Saving the Planet, One Backyard at a Time

Saving the Planet, One Backyard at a Time

When it comes to acting locally and thinking globally, David Mizejewski might be in a league of his own. Mizejewski, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation, believes people can change the planet one backyard at a time.

As manager of the federation’s Backyard Wildlife Habitat Certification program and host of Animal Planet’s Backyard Habitat, he might be in a position to know.

It doesn’t matter whether you live on a farm, in the suburbs or in the middle of the city, there’s something you can do, Mizejewski says.

People often start out wanting to attract a particular creature, such as butterflies, he says, “and that’s fine.” But he wants people to understand the unbreakable connection between plants and wildlife. Insects, birds, amphibians and mammals are attracted to a place because it has the vegetation they need.

Native plants have several advantages, Mizejewski points out. They naturally live in balance with their surroundings because they evolved there. They are adapted to local conditions, including soil type, precipitation and climate, and have long been used as habitat by local wildlife. They don’t require extra watering or chemical applications to thrive.

Therefore, gardeners need to think differently about how they landscape and what they plant.
“The focus has been on beauty instead of on ecology,” Mizejewski says, “but those two things are not mutually exclusive.” You can have a beautiful yard and a good habitat, and using native species will give it “real regional flair. It drives me nuts to drive across the country and see the same 10 plants as foundation plantings. We can do better than that.”

It’s all about choices. Pick a pretty plant that has a pretty bloom, advises Mizejewski, but make it something that also feeds wildlife. For instance, hummingbirds need nectar. So if you want to plant an ornamental vine, choose a native such as a yellow honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens ‘Sulphurea’) that will provide it.

Using native plants doesn’t mean depriving yourself of color or majesty. Oaks are native to virtually everywhere in the United States, and they produce acorns, which provide food for squirrels, wild turkeys, deer and even bears.

Blueberries, blackberries and chokeberries are also good food sources. “Most plants that produce flowers and fruit guarantee that they are good for wildlife,” Mizejewski says.

Attracting wildlife isn’t about remaking the landscape, Mizejewski says. Rather than doing a massive renovation, pick the plants that love the conditions you already have.

He admits that it’s hard to find native plants, especially at national home-improvement chain stores. That is slowly changing; the National Wildlife Federation, in conjunction with regional plant growers, is introducing a collection of plants called American Beauties, designed for different regions of the country. The project was launched last year in the Northeast and was well received by gardeners. The wildlife federation, which receives a portion of the proceeds from sales of the plants, hopes to expand the plan to the entire country. (For more information, go to abnativeplants.com.)

The federation hopes to include more information on the plants’ tags, including the Agriculture Department hardiness zone and the plant’s natural range, so people can, for instance, choose plants that grow within 100 miles of where they live. Mizejewski says surveys show that 70 percent of the nation's 91 million gardeners read the plant tags.

Another major principle of habitat landscaping, Mizejewski says, is “understand where you are” when making plant and landscape decisions.

If you live in a suburban or rural area, it might make sense to establish a brush pile, which provides shelter and cover for all kinds of wildlife. In a smaller urban yard, a brush pile can attract creatures you’d rather not have, such as rats and raccoons. Bird feeders make sense in the suburbs, but can attract rodents in urban areas and bears in rural areas.

Planting trees and shrubs with flowers and fruit works in the suburbs and in rural locales. If you have a tiny yard behind a rowhouse, use trellises to support vines, such as coral honeysuckle or trumpet creeper, that have habitat value.

Creating a backyard habitat is a wonderful way to expose children to nature, Mizejewski says. Some people, notably Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books, 2005), are concerned that today’s children, who may spend up to six hours a day interacting with electronic media, know nothing about the world around them.

“If you don’t grow up having any contact with nature, you might not notice if something’s going wrong with it, or you might not even care,” Mizejewski says. Thirty years from now, we could have a population that doesn't care about the natural world. And that’s a scary prospect.”

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site, www.gardenlerner.com.

Share This Story