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'Ungardening' Yard Brings Animals Back : ENVIRONMENT

July 30, 1994|SUSAN McGRATH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Twenty-odd years ago, science writer Sara Stein and her husband bought some land in New York. It was "the sort of land that real estate agents, embarrassed by its unkempt appearance, describe as 'having potential.' "

Over the next 10 years, the couple "cleared brush and pulled vines and hauled rocks and broke ground and dug beds until . . . we had an expanse of landscaped grounds and gardens that seemed to us like Eden."

And then, in a sort of epiphany, Stein realized what all their hard work had accomplished: "We had banished the animals from this paradise of ours."

Systematically, if unintentionally, Stein had made her garden a place uninhabitable by most of the animals living there when she arrived. Grouse departed when she mowed their cover. Fox and woodchuck lairs were "preempted for rock garden and day-lily border." The toad that lived in the loose stone of the doorstep went when cement brick replaced the step. And so on.

Horrified by what she had contrived, Stein spent the subsequent 10 years "ungardening" her land, restoring it to the productive habitat it was when she found it.

She documents her work in a fascinating book called "Noah's Garden: Restoring the Ecology of America's Backyards" (Houghton Mifflin, 1993. $21.45).

Stein is one of a growing number of Americans looking around at the suburban landscape--at its acres of manicured lawn and traditional perennial border--and finding it sterile and unwelcoming. In its place, these new gardeners are transforming their lots into enchanting sanctuaries for birds, amphibians, insects and small mammals.

As Stein makes so clear in her book, these back-yard wildlife sanctuaries are more than just a nice idea or a trendy new way of gardening. They are providing vital habitat for many native species feeling the squeeze.

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The word habitat is used by biologists as the wildlife equivalent of neighborhood. It is an area that affords animals food, water, shelter and space to live. Believe it or not, it is possible to provide all of these elements for a variety of species in all but the smallest of yards. (And even then you can always rope in a neighbor or two.)

In a garden, you can provide food by growing plants that produce seeds, berries, nuts and flower nectar and attract insects. You can provide water year-round by installing a birdbath, sprinkler, drip faucet, pond, puddle or stream.

You can provide shelter in the form of trees of varying sizes, both evergreen and deciduous, shrubs, rock walls or piles, hollow logs, snags (these are standing dead trees), thickets and leaf litter.

You can provide these things without turning your yard into a useless-for-humans jungle. In fact, some of the features that make a garden a good wildlife habitat--diversity, edge effect, layering and native plantings--are the very same features that can make a garden beautiful.

Diversity means having a wide variety of plants, the different foliage, flowers, berries, nuts and seeds of which offer some food to wildlife--and delight to your eye--throughout the year.

Layering refers to the height of plants. You want to have variety here too, since different species live at different heights--canopy, understory, shrub layer and ground. Look at a beautiful garden: A variety of layers, artfully arranged, is a pleasing feature.

Edges occur where one habitat type, say trees and shrubs, meets another, such as meadow or lawn. Many species thrive in edge habitat. This can be lovely in a garden too, and achievable even in a small space, by weaving a bed through a lawn, for example.

Native plants, adapted to your soil and climate, make the best habitat for wildlife. They are also the least fussy, generally speaking, and won't require a lot of care. Of course, not all plants in your garden must be native. Many expatriates, wisely chosen and carefully placed, can do just as well.

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Landscaping experts recommend that you approach landscaping for wildlife in these four steps:

1. Outline your needs--patio, sandbox, play lawn, etc.

2. Inventory your existing conditions, including mapping your property, showing built and paved space and vegetation.

3. Evaluate your conditions in light of their current and potential effectiveness as habitat for wildlife.

4. Design a plan.

This can be fun to do, especially the mapping part. However, if it strikes you as too organized an approach to gardening, tackle landscaping for wildlife in your own way.

Lie on the lawn and think like a bird. Buy a book. Hire an expert.

Or just keep wildlife in mind as you go about your gardening. That can make a significant difference in how habitable your garden becomes.

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