Why a habitat garden?

ornamental garden ©Janet AllenOur early ornamental garden

From my teen years, I was an ornamental gardener. I wanted the most beautiful, most doubled, most brilliantly-colored flowers I could find. I scoured nursery catalogs for the latest and the greatest new creations.

Our home is on a corner lot, so our side yard borders the street. Quite a few people in our neighborhood walk for exercise, so I planted an increasingly large ornamental flower bed outside our fence for people to enjoy as they walked past.

We changed course

Derecho ©Janet AllenHuge limbs of the giant silver maple fell on all three of our cars.

Then on Labor Day 1998, Central New York was hit by a derecho (a straight-line windstorm and thunderstorm), and our neighborhood was one of its targets.

Huge trees were uprooted, some falling on houses. Power lines were down for days. Devastation everywhere. We had never seen the like.

The back yard  ©Janet Allen
The back yard

The back yard was littered with downed tree limbs, too.

This disaster, however, turned into an opportunity to significantly change our yard.

(But I don't want to minimize the storm; it was a tragedy for those who were injured or even killed.)

NWF's Backyard Wildlife Habitat sign ©Janet AllenNWF's Backyard Wildlife Habitat sign

Fortunately I had discovered the National Wildlife Federation's (NWF) Backyard Wildlife Habitat program (since renamed Certified Wildlife Habitat). I realized that we all might enjoy pretty flowers now, but would there be birds and butterflies for our future grandchildren? Would there be enough pollinators to produce their food?

Years ago when I was a child, no one ever worried about these things. They didn't need to. There were adequate, though already decreasing, natural areas for wildlife.

Today, with sprawling suburbs, bigger houses, larger lots covered with lawn, and more land used for agriculture, there just isn't enough land outside our yards to support wildlife and healthy ecosystems. We realized it's up to us and fellow citizens to transform our yards and other public and private spaces.

Suet for downy  ©Janet Allen
Providing suet for birds

NWF's program advises having food, water, cover, and a place to raise young, as well as using earth-friendly gardening practices. This easy-to-remember mantra gave me something to focus on, although I can't say I really knew what I was doing.

Still, I started adding these elements to my yard as best as I could figure out. Even with some (or many) mistakes, I still was making our yard more creature-friendly and earth-friendly—and, as it turned out, people-friendly, too!

We discovered native plants

Wild Ones sign ©Janet AllenWild Ones sign

A few years later, we discovered Wild Ones and learned about the importance of native plants and natural landscapes.

No wonder some of those plants I selected from catalogs as being wildlife-friendly weren't doing their job as advertised!

Some native plants such as salvia, for example, may theoretically be a good nectar plant, but the hybrid varieties offered were bred for what people (like my former ornamental-gardener self) wanted: large, brilliant red flowers.

Plant breeders give no thought to whether the plants still had nectar as the species had. And most non-native plants weren't wildlife-friendly to begin with.

We discovered monarchs

Monarch Waystation sign ©Janet AllenMonarch Waystation sign

As my yard started to have more birds and butterflies, I noticed a few monarch butterflies drinking nectar. But in my internet searches and in my readings, I learned that these beautiful butterflies are at risk, in large part due to a declining number of milkweeds.

I was thrilled to discovered Monarch Watch, which is working to conserve these butterflies with their Monarch Waystation program. I started growing more milkweeds for monarchs and eventually more host plants for all kinds of butterflies.

So why a habitat garden?

Grandson ©Janet AllenOur grandson

So that's something about our evolution as habitat gardeners. We're still learning, and still making mistakes, but also still adding habitat and becoming more earth-friendly.

But why are we doing this?

A habitat garden is obviously important for the creatures we're providing habitat for, but there's a greater purpose.

By taking care of our own little piece of the earth, we're working to leave a legacy of a living planet to our own grandchildren and to all future generations.