Gardening on the Wild Side

Coleus, Firespike, Giant Salvia

A branch of the American Beautyberry trembled as a startled mockingbird flew to the fence. He paused on a post to stare at me indignantly. I had invaded his territory, which happened to be my backyard. Apparently my efforts to create a wildlife habitat were succeeding.

It’s not as difficult as you might think to create a wildlife habitat in the middle of an urban area. According to the National Wildlife Federation, there are five criteria to meet: food, water, cover, places to raise young, and using sustainable practices. You can read more about these criteria here.

Bee on Giant Salvia

I’ve kept a butterfly garden in the back yard since 2005, so I already had a start on the project. Milkweed, parsley, and dill provide food for larval monarchs and swallowtails. Adults flock to pentas, zinnias, cosmos, lantana, and other flowering plants. Giant blue salvia, alyssum, and Mexican heather attract bees to the pollinator garden. I allow my coleus plants to go to seed; honeybees love the pale lavender, spiked flowers. Hummingbirds are drawn to the bright red flowers of Fire Spike plant along the fence.

Birdfeeder With Pentas

I added two bird feeders to attract songbirds (and, serendipitously, the squirrels) and two hummingbird feeders. Seven existing Savannah hollies, one existing cherry laurel, and the newly added native, American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) provide nourishment for the birds. More about birds and the Beautyberry later.

The front garden had been a more traditional New Orleans planting of azaleas and camellias. Infrastructure repairs to the street and sidewalk in the front, azaleas that were past their prime, and overgrown camellias gave me the incentive to rethink the direction of the front garden. Although my husband and I wanted it to be more structured than the back garden, it was still possible to make it wildlife friendly.

We removed the azaleas and camellias, giving them to a friend to repurpose on her land across the lake, and reworked the front beds. To the remaining shrubs and ferns, we added native yarrow (Achillea millefolium), pentas, swamp milkweed (native), native Louisiana irises, native zig-zag iris (Iris brevicaulis), and native soft caress Mahonia (Mahonia eurybracteata.) These plants will attract and provide food for butterflies, birds, and bees. For good measure, we added a hummingbird feeder.

Water was already available in the back yard. An upright fountain in the center garden provides a place for birds to splash and drink. A small corner fountain built into a brick wall has been a breeding place for toads, and the Green tree frog and house sparrows enjoy a low fountain set in the patio garden. In the front garden we added a bird bath to catch rain water overflow from the porch roof and provide refreshment for the birds.

Birdbath, Swamp Milkweed, Pentas

Cover was an existing element in the back garden. In addition to the trees mentioned above, a mature native Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) shades the back quarter of the yard. Along the rear and side fence lines, a thicket consisting of loropetalum bushes, azaleas, camellia japonica, ferns, assorted ground covers, and vines provides shelter for birds, lizards, toads, frogs, and salamanders. I’ve spotted the Green tree frog, which is the Louisiana state amphibian, ‘possums, and the occasional racoon.

Cover is not as dense in the front yard, but we are blessed with a splendid native live oak (Quercus virginiana), which is more than a century old, and two young, but full, Japanese maples. We also added a native fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus). The new yarrow plants will spread to provide ground cover in the front.

The obvious places to raise young, particularly for birds and small mammals, are the magnolia tree and the live oak. Toads have mated and released their spawn in the small, corner fountain, and I have found lizard eggs beneath decaying vegetation under the magnolia.

I want to increase my use of sustainable practices, even though I now meet the criteria for certification. I do not use herbicides. The only pesticide I use, and I use it sparingly, is ultrafine oil spray for infestations of scale and other pests that I cannot eliminate by removing manually. I use crushed eggshells to deter snails and slugs. I use fertilizer lightly, mainly to encourage flower growth. I mulch to reduce water usage in the garden, and I want to add a rain barrel to catch and use rainwater. We used salvaged granite curbing from a scrap yard for stepping stones.

Now, about the birds and the American beautyberry. I have learned that birds like to eat the bright purple berries on the plant. They consume the fruit after it is fully ripe and has begun to ferment. If they eat enough, they can become a bit tipsy. So when my husband and I sit in the back garden in the evening to drink a glass of wine and enjoy our resident wildlife, the birds will not be alone in their consumption of fermented fruit.

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