscape was already paying dividends. The family observed more overwintering birds than ever, including woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and cardinals galore, as well as juncos, which they hadn't seen since the woodland was destroyed. They've already spied raccoons fishing in the pond, which is also a favorite spot for the children and their friends, who gather to watch the goldfish that live there. And Ed points out that the new landscape requires less upkeep than the old one, especially in front, where the expanded flower beds mean "less lawn to mow."
On February 24 the Wormes were treated to a sight they thought they'd never see again. A red-tailed hawk swooped down to get a good look at a plump mourning dove feeding by the birdbath. The hawk hung around for a while in a nearby tree, then took off. Six days later another hawk appeared.
The backyard ecosystem is being restored. The circle has been un-broken.
Janet Marinelli is the director of publishing at the Brooklyn [New York] Botanic Garden and the author of three books, most recently Stalking the Wild Amaranth: Gardening in the Age of Extinction.
What You Can Do
Follow these tips in your own yard. Also, visit our web site for past articles and advice on everything from butterfly gardens to bird feeders to ponds. Topics we've covered are marked by a *.
* Plant native trees, shrubs, and flowers that will offer a variety of food, shelter, and nesting and resting places for wildlife. Plant for all seasons. Select a variety of plants to provide a year-round supply of nutritious foods.
Reduce turf, which provides little in the way of food or habitat. Replace it with larger planting beds.
Think big. Put in masses of the animals' most favored species, not just one or two plants.
Think small. Container plantings can transform even the tiniest property into a wildlife refuge.
* Feed the birds. Supplement your plantings with feeders and nest boxes.
Plant pines or other native conifers such as junipers. Their dense needles make them favorite nesting and roosting sites.
Layer up. Use tall trees, small trees, shrubs, and annuals and perennials to create layers of growth, which birds can use for a multitude of purposes. For example, the wood thrush usually sings from the tallest trees but builds its nest in the shrubs below.
Plant vines--native grapes and honeysuckles, trumpet vine, cypress vine--which provide birds with perches, nesting places, and often an abundant crop of fruits.
* Bring in butterflies. Create a sunny flower border or small wildflower meadow full of nectar plants--goldenrod, paintbrush, aster, lupine.
* Leave leaves. Some leaf litter in your planting beds will ensure a good supply of earthworms, insects, and other animals for ground-feeding birds.
Don't fence. Instead, plant a naturalistic hedge of such wildlife-attracting shrubs as elderberries, shrubby serviceberries and dogwoods, or evergreens such as red cedar.
* Provide water where birds can bathe and drink, either a birdbath or a pond. Birds are especially attracted to dripping water. Several devices are available that can be connected to your garden hose to create continuous dripping.
* Can the pesticides, or use them sparingly. Some pesticides kill or harm birds and butterfly larvae directly. Others kill or contaminate insects and other creatures that birds eat.
Encourage your neighbors to create and link up patches of habitat to provide
the maximum benefit for wildlife suffering from shrinking native habitat.
Audubon extends special thanks to Jesse Grantham and these companies for their help:
Monrovia (plants from the Audubon Habitat Collection)
Ireland-Gannon Associates (landscaping)
Wicklein's Water Gardens (water garden)
Duncraft (bird feeders)
Al's Garden Art (birdbath)
For native plants specific to your region, try one of the following nurseries:
Northeast & Mid-Atlantic
Southeast & Deep South
Prairies & Plains
Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains
By Janet Marinelli
The following books on gardening for wildlife are all published by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I recommend them not only because I work here and therefore know they're reliable, but also because they're a great bargain ($9.95 each) and because they're the only wildlife-gardening books I know of that stress the importance of planting native species. (In the past, many plants that were recommended for bird-habitat enhancement became invasive and are now causing huge problems.)
Burrell, C. Colston, editor, The Natural Water Garden: Pools, Ponds, Marshes, and Bogs for Backyards Everywhere (New York: Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 1997)
Kress, Stephen W., editor, Bird Gardens: Welcoming Wild Birds to Your Yard (New York: Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 1998)
Kress, Stephen W., editor, Hummingbird Gardens: Turning Your Yard Into Hummingbird Heaven (New York: Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 2000)
Lewis, Alcinda, editor, Butterfly Gardens: Luring Nature's Loveliest Pollinators to Your Yard (New York: Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 1995)
Marinelli, Janet, editor, Going Native: Biodiversity in Our Own Backyards (New York: Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 1994)
Kress has also published several of his own books, including National Audubon Society Bird Garden (New York: Dorling Kindersly and the National Audubon Society, 1995).
Click on "Amazon.com.books," then search for "National Audubon Society Bird Garden." If you buy through this portal, Amazon will donate a percentage of your purchase price to the National Audubon Society.
© 2000 NASI
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