What would our community look like if we valued all life forms, not just humans? The experience of walking down the street might be quite different.
We’d see colorful yards full of nectary flowers like bee balm, coral bell, meadow blazing star, asters and hyssop. We’d smell fragrant milkweed, honeysuckle, and flowering tobacco. We’d walk through a food forest of fruit and nut-bearing trees and shrubs. We’d hear the rustle of tall grasses, trickling water, chirping birds, crickets and maybe even frogs! We might even regain the magic of days full of butterflies and nights lit by fireflies!
A project underway in the Greater Longfellow Neighborhood aims to make this a reality. Daniel Schultz and the Longfellow Environment Committee are working to get their community certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Wildlife Neighborhood.
The project will ultimately include 150 home yards, 4 schools and 4 common areas. Right now the project has certified, or is in the process of certifying, 48 yards. Dowling Environmental School, Sanford Middle School, and most recently the Anishinabe Academy (part of Anne Sullivan School), have become certified schools.
“I’d like to see every school in the neighborhood become certified, using their outdoor space as a classroom,” Schultz said. “Some of these kids never get out into nature.”
Epworth Church became the first certified common space, gaining points for its rain garden. (Not surprisingly, Epworth Church hosts this flower-friendly neighborhood’s garden club.)
Belle’s Toolbox – a children’s garden and learning center – is the second common space.
Schultz observed that the Midtown Greenway lies along the north edge of the neighborhood. Certain plants and landscape features could allow the Greenway to qualify as a certified common space.
Supercharging the Program with Mentors
This year the wildlife project added a new feature: people who want to create wildlife-friendly yards can be matched with a garden mentor to help them plan their project. A dozen people applied for and have been matched with mentors – master gardeners, landscape designers, foresters, and other experienced gardeners. The mentors will help the new gardeners identify native plants and where they can be purchased (or shared).
For the past two years, the project has also hosted a native plant sale.
Becoming a Wildlife Certified Habitat
Certification means you’ve taken steps to provide the four components that wildlife need to survive:
- A place to raise young
Our yard is one of the 48 certified yards. We didn’t work at it intentionally; not at the beginning. It just developed over time. When I met Dan, I was eager to have him take a look. He brought the checklist provided by the National Wildlife Federation and we easily fit. “You’re only missing an ocean and a cave,” he said.
We sent in our form and were approved. You can choose to purchase a sign, but we didn’t.
We Started with Food
When we began our yard transformation, we wanted to grow food. Lo and behold, squirrels love tomatoes and apples. Raccoons like grapes. Birds like greens and seeds, cherries and serviceberries. Bees and other insects like dill, oregano, nasturtium, cucumber, tomato and borage flowers.
And the children at the local daycare center who walk by our house on their way to the park every day? They love the black raspberries that grow by the sidewalk!
Is there anything left for us? Yup, even if the squirrels take a nibble out of a tomato every evening, we still have plenty. Sharing food is a sacrifice we’re willing to make so that humans aren’t the only living things in our community.
Add a Little Water
Water is usually the sticking point. Very few yards make water available at all times.
When we decided to add a water feature – a small pond and waterfall – we did it to add beauty to the garden. It wasn’t until later that we noticed how attractive it was for birds and mammals. After talking with Schultz, we added a shallow birdbath (filled with rocks and water) for the bees.
“Water is the critical piece, especially in winter or drought. Moving water, like a pond with a pump, can help prevent mosquito breeding, but I don’t worry too much. There are lots of places where mosquitoes can breed and we don’t even think about them – like gutters that haven’t been cleaned out.”
Water is particularly important for amphibians and Schultz has received occasional reports of toads and frogs near the falls and in the river gorge, but no reported sighting of snakes or turtles in the area.
A Place to Call Home
As our household learned more about pollinators, we became aware of the problem of too much grass and mulch. Many of our native bees are ground-dwellers. They need bare dirt, but they have a hard time finding it when we homeowners are so intent on keeping every inch covered.
“It’s a tough call,” Schultz says. “I think of mulch as a necessary evil when you’re smothering weeds and preparing for new plantings, but it’s advisable to phase out mulch over time, where possible.”
Knowing that ground-dwellers needed space too, helped us make the decision to allow a little portion of our yard to return to the wild. We don’t go into that area except to remove invasive weeds once a year.
We also changed our fall clean-up habits, leaving some tall dried stems to stay in the garden, and dried seedpods and grasses. Some types of bees use these to overwinter. In the spring we can cut them down and move them to the wild area where they can decompose.
Welcome the Young
It’s easy to get excited about baby robins in the nest, but what about baby eagles? Living with an eagle’s nest in your yard may take more of a commitment. Schultz shared that entire carcasses of prey can fall from their heavy nests.
“We’ve been ruled by rabbits and squirrels for a long time. With the return of these apex species – eagles, hawks and falcons – it’s becoming a more balanced environment. I’ve even heard reports of coyotes in the river gorge and deer on the River Road.”
Become a Certified Wildlife Habitat Neighborhood
Any community can become more welcoming to wildlife. Check out the National Wildlife Federation website to learn what you can do, and how you can make your yard a certified wildlife habitat. To learn more about the Longfellow project, visit the website at http://longfellowwildlife.blogspot.com/.
Leslie MacKenzie is a Hennepin County master gardener whose yard was certified as a wildlife habitat in 2016. She loves goldfinches, is growing accustomed to bees, and would really like the mice to stay outside.