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Wild by design

How to garden for wildlife without upsetting your neighbors

All Animals magazine, September/October 2017

by Nancy Lawson

A well-kept ecological garden can inspire others to follow suit. Photo by Meredith Lee/The HSUS.

The house next door sits vacant, placed on the market after the last renter moved out. A succession of owners has knocked down walls, replaced carpeting and installed standard-issue appliances.

Edging the exterior are shrubs from conventional landscaping palettes, including invasive species that encroach on wildlife habitat. The lawn receives a weekly crew cut by men on riding mowers, followed by gas-powered trimming and leaf blowing.

Though a real estate agent would call the property unoccupied, the box turtle who sometimes crosses the yard might beg to differ. The cardinal perching in the lone tree defies that sentiment, too.

Unlike humans, an adaptable species that can find food and shelter around the globe, many wild animals have limited ranges—and may never venture beyond our backyards. Unfortunately for these creatures, homeowners usually focus more on readying properties for resale than nurturing a home for other species. Research reveals that even when people want to garden ecologically, the desire to match the Joneses’ sterile turfgrass yard—and maintain cookie-cutter appearances for the real estate market—is a more powerful draw.

TAKE ACTION: Get your own Humane Backyard sign to help get others interested in gardening for wildlife.

But helping wildlife and meeting community standards aren’t mutually exclusive. Research also shows that well-kept ecological gardens influence people’s preferences for more diverse yards. By incorporating the following visual signals of care, we can fit in with all our neighbors, even the wild ones—and inspire more oases for animals.

Let plants lead by example

When a highway planting of winterberry hollies bore stunning red fruit, homeowners called the Delaware Center for Horticulture to learn about the shrub. The response surprised University of Delaware associate professor Sue Barton. “By planting something on the roadside,” she says, “I could make a bigger impact on people than anything I could ever write or lecture about.” Adding native plants with flowers or fruit to your own yard can have a similar effect, providing priceless PR for wildlife gardens.

Add functional ornaments

  • Birdbaths can signify human influence. Photo by Gary Kavanagh/iStock.com.

Birdbaths and water dishes also signify human influence. “It looks really nice, and it’s really a kind thing to do for wildlife, especially in the hottest days of the summer,” says Jesse Elwert Peters, an ecological landscape designer from Saratoga Springs, New York.

Bee boxes help ecological landscape designer Annie White educate her Burlington, Vermont, neighbors about cavity-nesting native bees. “When people are walking past my front gardens, they see these nesting boxes and they ask what they are,” she says. “And that starts the conversation.”

By placing a bat house atop a tree snag, Maryland artist Melinda Byrd created a sculptural habitat. Though bats have yet to roost, woodpeckers have excavated holes in the dead trunk, creating homes for nesting chickadees and bluebirds.

Frame the view

Hedges of native shrubs or rows of native flowers help wildlife while also conveying neatness and order. A mowed strip along the road “frames patches of greater biodiversity with clear signs of human intention,” Michigan landscape architect Joan Iverson Nassauer once wrote, and makes unconventional plantings seem familiar. Arbors and well-placed containers also suggest a planned landscape.

Create pathways and edges

Impenetrable plantings exacerbate feelings of separation from the natural world. Garden walkways have the opposite effect, inviting interaction with the landscape. When my 7-year-old niece found a mowed path through our meadow, she fired up her wheelchair and took off to explore, finding a new favorite spot under a tree.

Lining beds with rocks or branches creates navigational cues and hiding places for small animals. “I’m a huge fan of using found objects within the property,” says Peters. “The land that we live on is really rocky. Whenever we’re gardening, we dig up huge boulders.” Peters arranges these unearthed treasures among plants.

Hang signs of the times

  • Signs like these let your neighbors know your landscaping is intentional. Photo by Meredith Lee/The HSUS.

Posted explanations of the importance of dead wood or the consequences of pesticides can help contextualize your efforts. Make your own signs or buy them from animal welfare and conservation organizations. My favorite in my own garden is The HSUS’s eye-catching Humane Backyard sign, which helps me spread the seeds of an idea—and the seeds of my wildlife-friendly plants—far beyond my own habitat.

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