Written by Janet Tani
During the short, cold days of winter a well-designed native-habitat garden’s pleasures are not lost to its wildlife inhabitants. While we humans tending our garden may long for spring and the return of the growing season, other creatures enjoy winter’s bounty. Here in New Mexico the challenge of having a water-wise lush garden that attracts and nourishes wildlife is completely doable.
The nonprofit Xeric Garden Club of Albuquerque has created a Certified Wildlife Habitat Garden that exemplifies these objectives. The requirements for certification set by the National Wildlife Federation created the framework to design and plant the garden. The garden, designed by Albuquerque resident Virginia Burris, provides food, water, shelter and places to raise young. The Xeric Garden Club’s Wildlife Habitat Garden utilizes native plants to accomplish this goal and incorporates both coniferous and deciduous plants varying in heights from trees to very small shrubs. The change in heights accommodates the needs of various wildlife creatures and the native plant selection attracts butterflies, birds and bees providing food and cover. Several water sources including rocks with natural basins provide the needed water.
While the Xeric Garden Club’s goal is to educate children and adults of the importance of providing an urban sustainable habitat for native plants and wildlife, it also provides a template that can be easily replicated in a homeowner’s modest yard. By receiving certification from the National Wildlife Federation the club has joined a prestigious group of NWF members across the county who have received recognition for protecting and nurturing wildlife in their own yards, schools and community spaces.
Any nature enthusiast can create a certified habitat and learn the rewards of gardening for wildlife. Habitats not only nurture year round resident birds but also provide stopover sites for migratory birds traveling between summer and winter ranges. In addition, certified habitats like this modest garden in Albuquerque conserve our natural resources by reducing or eliminating the need for fertilizers, pesticides and/or irrigation water which ultimately protects air, soil and water throughout our communities. It can also help reduce climate change, pollution and save on energy costs. Wildlife friendly plants don’t need constant maintenance and the native plants absorb carbon dioxide, helping further reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It doesn’t take a great deal of skill to create a wildlife habitat garden, but if you plant it, the wildlife will come.
The more than four dozen plants selected for this garden were specifically chosen to meet certain criteria including different height elevations and variation in bloom cycle throughout the growing season, as well as a good variety of food sources for as many birds, butterflies and bees as possible. Butterfly Weed was included in the Habitat Garden to encourage Monarch butterflies to remain throughout their life cycle. The Butterfly Weed is hardy, grows statewide and feeds the larvae as well as the mature butterfly. Native plants provide a variety of food as some wildlife eat leaves, others eat berries or nuts, and still others nectar or pollen. You can attract specific wildlife to your garden by what you plant, and a variety of plants offer a variety of cover for a wide range of wildlife.
Allowing fallen leaves and dried flower heads such as the native sunflowers to over winter in the garden provide food and cover for winter residents. An attentive gardener need not prune away the dried seedpods of the red yucca but rather leave them in place throughout the winter and into spring as food for both migratory and resident birds. Native plants provide cover for indigenous wildlife as they evolved together so the animals and plants are in sync with the seasons.
Among the numerous plants selected two examples chosen to attract bees are the Western Redbud and Desert Globemallow. The garden’s designer, Virginia Burris, has pointed out children have an easier time observing bees in the garden than birds, so enticing these marvelous buzzing creatures to take up residence was a priority. Possibly another favorite of children is the lizard, and a wildlife habitat is an ideal environment for these delightful creatures that both children and adults can enjoy watching. Encouraging lizards to hang out in one’s garden offers more than entertainment value as these reptiles eat numerous pesky insects and aerate the soil in their daily hunting and foraging.
The food chain also has a natural cycle. A habitat garden where small birds get eaten by large raptors, various insects are gobbled up by birds and lizards, and as many of us have observed in our own gardens, the lizards are a favorite meal of New Mexico’s state bird the roadrunner. While this may not be thrilling for small children to observe, it’s a teachable moment to explain the natural order of our environment and how this benefits all of us.
Recent research has implicated insecticides for causing colony collapse with honeybees—it’s estimated the United States has lost a third of our honeybees in the past six years. This same research has found it didn’t take a huge amount of these chemicals to kill off bees, in fact lethal doses amount to what are commonly found in the environment. The same insecticides have been found in bumblebees whose populations have also been declining. The significance of bees to our environment is astronomical. We depend on them to pollinate many of our food sources including almonds, apples, grapes and soybeans and a number of other plant species such as alfalfa and clover. Without bees we will not have these foods or plants. Eliminating insecticides in our gardens is a step in the right direction to helping bee populations recover. We also need to work together to get these chemicals out of agricultural usage and eating organic helps those farmers who have already heeded the call. It’s hard to imagine not having any almonds or apples or grapes to eat, but if we do not reverse this trend of colony collapse it could become a tragic reality, not to mention an economic calamity.
A visit to the Wildlife Habitat Garden may be necessary and certainly encouraged to get an in depth listing of all of the plantings, but included here is a sampling and how they nurture wildlife. One of the trees that works well in a limited square footage of the garden is the New Mexico Olive. It’s multi-trunked, adapts well all over the state and makes a beautiful statement. Its fruit ripens in late summer and lasts through part of the winter providing food for birds for many months. Wild Bergamont is a nectar source for hummingbirds and butterflies and its seeds are a fall food for birds. The Purple Prairie Clover is food for grazing animals and the nectar is an attraction for Orange Sulfur butterflies among others.
For arid New Mexico, xeric gardens are an important solution for gardeners and landscapers. Xeriscaping provides innovative solutions to the homeowner while at the same time conserving water. Some misguided individuals equate xeriscaping with “zero scapes” as unfortunately there are too many examples of this with a bed of gravel and a few cacti scattered around a home. The Xeric Garden Club of Albuquerque along with other like-minded organizations in the state do a yeoman’s job of educating the public about this misconception and demonstrate the benefits and beauty of the xeric garden path. While the Habitat Garden in Albuquerque doesn’t have any lawn, a well designed, multi-zoned, xeric garden doesn’t have to be lawn-less but rather “less lawn” and using rain barrels to catch runoff from roofs is an excellent way to supplement the garden watering. A properly done xeric garden not only adds curb appeal to the home but can be designed to meet the needs and desires of the residents enhancing the livability and value of the entire property. Going a step further and making it a wildlife habitat garden includes the non-humans in the equation and benefits all earthly creatures. By using native plants the Xeric Garden Club of Albuquerque is helping to maintain the natural order of all living organisms by nurturing the relationships that have evolved over millennia between plants and animals in this environment.
The Xeric Garden Club of Albuquerque is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and a member organization of the Council of Albuquerque Garden Clubs, which owns and operates the Albuquerque Garden Center. The Council of Albuquerque Garden Clubs including the Xeric Wildlife Habitat Garden is located at 10120 Lomas Blvd NE Albuquerque. The Xeric Club meets monthly with garden tours, speakers and demonstrations. Xeric gardeners and those wanting to learn more about this type of gardening are welcome to join.
Xeric Garden Club of Albuquerque www.xericgardenclub.org
Native Plant Society of New Mexico www.npsnm.org
National Wildlife Federation www.nwf.org/backyardwildlifehabitat
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center www.wildflower.org
Native Plant Sources:
Great Outdoors Nursery www.greatoutdoorsabq.com
High Country Gardens www.highcountrygardens.com
Plants of the Southwest www.plantsofthesouthwest.com
The Santa Ana Garden Center www.santaana.org/garden
A Holiday Treat For the Birds – Pinecone Feeders
An easy project for kids & parents
Several large pinecones
String or ribbon
Cup of peanut butter
Cup of suet, lard or Crisco
2 ½ cups of coarse cornmeal
1 Bag of birdseed divided
½ Cup of raisins
It may make cleanup easier by laying newspapers on the table beforehand.
- Tie a length of string or ribbon around the base of the pinecones.
- Mix together the peanut butter, suet (or lard or Crisco), cornmeal, a cup of birdseed and raisins in a bowl.
- Using a butter knife, stuff the mixture into each pinecone.
- Place additional birdseed in a shallow dish. Roll each pinecone in the birdseed.
Hang the pinecones at the end of a smaller branch of a tree to deter squirrels from getting to it. Tree(s) that can be observed from a window indoors allows for children to watch the birds feeding.
City Dwellers limited space/Renters Option
City dwellers with limited space or renters can create wildlife habitat gardens using containers. Select native plants that thrive in containers and have certain attributes such as nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies or hosts butterfly caterpillars or other plants that attract birds because of their seeds. The containers can be placed outside near windows so the occupants of the residence can observe their wildlife habitat from indoors as well as outside.