Build Your Own Wildlife Sanctuary

A few easy steps can turn your backyard into a garden of earthly delights

The latest buzz in landscaping? It's bees, crickets, and dragonflies. More homeowners are choosing plants that attract insects, which in turn bring the birds, turtles, and salamanders that eat them. Creating your own wildlife habitat is better for the environment, easier to maintain, and more entertaining than many traditional planting schemes. "The first thing I do in the morning is go outside and look at the bugs on the leaves and the birds hopping around," says Leisa Royse, a respiratory therapist who has transformed her backyard in Lexington, Ky., into a nature sanctuary with a pond and wildflowers.

If you want to build your own ecosystem, start by disavowing pesticides. Sure, they get rid of pests such as aphids, but they also kill ladybugs, butterflies, toads, and birds. And although inorganic fertilizers promote lush-looking plants, they encourage rapid cell division, making the plants grow in an unnatural way. "They have thin cell walls and are watery," so they are less palatable to wildlife, says Howard Garrett, known as the Dirt Doctor, who writes a gardening column for The Dallas Morning News.

Native plants suited to your climate and soil are heartier and more appealing to the creatures in your area. But with all the exotic plants in nurseries and gardens, finding out what's native is no easy task.

A good resource is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center's online native-plant database (wildflower2.org). You can also find a list of state native-plant societies at the Michigan Botanical Club's Web site (michbotclub.org/links/native_plant_society.htm) as well as from Wild Ones (for-wild.org), a native-plants advocacy group.

LOTS OF LAYERS

What plants you choose depends on what you want to attract. If you want tiger swallowtail butterflies, plant a willow tree. If it's cedar waxwings you're after, choose an indigenous mulberry. You can also deter animals you don't want. "Deer tend not to like evergreens but really like rhododendron," says David Mizejewski, manager of the National Wildlife Federation's backyard wildlife program. Let nature be your inspiration when coming up with a design. "Think multiple layers: I have tall trees, understory trees, shrubs, and groundcover," says Janet Allen, a retired software engineer from Syracuse, N.Y.

Don't forget about water for the creatures to drink. To dig a pond, you need muscle, rocks to create a shoreline, and a plastic liner available at most garden centers. You can get a solar pump or stock your pond with filtering plants such as water hyacinth to keep it clean. Don't worry, the dragonflies and frogs the pond will attract will take care of mosquitoes. Drop in an organic mosquitocidal dunk if you're still wary. Or just get a birdbath you can dump out every two days to thwart the growth of larvae.

Supplemental feeders will attract even more wildlife. And the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has specifications at www.fws.gov/r5cbfo/school/birdhouse.pdf to help you build birdhouses. You can also create shelters using old flowerpots or scrap lumber that appeal to toads, bees, and bats. Pretty soon you'll have critter colonies that are a lot more fun to watch than a manicured lawn.

By Kate Murphy

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