Go wild in your backyard

Photo by Linda Keese

by CHRISTINE REID
Special to All Around Hays

Most people would say they care about the environment and that they, of course, like animals, love nature, and so forth. Well, if nature was able to, it would almost certainly say, Enough with the talk! Show me the love! Wildscaping is one good way to do precisely that.

The idea of wildscaping is simple enough. You provide food for wildlife with native trees, shrubs and flowers. These plants produce the berries, acorns, nectar, pollen, seeds and more that will sustain birds and other creatures. You can also put out supplemental feeders, but only in addition to the plants providing food such as hollies, sunflowers and salvias. There must also be a reliable source of fresh water, which can be as elaborate as a fountain or as simple as a bird bath. Another critical part of a successful wildscape is providing shelter and nesting places such as brush piles, hedges or groundcovers. It’s estimated that having a snag, or dead tree, left in the landscape can provide a habitat for more than 1,000 species of wildlife.

About 10 years back, Mary Fulton and her husband decided to welcome wildlife to their landscape in Wimberley. Fulton learned about wildscaping “ages ago,” she noted, when she was completing the Texas Master Naturalist Program. Kelly Bender, a Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist, was a speaker, and Fulton used the book Bender wrote with co-author Noreen Damude, “Texas Wildscapes, Gardening for Wildlife,” to create a wildscape. With only their courtyard area landscaped and the rest of their 28 acres of land kept natural, Fulton said she and her husband are “loving the wildlife.”

Having volunteered at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Fulton saw the beauty and time-saving aspects of landscaping with wildlife in mind. “I see what does well” at the wildflower center, Fulton said. Using natives not only helps attract and support birds, bees and other wildlife, it’s low-maintenance and, after plants get established, low-water, she noted. Fulton found that even after last summer’s intense drought, she lost very few plants. The plants only got watered every couple of months, and yet most still made it through. “Some didn’t look good, but they survived,” she laughed. Others, like Turk’s cap, Salvia greggii and Esperanza, did just fine.

San Marcos resident Linda Keese’s advice to anyone considering making their yard a certified backyard habitat: “Just go for it! You will be surprised just how much more wildlife you will see if you feed them on a continual basis,” she said. Some of the critters she’s seen in the last few years include a roadrunner, a fox who had a litter under the deck, green grass snakes, ribbon snakes, rat snakes, butterflies and many kinds of birds.

For Keese, a longtime gardener, it took a few turns along the garden path to get her backyard wildlife habitat planted and certified. Taking the master gardener classes helped her learn how and what to plant in Hays County, she said. Going through the master naturalist program then introduced her to the native plants and wildlife in the area. When she had some different butterflies come to her garden, Keese began identifying them and started searching for the host plants for each species.

“I had fun picking out the plants,” she said. Along with using wildflowers, Keese also put in native grasses like Lindheimer Muhly. “Butterflies use them for shelter on windy days,” she explained.

A critical part of wildscaping is using organic methods such as compost in place of synthetic fertilizers and controlling insects naturally instead of using pesticides. Having a thriving insect population will keep wildlife, such as birds, frogs and lizards, coming around for dinner. Keese has found tree frogs in her wildscape, which are “hard to come by in the city,” she said. “They’re like the canary in the coal mine,” she continued. “They’re very susceptible to pesticides.” Discovering tree frogs in the landscape is a sign that you’re doing things right.

The wildscaping books and websites show how you can design your landscape to attract certain kinds of wildlife. For instance, if you really want to see the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly flit into your yard, plant the host plant, Dutchman’s pipe vine. Sooner or later, they will find it. To attract hummingbirds, plant masses of red tubular flowers, such as coral honeysuckle or trumpet vine, on the outside edges of your yard to bring in newly arriving hummingbirds.

Like Keese and Fulton, you may want to have your backyard habitat certified. That means  you’ve provided the necessary food, water and shelter requirements of local wildlife. There are several habitat certification programs. There is a Texas Parks and Wildlife “Texas Wildscapes Backyard Habitat” program and, in a joint effort between the Texas program and the National Wildlife Federation, there is the “Best of Texas Backyard Habitat,” which is like the Wildscapes program, only kicked up a notch.

Creating a wildscape and getting it certified is a way of showing the community what’s important to you. After having your application accepted and paying a small fee, you will receive a yard sign to display that may inspire others to give back to nature, one yard at a time. It’s important to remember that wildlife was here first. We’re the ones who moved in on their territory. It only seems right to give some back, by providing native plants and water sources. It’s not difficult and pays huge dividends for them and us.

It’s hard to find a downside to creating an outdoor space that attracts wildlife. You use native plants, which are, once established, mostly low-water and low-maintenance. You shun synthetic pesticides in favor of organic methods, which makes the yard healthier for you as well as the wildlife. Ultimately, wildscaping your yard creates a beautiful outdoor area that entertains you with close-up views of birds, lizards and butterflies and helps beneficial insects thrive. Now that’s really showing the love.

Wildscaping Basics 

Provide food
Plant a diversity of native plants and trees like pecan, possumhaw, live oak, Texas persimmon, flame acanthus, coralbean, fragrant sumac, American Beautyberry, cedar sage, lantana, Coral Honeysuckle, Gulf Coast Muhly and Inland Sea Oats. Avoid having invasive plants in the landscape.

Provide water
Have a reliable water source such as a fountain, pond, watering trough, pan or birdbath. Try to have a small, muddy area for butterflies to ‘puddle’ in.

Provide cover and nesting areas
• Evergreen shrubs and trees offer shelter for birds, lizards and other small animals.

• Thick shrubs and small brush piles allow wildlife secure places to raise their young safely.

• If you have a cat, keep it indoors. If cats come into the yard, try squirting them with water!

For guidelines, ideas and other details, check out the wildscaping sections on the following websites.
www.tpwd.state.tx.us
www.nwf.org
www.keeping austinwild.com

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