Gardeners share the joy of creating lush wildlife oases in their own backyards
Katharine vonRueden and Justin Clemens (above) transformed their arid Santa Fe yard into a living tapestry of vegetable patches and native plants that nurture wildlife—and themselves. Seeing a calliope hummingbird visit their purple hyssop (below) was “one of our most memorable moments,” says vonRueden, who thinks she and her husband wouldn’t have seen this tiniest U.S. native bird species if they hadn’t planted so much native hyssop, penstemon and other nectar plants. (Photo by Justin Clemens)
WILDLIFE GARDENERS ARE AKIN TO ARTISTS. They see a scruffy patch of ground, a barren lawn or a balcony pot as a blank canvas—and they have the vision and passion to transform it into something beautiful.
That’s certainly true of the people profiled here. All have gardens that the National Wildlife Federation designated as Certified Wildlife Habitats® for providing food, water, shelter and places for wildlife to raise their young. And all have worked hard over time to transform weedy, arid or unnaturally manicured lawns into natural spaces alive with the whir of wings, the melody of birdsong, the fragrance of flowers and the peace of nature’s promise. Such peace can be found anywhere one can plant a seed and give it water and light, from city stoops to suburban schoolyards to rural roadsides. Perhaps these stories will inspire your own urge to plant a seed and watch it grow.
When Katharine vonRueden and Justin Clemens decided to leave their small Denver apartment and relocate to Santa Fe, they sought a space that could feed their love of healthy, sustainable living, gardening and wildlife. At first glance, the tiny adobe home they found in 2017 looked anything but promising. “The soil was rocky and sandy,” says Clemens, “and there really wasn’t anything green.” But they loved the high desert location—7,500 feet in elevation in the Sangre de Cristo foothills—and they saw huge potential in the 2-acre lot, which included an abandoned fruit tree orchard and a mature stand of piñon and juniper trees. So they took the plunge into a new life.
As an arborist, Clemens had access to abundant wood chips, which the couple spread across much of the land surrounding the house to enrich the soil. They built raised vegetable gardens and a small greenhouse where they could cultivate seeds, and eventually installed a drip irrigation system to strategically target watering as needed.
At the front of the house, they put in a pollinator garden with native penstemon, Russian sage, hyssop, larkspur, autumn sage and other blooms that lure hummingbirds and clouds of pollinators. They installed a little “Zen fountain” using gray water from their house. And they seeded a wildflower meadow with desert coneflower, blue flax, rabbitbrush and other natives that help pollinators thrive. Many of those butterflies and bees, in turn, help pollinate patches of lettuce, beans, squash, corn, tomatoes and other vegetables and herbs, enabling Clemens and vonRueden to live almost entirely off the food they grow.
Beyond access to healthy food, the garden and grounds help feed the couple’s other passions: birding and photography. They have counted 65 different bird species visiting their property—including evening grosbeaks, lesser goldfinches, western bluebirds and four species of hummingbirds—all subjects for their photography.
When friends and family visit, Clemens and vonRueden love sharing their expertise about birding, pruning, composting, soil enhancement and using native plants to benefit wildlife. “It’s all good for our mental health,” says vonRueden. “We have a sense of self-sufficiency and feel connected to the natural world.”
For those who don’t have the luxury of their own land, vonRueden suggests growing herbs and vegetables in pots on a balcony (as she once did in Denver), joining a community garden or volunteering to help local farmers on their land. “As long as you have some natural light, you can grow in your kitchen,” she says. “People can start wherever they are.”
Steve Sykes and Pedro Carrasquillo understand the truth of the old saying about native gardens: “The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, the third year they leap.” After eight years of tending to the 5,600-square-foot lot of their home in New Seabury on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the couple now has a garden leaping with life. “We see tons of birds,” says Carrasquillo. “Mourning doves, finches, hummingbirds galore—also monarch butterflies, bees, caterpillars, salamanders. It’s kinda wild.” But it wasn’t always so.
When they bought the house in 2014, its overgrown yard of turf grass and regimented bushes drew a collective “ugh.” So the couple got to work digging out the yard and installing native bearberry, inkberry, milkweed, trillium, sassafras, hydrangeas, lobelia, scrub oak and other plants that support birds, bees, butterflies and other pollinators. They also installed some nonnative nectar and pollen plants such as butterfly bush and Shasta daisies. Instead of using traditional mulch, they place leaf mulch on garden paths, which helps enrich the sandy soil. To help support both local and migratory species, they installed bird feeders, a tiny pond, a bee house and even a “butterfly bath”—a shallow pan of moistened sand and rocks sprinkled with bits of rotting fruit.
While some of their neighbors have bushes pruned into “meatballs,” Sykes says their yard is “a fantasy woodland. It’s wild and woolly, and everyone loves it.” It’s also a place of serenity. “For me, gardening has always been a restful, peaceful thing,” he says. In the early mornings, Carrasquillo likes to sit in the garden sipping tea and meditating. “I love it,” he says, “listening to the chirping and the world waking up.”
Having a Certified Wildlife Habitat has also been important for the couple, both of whom are now retired. Creating a space that nurtures nature “has shown me that life is simpler—and you’re more in tune with everything—because you’ve let the natural world be itself,” says Carrasquillo. “The old idea that you have to tame nature is wrong. “I think it’s important for people to realize you can work with nature—and the natural world will work with you.”
In spring and summer, when mail carriers walk the path to Teri Speight’s front door, they pass a profusion of black-eyed Susans, purple phlox, sedum, bluestar, hydrangeas and a mix of other native and nonnative blooms alive with busy pollinators. Sometimes Speight leaves a small bouquet in her mailbox, happy to share the gift of her garden.
It wasn’t always such a paradise. When she bought her Maryland home in 2004, the yard was a weedy mess, but she immediately saw the potential of the one-third acre lot. “I knew if I could create a garden, I could create my own place of peace, happiness and joy,” she says.
That creation has taken years of loving labor. After digging out existing weeds and lawn, Speight—who is trained as a master gardener—designed contours for paths and garden beds and planted a lush mix of her favorite native and nonnative plants, including drought-tolerant grasses and an “allée of camellias,” a beloved bloom of the South.
Every morning before work, Speight and her dog, Precious, walk together for an hour, exploring the garden’s life as it shifts through the seasons. “It changes every couple of years,” she says. “But that’s what a garden is supposed to do: evolve.” Her vision for it evolves, too. She’s planning to install a cutting garden and a memorial garden in honor of her late parents and her father’s love of gardening, which became a bond between them. “After years of telling me not to get dirty,” she says, “we became gardening BFFs.”
Just as her garden feeds her soul, it nourishes birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife. Concerned about the decline of monarchs, fireflies and other insects, Speight never uses chemicals, makes sure to leave dried seed heads for birds in winter and plants an abundance of verbena, bee balm, catmint and other plants that lure clouds of butterflies and bees, which she says hum “like a symphony” in her yard.
Speight is committed to sharing her passion. “My prayer is that people will ask what it means that I have a Certified Wildlife Habitat,” she says, “and I’ll just say, ‘Come and stand here for a minute, feel what it’s like to be with nature.’” She calls her house the “Cottage in the Court,” which is also the name of her gardening blog and podcast. Co-author of a book on urban gardening, Speight recently published a second book, Black Flora, about African Americans involved in flower growing and design. “If I do my part and share what I know with others, they’ll begin to do their part,” she says.
Lisa Moore is editorial director.
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