Plant It and They Will Come: How One Couple Created Sanctuary for Wildlife in Their Half-Acre Suburban Yard

Ten years ago, Liz Stanley’s and her partner Lynn Gallagher’s suburban yard was a weedy, turf-grass expanse, complete with invasive buckthorn. With no backgrounds in gardening—and through trial and error—they have slowly transformed their half-acre yard in Bloomington, Minnesota (a suburb of the Twin Cities), into a lush native habitat for pollinators, birds, and other wildlife. In this interview, Liz, who instigated and orchestrated most of the yard’s transformation, recounts the ten-year journey of how she converted the yard from an environment mostly devoid of wildlife to today’s bustling habitat.

Why did you start to think differently about your yard? Was there a particular inspiration or a “lightbulb” moment? A book you read, or a speaker you heard?

The regionally native eye-spotted lady beetle was an unexpected garden visitor.

My initial idea was to make a better habitat for birds. I’m an avid bird watcher. I already had several bird feeders and nest boxes around the property and some vague thoughts about planting native flowers, grasses, trees, and shrubs to attract more birds. I remember reading the book Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy and being surprised that gardening to attract birds was all about attracting the insects that birds eat. I didn’t completely understand the connection between gardening and wildlife at the time. So I plodded along on my own, not really knowing what I was doing. Then I connected with the non-profit organization Wild Ones and went on some garden tours that featured yards planted predominantly with native vegetation. That really opened up to me the world of gardening with plants that are indigenous to this region.

A female bluebird near the front yard nest box. Once Liz learned that 96 percent of land birds feed only insects to their young, and that native plants are the key to attracting beneficial insects, she began to plant the types of vegetation that would attract both.

What have been some of the joys of creating habitat in your yard?
The real joy for me has been seeing the influx of wildlife when I have provided even just a little bit of the right kind of habitat. I also enjoy sharing my learning and my yard with others. I’ve hosted several garden tours, putting the word out on social media for anyone who is interested in dropping by. I’m always impressed by the number of people who show up. I hope that I’ve inspired people to make the kinds of changes in their own yards that are the most beneficial to wildlife.

What “failures” did you experience?
Probably the biggest mistake I made was not spending more time and care eliminating invasive species before planting. I was in a rush to get things started. I suggest to people to focus on removing invasive species first. People are surprised that many traditional landscape plants, such as winged burning bush, amur maple, crown vetch, and oxeye daisy are very invasive and destructive to natural areas. Also, at the very beginning I wasn’t thinking of this as a “before and after process,” so I wish I had gotten more photos of some of the areas before I did anything. It’s rewarding to go back and look at the before images and see how things have evolved over time. 

An American lady caterpillar in the yard, munching on one of its host plants, pussytoes (Antennaria species).

Do you have any other advice?
One thing I did at the start was to check my city code to see what is allowed. If you live in a city or a suburban area, there are probably regulations regarding vegetation height and other restrictions. Some native plants, like prairie dock, can grow to be very tall. I think it’s helpful to have yard signs and plant labels to communicate the purpose of your garden to the community. A native garden can have a traditional or manicured look. But if you are hoping to recreate a native meadow or a prairie garden, which can have a more unstructured, “free form” look, it helps to communicate the purpose of the garden and its importance to wildlife.

How did you go about converting your yard into eco-friendly habitat?
I had absolutely no idea how to start, so the first thing I did was contact a landscaper to develop a plan for removing all of the invasives and design a native garden for the entire yard. When I saw the estimated cost of that, it was quite a shock. So I decided to tackle the back yard myself, loosely following that design. I ordered some plants online, went out, and started digging. It was somewhat overwhelming and discouraging at first. But I stuck with it, and over time I

In 2016, the same bird houses in the same location offer shelter to birds.
View of the back yard in 2006 showing expanse of weedy grass and invasive mulberry. Note the location of the bird houses.

started seeing positive change. Our back yard has quite a bit of privacy, so I felt free to experiment. I was hesitant about doing work myself in the front yard, so I decided to hire a landscaper to do an informal design, remove ugly shrubs, and install a few garden beds. I’m aware of my front yard being the first impression many people may have of a native plant wildlife garden, so having this professional design was helpful. I didn’t want to experiment through trial and error in the front. I had never thought of the front yard as being a great place for wildlife habitat, but it has turned out to be very popular with pollinators and birds, and it provides visibility for the neighborhood to experience and appreciate a wildlife garden.

So, has planting native vegetation actually attracted more wildlife to your yard?

A migrating yellow-rumped warbler taking a bath in “Overlook Falls,” a rambling, flowing water feature installed in the back yard for birds and other wildlife. Birds need water for more than drinking. Birds bathe to keep cool, clean feathers, and remove parasites. A clean-water source is an often-overlooked “must have” for wildlife in urban and suburban yards.

Absolutely! We’ve had over 90 species of birds that I’ve identified in the yard. Many of them are feeder birds, but we’ve also had birds attracted to the fruit-bearing shrubs that I planted. During migration we’ve seen several species using the water feature. It’s fun to watch for new bird visitors, like the bay breasted warbler I saw taking a bath during this past spring migration, or the Carolina wren (unusual this far north) singing his heart out in our bur oak. And of course, it’s always a treat to host nesting bluebirds in the yard. I’ve seen a number of different species of bees, beetles, butterflies, and wasps, and even some native ladybugs. My big thrill this past summer was finding the rusty patched bumble bee, which is listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, on red bee balm (Monarda didyma) in the yard.

Liz in the garden, pointing to the prolific cup plant, which can tower to ten feet.

After clearing out all of the invasive buckthorn, I noticed some native false Solomon’s seal growing under our pine trees. A pagoda dogwood seems to have popped up out of nowhere near the patio. Last year an unfamiliar flower bloomed, and I learned it was Indian pink, which does not normally range this far north but is a hummingbird favorite further south.

What’s next for your 1/2 acre?
The garden is a work in progress. Ongoing projects include removing invasives, keeping aggressive natives in check (I’m looking at you, cup plant), finding opportunities to remove lawn and expand the garden, and just generally maintaining paths, feeders, nest boxes, etc. Over the last few years I’ve been looking for things beyond the garden that can be more sustainable. We just installed solar panels. We’ve reduced our weekly trash output to about half of the smallest container offered, and substantially increased our recycling and composting. Our asphalt driveway needs repair, and I’m currently investigating replacing it with a permeable material to help absorb stormwater runoff.

How do you suggest someone get started naturescaping with native vegetation?
We are fortunate to have a very active local native plant gardening community in the Twin Cities. And some area nurseries specialize in native plants. I suggest connecting with Wild Ones, which offers educational programs and garden tours in which

Signage in the yard helps interpret the utility behind the beauty.

you can get ideas, ask questions, and be inspired. Many local organizations need volunteers to help with invasive species removal. That’s a great way to help the community and learn how to identify these species. As far as how people can get started in their own yards, I suggest first determining what your goals are, what type of habitat exists where you live, and how your garden will fit into that context. For example, my initial goal was to attract birds, so I planted many fruit-bearing shrubs. I also have bird feeders and nest boxes throughout the yard, and later I added a water feature because birds are attracted to the sound of moving water. As the garden grew and evolved, I learned more about the types of wildlife that would be attracted to these plants beyond what I had originally expected.

Any closing thoughts?
I think it’s important to understand that when we invite wildlife into our yards, it’s our responsibility to be good hosts and provide a safe and pesticide-free environment. That means continuing to maintain the native plants and being vigilant for invasives that are always trying to reestablish themselves. Feeders and water sources need to be kept clean and stocked, otherwise there is no point in having them. Nest boxes should be appropriate for their intended species (not decorative) and mounted so that they are protected from the elements and predators. Cats must be kept

The couple does not allow their cat, Sasha, to prowl in the yard. From her enclosure, Sasha is safely entertained watching birds forage, bathe, and enjoy the yard. According to the Audubon Society, cats kill 1.3 to 4 billion birds each year.

indoors, where both they and the wildlife are safer. And our home windows should not be bird killers. Any unscreened glass can easily be protected with hanging paracord, decals, netting, or perforated film. Make sure to take plenty of photos during the whole process.

A cedar waxwing eating serviceberries in the front yard garden.

Change may seem to come very slowly, but over the years it’s very rewarding to look back and see how your landscape evolves. Get out and observe what’s going on in the garden. Something interesting is usually happening!

Other Tips for Native Habitat Naturescaping
• Start with a small garden plot and make it larger with time if you are new to gardening with native plants.
• Experiment with a wide range of native plants to see how they grow (and behave!) in your garden.
• Learn and gather ideas by taking native plant garden tours led and hosted by knowledgeable organizations, such as Wild Ones.
• Gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between gardening with native plants and wildlife; read books such as Bringing Nature Home, by Doug Tallamy; The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden, by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy; or Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change, by Larry Weaner.
• Visit the websites of regional native plant retailers for a wide array of information on native plants, grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees.
• Use the “plant navigators” offered by the online native plant vendors such as Prairie Moon Nursery and Prairie Nursery. Prairie Nursery offers a particularly useful “native plant finder”tool. Prairie Moon Nursery and Prairie Nursery also offer a nice range of predesigned gardens with suggested design layouts.
Minnesota Wildflowers’ website offers a rich array of information on Minnesota native vegetation as well as information on bloom times, flowers by color, invasive species, and much more.
• Read this excellent article by Doug Tallamy that explains why native plant gardens attract far more wildlife than traditional landscapes planted with ornamental and non-native vegetation.

All photos courtesy of Liz Stanley

 

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