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Natural Wildlife Garden

posted Aug 18, 2011, 2:26 PM by Church Admin   [ updated May 30, 2013, 5:13 AM by RH Jannini ]

edit please note that this has been moved from my own personal blog from when I started this project some years back - so references will predate the actual formation of the institute.

One of the important aspects of creating a Wildlife Garden is why.  For myself, I have learned that conservation isn’t necessarily someone else’s job - in fact, I believe that if each of us were simply to put a little more thought in what we do, we can make a huge impact and improve our own quality of life.  In fact many of the things being done around our property are done to act as a work example of things that can be done - simply - effectively.

Whether your reason for starting a Wildlife Garden is conserving water, reducing your impact on chemical usage, or even providing a habitat for native creatures and insects - the good thing to know is that you are not alone.  Best of all, there are a growing number of websites, groups, even legislation that is helping us promote a cleaner and healthier lifestyle right in our own backyards.  Below are a couple of the better known groups and civic organizations doing their work in promoting a healthier environment.

National Wildlife Federation -   For more than 35 years, NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program has shown people the benefits of gardening for wildlife.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center - the Center has become one of the country’s leading research institutions and effective advocates for native plants and environmentally sustainable gardens.

Below is a nice video that outlines some of the benefits of creating a Wildlife Garden for yourself

As you can see there are a number of videos created to “walk you through” starting your own Wildlife Garden and ultimately getting it certified as we did.


Now back to our regularly scheduled program…

Apart from the community service message, this post is also here to show some of the results on our own property - because as I mentioned before, results can only be improved upon by actual doing something as opposed to simply discussing them.

The lot we started with was a vacant lot that was acquired when the property was purchased.  At one point, it served the location for the Ol’ Meeting House <add picture> but a fire in the 80′s took that building away.  In its place sits a lot unusually higher than many other lots on our street, its dimension being roughly 79′ wide by 149′ deep is typical of many lots in this Borough.  This lot shape is also coincidentally sized like many lots in more urbanized areas, which is helpful when comparing it to practical land usage in those parts.

The premise was to provide a place to walk amongst some wildlife without having to travel all that far, after we live in the country side - so it would stand to reason that our environment would be more rustic by nature when compared to gated communities of the suburbs.   After having dabbled with artistic expressions for a few earlier years generating a giant exclamation point (google map), and in another year a series of primary shapes with varying grass height; ultimately it was the wildlife and the beauty of nature itself that brought me to try my hand at a Natural Wildlife Garden.

Much of what has been done is simple, basic use of the land, a backbone to even undertaking this project.  My feeling was if the solution was simply to hire landscapers, engineers and a truck load of supplies - the whole point would be defeated.  Now that we are in our third year of experimenting with the right balance for this area, there are a few things we learned about what worked for us so far.  One large issue for lots in this region is the high clay content we have.  Topsoil can easily be washed away in a heavy rain, leaving only the hardiest of plants behind.


Over the years (different approaches)

I guess one would say my garden officially started back in 2008 - predominantly islands of high grass to start, while mulching the lawn clippings to their fringes.  Mixed with sawmill chips (at the right ratio of ~20-30:1) the clipping decomposed at a decent rate.  Have learned about some better approaches to be discussed in a later post.  Wildflower seeds added to these fringe areas and light topsoil was added.


Overall the results were OK, but it wasn’t as lush as originally envisioned and had the feeling of being more like islands than a walking pathway through nature.  At the end of each season the growth was cut down to mulch over the winter months (this is something that could be leveraged better in my opinion)

A more natural approach

In 2009, the layout was reversed -  being that a majority of the field stayed intact with the trails cut through them.  Not only was this more consistent with the way my father created his own nature trails back home but actually provided better soil control.   Additionally leveraging the islands from the year earlier provided more fertile grounds for Wildflower planting.

and like magic - things started to grow!

Supporting something that works

With a show of natures approval, in 2010 I continued to do the same and receive similar results - further demonstrating that the project was heading on the right track.  As seen a number of the wildflowers came through (though less than seeded) and the amount of butterflies, hummingbirds, and natural wildlife in general seemed to agree that things were working out.  Seeing that kind of results cemented the project as a positive step in the right direction.

"burn her, she's a witch"

We did run into one snag though and I guess it is to be expected at times and in different areas; that being that some residents didn’t understand the reason for the Wildlife Garden.  Now whether they didn’t see the trails running through, hear neighbors talk about how this was being made, or simply didn’t care - who knows but rest assured there will always be one or two that will raise their proverbial pitchforks and demand manicured lawns for everyone and they will set about verifying that lawns are uniformly cut, maintained, trimmed, weeded, chemicalized, rolled, and generally forced to conform to standards set forth by the Lawn Owners Association of America, LLC. (an organization many personally believe is underwritten by the very people that make lawn care equipment, the gas and oil industry along with the petrochemical corporations).

All sarcasm aside, whenever I am ambling through Beverly Hills or the suburbs of Palm Beach I become awestruck over the beauty of their lawns and marvel at the effect the Renaissance period had in bringing lawns as we knew them to come to fruition.  Personally, I will never demean how people relish and take pride in their lawn care regime  - that is clearly their choice. 

However,  I never believed that one persons hobby should be enforced upon another and perhaps that is where this project stands - demonstrating that beautiful grounds can be achieved with a little planning and a lot of faith with what Mother Nature has already done before.  What should be stated is that it is believed that people should act responsibly with their property, they should work to make it attractive but most importantly healthy.  After all, we all have heard the joke about the farmer finding a car in a field after clearing it.

After four years, we seem to have a system

So now we are at our fourth year and we have already begun the initial shaping, we have added more seed and are now crossing our fingers that the seed does what it is supposed to do. We do know a large part of the seed will be eaten by the very wildlife we wish to see visit. However, that does mean the seed will be moved to other parts about our Valley courtesy of our feathered friends.

Here are some images showing some of the results of this year's plant life and trail network - compared to some earlier images, you can see how much more lush and healthy these plants are.

As you can see, landscaping has adapted itself to become much more supportive of this healthier layout and is completely supportive of the existing bioscape.  

One very interesting aspect to this design layout is noticing that the amount of grass growth along the trails is considerably less there are other property where the grass grows at 2 to 3 times the rate that it does here. What this suggests to me is that the majority of nutrients are being maintained and absorbed in the surrounding natural landscape.

On a completely different note, it should be mentioned that once again a few of the people seriously misunderstand or ignore the idea that landscaping can be done in ways that are complementary to nature. It amazes me the amount of consternation and energy these people continue to exhibit over anything that deviates from their ideas of landscaping or more to the point - control.

Fortunately, I have the resolve and the support of a much larger and supportive region that welcomes any opportunity to improve the way we interact with our environment. Needless to say what makes this all the more "humorous" is that we live in in rural region of southwestern Pennsylvania a.k.a. "the country".

Once the season ends, we will be mulching the field for a winters compost. Next year's plans, call for a small storm water retention pond, additional native plants, and a natural trellis at points around the perimeter.

2012 - keeping the faith

Even though the lot itself hasn’t changed, we do have a number of interesting issues to contend with this season. Not the least of which is a huge mound of topsoil that is being temporarily stored on a substantial portion of the wildlife garden.

Late last fall the adjoining property to the wildlife garden had some activity, that being the initial construction of a Habitat for Humanity home in our community. In the initial stages of site preparation I was asked if it would be possible for them to temporarily store the topsoil on our lot.

Personally I welcome the idea that Habitat for Humanity would be building, and saw no problems with the temporary storage of the topsoil. Not only would they be returning that part of the lot to practical use when done, they would be grading a section between the two properties that have been difficult to maintain in the past.  Additionally, I welcome the idea that we would be able to do a complete root replacement of all the plants along that side of the property by re-seeding that area.

However, it appears that despite their best efforts the timetable of removing this mound is pushing itself into the middle of our spring season. At the minimum, this creates an additional dilemma of working to maintain the existing garden while planning around the future disturbance of the area adjacent to the mound.

What we decided to do was minimize the impact of this heavy equipment by allowing them access along the back edge of the property. Given this area is being further worked to handle storm water management is the most practical area.

Given the late planting season for this area it would probably be best to secure the topsoil with an abundance of switchgrass and pockets of late season wildflowers. Paying attention to this area will be curious due to the complete reseeding of that area.

One plant that has really held up for us has been the native switchgrass of the area. In looking over the illustration to the right, it’s easy to see how this simple plant provides an enormous amount of benefit to not only the soil stabilization of the property but also supporting the ecosystem for though wildlife creatures you are helping to support. It also should be noted, that switchgrass provides an interesting source of biofuel that we will be seeking to take advantage of in later projects over the winter season.

To make the most of what we have with available space. We are reconstructing the trails to accommodate the heavy landscaping that will be done in the next two months (late June?). Actually, this makes an excellent opportunity to segue into the question that I get asked often.

How do I establish a wildlife garden and trail on my own property?

Like most things, everything starts with the vision and at minimum some type of planning. For this garden, it was important to consider the terrain, the existing plant life, and the issues that we deal with regarding storm water runoff. Let’s start with the most obvious, planning.

The next image shows a rough sketch of our native wildlife garden area. You’ll notice that we try to pay attention to various aspects such as slopes, dips, dominant plant life and other notable aspects like where you enter.

Insert sketch here

Then we add a rough outline as to the trail network that allows for the traveler to explore the different wildlife being fostered. Personally, I prefer winding trails with interlocking arcs that try to hide what is around the corner and reveal it as you walk through. Whenever possible I try to avoid long straight pathways as they are a bit too structured in how nature would do it. Below is an example of the layout will be doing this year and how will be trying to avoid the heavy landscaping later in the season.

Insert sketch here

I have found the best time to initiate a trail network for the season is after the initial plant life has grown to a few inches, enough so that when the mower comes through it leaves behind a distinct trail. Below are a few images of the initial trail network that were carved out late in April.

Insert pictures here

You will find that each time you go over these initial trails that the path will be more defined and you will begin to see areas that you may want to further add to.

Where have all the flowers gone?

One aspect of allowing nature to work with you is understanding that seeds rarely end up where you plant them. While a majority of them will linger, they do have a tendency to be transported by birds and other creatures. Since we’re trying to support an ongoing area for native plants and wildflowers we inevitably find ourselves laying more seedbeds in different areas in order to allow the healthiest to survive in that specific spot.

We do this for a number reasons, least of which is the understanding that some parts are considerably more moist due to a retention of sorts from storm water where other parts are more arid due to their lack of adjacent water.

Setting up your seed beds

I like to feel that our approach is a very simple and straightforward one, and can be accomplished by anyone inside of an hour of time. All you need is a wheelbarrow of topsoil, some wildflower seed and some straw or grass clippings for final covering.

Moving down your trail, identify different areas that open up at different bends. When you find a spot put down a couple of shovel loads of topsoil, sprinkle some seats, mix lightly with a rake, and cover with straw. The size of the bed is completely up to you, just remember that you need enough soil base for the wildflowers to take root.

If you’re stuck for topsoil, you can try another approach that’s been used in other parts of the property. It really is considerably less expensive but requires a bit more monitoring depending upon the soil being used. Simply turn areas of the soil over with a shovel making sure to bury the grass side down, and breaking it up. Usually no more than a couple of inches is needed. Sprinkle the white flower seeds and cover as before. Depending upon the quality of the soil and the upkeep you should have growth complementary to the other approaches.

Insert pictures of seed beds

That concludes this update, as will be heading back out to try to take advantage of this late April early May rainfall. Remember to try and plan the seed planting at the time when you’ll have enough rain followed by warm growing climate, which are us is right now.


With a major part of the garden having been reseeded from last years post-construction phase, working to have the lot re-establish itself is one of the key things that happens in the first part of the growing season.  This is typically you pull plants you don't want growing in one area to allow others to succeed.

We have been asked what types of wildflowers we have seeded across portions of our lots.  Truth be told the wildflower seed that you can buy from the Big Box stores only contain 5-7% actual seed so we have sourced locations that sell whole seed in bulk as well as doing seed harvesting in the fall.

The bulk of the flowers and plants we want to see thrive need to be able to grow in our clay based soils and deal be drought tolerant.  Below is a list of some of the wildflowers and while I am not a botanist, many of these are native to the north eastern region.   As we learn more, selecting more native plants, flowers and grasses of the region.

Botanical Name Common Name
Aquilegia canadensis Eastern Red Columbine
Asclepias incarnata Red Milkweed
Asclepias tuberosa Butterfly Weed
Aster novae-angliae New England Aster
Chamaecrista fasciculata Partridge Pea
Coreopsis lanceolata Lance leaf Coreopsis
Eupatorium maculatum Spotted Joe Pye Weed
Gaillardia pulchella Indian Blanket
Heliopsis helianthoides Ox-Eye Sunflower
Liatris spicata Blazing Star
Lupinus perennis Wild Perennial Lupine
Monarda fistulosa Wild Bergamot
Oenothera biennis Evening primrose
Penstemon digitalis Beard Tongue
Rudbeckia hirta Black-eyed Susan
Rudbeckia submentosa Sweet Coneflower
Rudbeckia triloba Brown-eyed Susan
Solidago rigida Rigid Goldenrod

here is another mix we use along other parts of the property with a great chart to better describe what they yield.

Botanical Name Common Name Life Cycle Color Height Bloom Season
Calendula officinalis Calendula Annual Mixed 24" Spring/Summer/Fall
Centaurea cyanus Cornflower / Bachelor Button Annual Blue 35" Spring/Summer
Cheiranthus allionii Siberian Wallflower Perennial Orange 18" Spring
Chrysanthemum maximum Shasta Daisy Perennial White 48" Summer
Coreopsis lanceolata Lance-Leaf Coreopsis Perennial Yellow 48" Summer/Fall
Coreopsis tinctoria Plains Coreopsis Annual Yellow/Red 30" Summer/Fall
Cosmos sulphureus Sulphur Cosmos Annual Mixed 33" Summer/Fall
Cosmos bipinnatus Cosmos Annual Red/Pink/White 47" Summer/Fall
Delphinium consolida Larkspur Giant Imperial Mixture Annual Blue/White/Pink 35" Spring/Summer/
Dianthus barbatus Sweet William Biennial Red/White 20" Spring/Summer
Echinacea purpurea Purple Coneflower Perennial Purple 36" Summer/Fall
Eschscholzia californica California Poppy Annual Orange 18" Spring/Summer
Gaillardia aristata Blanket Flower Perennial Yellow/Red 30" Summer/Fall
Gypsophila elegans Baby's Breath Annual White 28" Spring/Summer
Helianthus annuus Dwarf Sunflower Sunspot Annual Yellow/Brown Center 16" Summer/Fall
Iberis umbellata Candytuft Annual Mixed 12" Spring/Summer
Lavatera trimestris Rose Mallow Annual Mixed 47" Summer/Fall
Linum grandiflorum rubrum Scarlet Flax Annual Red 24" Spring/Summer
Linum perenne lewisii Blue Flax Perennial Blue 24" Summer/Fall
Lupinus perennis Lupine Perennial Blue 36" Spring/Summer
Nigella damascena Love In A Mist Annual Mixed 20" Spring/Summer
Nemophila menziesii Baby Blue Eyes Annual Blue 9" Spring/Summer
Papaver rhoeas Red Poppy/Shirley Poppy Annual Mixed 36" Spring/Summer
Ratibida columnaris Mexican Hat Perennial Red/Yellow 36" Summer/Fall
Rudbeckia gloriosa Gloriosa Daisy Perennial Yellow/Brown 36" Summer/Fall
Rudbeckia hirta Black Eyed Susan Biennial Yellow/Orange 30" Summer/Fall
Silene armeria Catchfly Annual Pink 36" Summer

until next update, happy seedin'