This week our small town of Collingswood started an exciting new initiative: to become a National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Community Habitat. When we saw an article about it, we were elated. The NWF’s Garden for Wildlife initiative helps and encourages individuals, schools, communities, businesses and governments to make a real impact by creating gardens that help wildlife not just survive but thrive.
Community-wide involvement in habitat restoration is something we talk a lot about and nothing’s better than learning there are more like-minded people around you than you realized. Local landscape designer Stephen Coan of Ferrett Hollow Gardens initiated the discussion, explaining that the main qualifications are to have at least 100 backyards in the town certified, along with two schools and three common areas. Excellent.
When I attended the Collingswood Green Team’s monthly meeting last night, Coan was there to explain the effort to the team and the support was unanimous. One of our commissioners is already a strong proponent of environmental sustainability, and totally on board. That’s a big deal, and makes it feel like this isn’t just a cool vision; it will happen.
That said, accomplishing this goal of turning our small, historic suburban town into a certified wildlife habitat will require more than support from a group of passionate people like our commissioner, green team and experts like Coan working toward it; we need at least 97 other people to get on board.
Data shows that the majority of people are in favor of protecting wildlife and making changes that will have a positive impact on our environment, and our town is already deserving of its sort of “crunchy” reputation. People care here. People are involved. They come together to make great things happen. The challenge is to connect the disconnect between an interest in this kind of change, and the knowledge and resolve to get it done.
I thought it might help to share exactly how we went from a basic yard of grass and invasive plants to becoming a Certified Backyard Habitat. It’s important to note, here, that we aren’t perfect. We have a long way to go, and our work over the past year is just a start.
Let’s start with the requirements. All you have to do is provide food, at least two forms of shelter, water for drinking and/or bathing, and places to raise young. You need to practice sustainable gardening (think: composting and rain barrels) and then fill out a form online and make a small donation to get your certification.
Some of the things you do will overlap, like if you add native plants species, you’re providing both food and shelter. Anyway, here’s exactly what we did:
We added a squirrel-resistant bird feeder, a super cheap goldfinch seed bag and suet as our easy food sources. Then we focused on getting rid of lawn and non-beneficial and invasive plant species and replaced them with native plants. We focused on multiple layers that come together to form a solid habitat: groundcover, shrubs, understory, and canopy.
Thankfully, we already have a dogwood, two pin oaks and a black walnut. The dogwood is toward the end of its life, but we’ll keep it for the benefits it will continue to provide to the birds and bugs. We replaced part of our lawn with a meadow that provides food for many different species of moths, butterflies, and other insects.? And we’ve gradually been replacing exotic plants (and a heck of a lot of weeds) in the previous owner’s flower beds with native perennials.
As part of this process, you want to make sure that the birds and other animals you’re attracting can hide from predators. This can be done with evergreens, shrubs, rock piles and more. This is an area we’d like to do more with, but to achieve a certification-level habitat, we planted rhododendrons and are keeping our yard ugly throughout the winter. That means? we didn’t mow the meadow or cut back any of our plants; they are there as hiding spots.
We also have a hedge placed close to the busy bird feeder that hangs on our dogwood that we’re transitioning to Virginia creeper and coral honeysuckle. One minute spent watching the birds fly back and froth from this hedge to the feeder proves how valuable ti s as shelter from harm.
Provide a Water Source:
This one’s simple: a bird bath with a heater so that the water is there for birds to sip from and bathe in throughout even the coldest days of winter. I’ve seen some really cool stuff done when it comes to water features, like DIY fountain features and dragonfly habitats created from old cast iron tubs, but the bird bath got us to our certification.
Provide Places to Raise Young:
Again, native plants are key here. Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home is sort of the bible for the native plant community, because of how effectively he explains the urgent need to restore habitats that support the ecosystem. For now, just understand that bugs are picky little creatures who can only feed and recreate on specific species of plants. If we get rid of those plants, we get rid of the bugs. If we get rid of the bugs, we’re getting rid of the birds that need them to survive, and so on.
The easiest way to accomplish this item is to get a couple of bird houses. We have four bird houses and a bat house, and the houses are made to support the families of different kinds of birds. For example, we have one that Tim made with an opening that is best for wrens and chickadees.
Practice Sustainable Gardening:
Collingswood offers very cheap compost bins and rain barrels, along with directions on how to set them up. If you happen to live in this lovely town, you can get them through the borough at the green festival in April. If not, order them online. Here are a couple of options: Yimby Tumbler Composter and Good Ideas Rain Wizard Rain Barrel.
The other key here is to stop using fertilizers, pesticides and any other harmful chemicals. Oh, and here’s the other great thing about gardening with native plants: they require pretty much no maintenance after the first year as long as you choose plants well suited to your soil and other growing conditions.
Get the Certification:
Everything I detailed above is just how we went about turning our yard into a certified backyard habitat; it’s by no means the only way or even the best way. Tim and I are constantly planning improvements to our situation, and look forward to doing more and more every season to create a true haven for wildlife. Folks like Coan are a few years ahead of us and doing really cool things, like focusing on attracting and supporting specific native bee species.
Once you ensure you have all of the components in place, you just have to go to the National Wildlife Federation’s website and fill out a very simple form that includes a small donation. It takes 5 minutes tops. There are different signage options, but we paid just $30 for official certification and classic sign.
Please, please share stories of your own journeys toward creating a backyard habitat with us either in the comments here or on Facebook. In the meantime, we’ll get some more photos together to show you what our yard looks like.