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We humans change the world daily. Why not make it better?

“Landscaping for Wildlife” was the title of a brochure I researched and wrote a good 25 years ago while working as a non-game biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) in Fairbanks, Alaska.  I think my interest in the subject of creating habitat for birds and other wildlife in one’s yard largely traced back to my reading of “A Sand County Almanac,” a wonderful book by the “father of conservation,” Aldo Leopold.

“Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how. To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a good shovel.” Leopold wrote.

“Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how. To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a good shovel.”  Aldo Leopold

I got my first chance for this “act of creation” while I was researching to write that brochure for ADF&G.  My husband and I had purchased our own parcel of land northwest of Fairbanks on which we were building a house.  House-building unfortunately results in a lot of land disturbance. The land we had disturbed for our house was a mucky, sticky mess of barren, heavy clay soil that I despaired of ever being able to mend in any way.  We jokingly referred to the worst patches of it as “Jabba-the-Hutt” as its heavy jello-like consistency when wet reminded us of that horrid Star Wars character.

We wanted to revegetate the land in a way that would bring a greater variety of birds and other wildlife close.  So, putting aside my pessimism, we put into action the recommendations I was compiling for that brochure.

Our greatest success in the direction of living surrounded by nature was certainly that of maintaining most of our 4 acre property just as we found it—a mature stand of mixed aspen and white spruce.  “Jabba” took a lot more work to revegetate.  We slowly learned that with some added sand and topsoil and a lot of hard work with shovels and muddy hands, we could convince plants to grow even in “Jabba.”

Over 20 some years, we successfully transplanted in willows, mountain ash, wild rose, alder, soapberry, chokecherries, and a host of wildflowers. For our efforts, we were amply rewarded by juncos, chickadees, pine grosbeaks, thrushes, and other birds perching to sing, foraging berries and insects, and even nesting in the branches of the transplanted shrubs and trees. Red squirrels and northern flying squirrels made regular visits to our yard along with snowshoe hares and moose.

We learned many lessons from that project and those years.  The transplants that worked. And those that didn’t.  The need to pay attention to not only the soil, but the microhabitats of moisture and sunlight, and the interactions among the plants we brought in and those that found their own way back.  We learned that with hard work, a bit of nurturing, and time, we humans could join ourselves with nature and turn a piece of disturbed, barren ground back into a usable area for birds and other wildlife.

When we moved south to Colorado, we had every intention of repeating theprocess on our property here.  The specifics of what we learned working with the Jabba soil and in cold, wet Alaska weren’t much applicable to the rocky, dry, disturbed ground of our new property.   Rocks and rock-hard soil, along with deep rooted plants made transplanting plants from elsewhere on our property nearly impossible. And transplanting wild plants from nearby lands, even those slated for development, is either not allowed or difficult to arrange.

Ground zero after house building and before landscaping.

Faced with little choice, we turned to plant nurseries and commercial seed companies as possible sources for native plants.  We found the options very limited and the knowledge and experience of local plant nurseries with native plants mostly non-existent.  So we found ourselves searching a lot and compromising here and there with selections of species native to Colorado, the southwestern U.S., or simply the U.S.

I must admit that I also succumbed to purchasing and planting some non-native species that reminded me of my mother or of my grandmother’s garden.  I was also misled occasionally by staff who told me something was native, when it really wasn’t. (I should have checked–but that was before I had an iPhone and easy google access.)  I also struggled, (and still do) with the definition of native and what plants were, or were not, a good choice for our property.

Once again, we made lots of mistakes and killed more than a few purchased plants along the way.  We also learned and got better at finding and selecting plants, as well as planting them.  Now, 10 plus years into our Colorado project, the wonderful results have surprised us.

The first few years after we moved into our home, our bird feeders were empty.  No birds. Zip. Nada.  The bird seed we put out was left untouched.

We knew why. There was way too much bare rocky ground surrounding our house.  No place for birds to perch. No cover from potential predators.  Essentially, nothing to attract birds other than the seeds in the feeders.

These days, after our years of landscaping with mainly native western species or cultivars, (and lots of true local natives), the picture is quite different.  A variety of birds visit our feeders daily. Even more happily, several species are finding food, song posts, and both resting and nesting places right around our home.

Our yard list now includes over 50 species of birds!

Our house and driveway do leave a big human footprint on the land. But we know our total impact has been greatly reduced by our native plant landscaping. Instead of living next to nature, we are now living surrounded by native plants, birds, and other wildlife.  And that is all very much to our liking!

As I add posts to this portion of my blog, I plan to share my planting techniques, plant species selections and plant sources, along with the thoughts, experiences, and joy I find in native plant gardening.