Habitat express

Planting  ©Janet Allen
We're no strangers to digging

We've put a lot of thought and a lot of work into our yard. But even though others may want to create habitat, they might not have the time or energy to invest—or just might not share our gardening passion.

Here are our thoughts about how you—with a minimum of time and effort— can start creating a healthy, more interesting habitat for people as well as wildlife.

It's not as much work as it looks

relaxing ©Janet AllenWhile others are spending hours mowing, we're enjoying a bit of nature

"It must be a lot of work."

This is the first thing people say when they see our yard. Isn't it funny that they never say that about maintaining a lawn or those perfectly clipped hedges?

If you think gardening is too much work, it might be because you're used to thinking of gardening as a series of chores: raking up every dead leaf in the spring, fertilizing, choosing and applying pesticides so each plant is free of imperfections, keeping everything "neat," ensuring constant bloom, watering frequently, pruning hedges into rigid shapes, and cutting down and disposing of dead plants in the fall.

Gardening becomes just one more thing on an already overbooked To Do list.

Enjoying the front mini-lawn  ©Janet Allen
Enjoying the front mini-lawn

It doesn't have to be this way. We do few of these things: raking leaves off only the mini-lawn area, no fertilizing or pesticides, allowing a little untidiness (though keeping the borders trimmed), letting each plant have its own season of bloom, allowing shrubs to be their natural shapes, and leaving spent plants for the insects and birds over the winter.

Although eliminating most all of our lawn in one season and converting to planting beds was a bit of work, the overall maintenance isn't. (And in hindsight, we'd recommend creating a habitat garden in stages anyway.)

We're not slaves to our yard and if a plant can't survive pretty much on its own, it just dies out.

The simplest thing with the most impact

Bayberry hedge ©Janet AllenBayberry (not barberry) hedge in our front yard

Planting single large trees or groups of smaller trees and shrubs underplanted with groundcover, smaller shrubs, perennials, or even just leaf mulch is very habitat-friendly and doesn't require much care. These plantings decrease your yard maintenance since they take up space that otherwise would be high-maintenance lawn. And especially here in the Northeast, a woodland-like landscape is the most beneficial for wildlife and the environment. And of course, make them NATIVE!

Here are some "biodiversity all-star" trees selected from lists published by Douglas Tallamy and William Cullina, listed roughly in the order of their benefits (the oak being the most beneficial). (See the sidebar to get the whole list.)

  • Oaks (Quercus spp.)
  • Cherries (Prunus serotina, P. caroliniana, P. virginiana)
  • Plums (Prunus americana)
  • Willows, such as pussy willow (Salix discolor) (but not non-native weeping willow)
  • Crabapples (Malus spp.)
  • Hawthorns (Crateagus spp.)
  • Serviceberries (Amelanchier canadensis, A. arborea, A. laevis)
  • Birches such as river birch (Betula nigra), sweet birch (B. lenta)
  • Poplars e.g. Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) or cottonwood (P. deltoids)
  • Sugar maple (Acer saccharum)
  • Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
  • Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)
  • Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus)
  • Black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)
Black cherry ©Janet AllenOur black cherry tree is popular with birds, such as this baby robin

Since trees live a long time—even hundreds of years—they'll have a long-lasting impact on the environment and on future generations.

Choose native

Your choice of tree species has more impact than most of your other gardening and landscaping decisions. Just think of it. All of our great-great-great grandchildren could still be enjoying the benefits of the native trees you're planting now.

First, do no harm

Pesticide-free  ©Janet Allen
We feel good knowing that our yard will harm no one

Even if you aren't ready to create a certifiable wildlife habitat that provides all the habitat basics, remember: "First, do no harm."

You can make your yard a better place for wildlife and people by just doing three simple things:

  • Even people with little interest in gardening choose new plants sometimes. When you do, choose choose native plants, especially trees and shrubs (and these are easier to care for than flower gardens anyway). Native plants support biodiversity.
  • Do NOT choose non-native invasive plants and remove any that are already in your yard. Invasive plants—most of which are still commonly sold in garden centers—spread to our natural areas, changing their character and displacing the native plants with which our native creatures evolved. It's a huge, multi-billion dollar a year problem—bad for wildlife and bad for people. (See the handout at the right for a list of common invasives.)
  • Reduce, or preferably eliminate, your use of pesticides, herbicides, and all the other "cide"s. (Remember "-cide" is a Latin suffix meaning "kill.") Accept some less-than-perfect flowers, leaves, and lawn. Is perfection worth risking our health, killing the pollinators that help provide our food, and poisoning our planet? This is especially important for households with kids or pets, or for households next to people with kids or pets, or for households who invite people with kids or pets to their house, or … In other words, for everyone who cares about having a healthy planet now and for future generations.

Going a little farther

No-maintenance prairie dropseed  ©Janet Allen
Even a patch of native grass such as this prairie dropseed replaces what would otherwise be lawn and requires no maintenance

You'll accomplish a lot, as noted above, by choosing native plants, eliminating non-native invasive plants, and not using pesticides.

The next two actions may take a little more effort, but they can make your yard even more habitat-friendly and create a healthier planet.

If you take these actions, you've started to create a full-fledged habitat garden.

  • Cut your lawn—in half!, as the National Wildlife Federation says. Lawn has almost no habitat value. It's only modestly better than blacktop. It offers no food, shelter, or places to raise young—and it requires water that could better be used for something else. Besides, people in their quest for the perfect lawn often apply harmful pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers. What's more, power lawnmowers are even more polluting than cars. You can replace part of the lawn with trees, bushes, other plants, or even just ground cover. Even groundcover is better than lawn. Besides, it's much more interesting to look at, and some have beautiful flowers as a bonus. Use natural lawn care methods to care for the lawn you have left.
  • "Controlled wildness": Wherever possible, instead of "neat and tidy," go for "controlled wildness" which has much more habitat value. A neat border around the edges goes a long way toward making your yard attractive. And if neighborhood sensibilities aren't an issue, just go for wild.