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Master Gardeners Seek Wildlife Habitat Certification for the Cassina Demonstration Garden

Master Gardeners Seek Wildlife Habitat Certification for the Cassina Demonstration Garden

by Vera Strader

As housing and commercial developments move out to meet the country, native wildlife is hard pressed to find the resources needed for living and raising families. If we could ask our animal friends to tell us the most important thing we humans should focus on, they might well respond, "It´s the habitat, stupid." The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has created a nationwide program to do just that—to help reestablish backyard and community-wide habitats.

Master Gardeners of Tuolumne County recently submitted a request for NWF´s Wildlife Certification for the Cassina Demonstration Garden. As the result of a collaborative effort with Sonora Union High School District, the Demonstration Garden was formed four years ago near downtown Sonora. The original fruit trees, grapes, and berry vines on the school´s grounds at 251 S. Barretta St. have been pruned and returned to health and numerous weeds, including invasive Bermuda grass, are nearly conquered. We´ve added raised vegetable beds, a rock garden with a small pond, and selected native plants to create differing environments and plant diversity to welcome a host of native wildlife.

A MUTUALLY SUPPORTIVE SYSTEM: In truth, the garden’s native residents do much of the work. Worms and other insects, fungi, and microbes break down the compost, while birds and the occasional four-footed visitor help mix the contents into a nutritious soil amendment. Compost and fallen leaves are then transformed into fertile soil by earthworms and a multitude of microorganisms. A bevy of bees, small flies, butterflies, and hummingbirds flit from flower to flower, pollinating fruit and other blossoms. The trees, vines, shrubbery, and small brush pile afford nesting materials and hiding spots for songbirds and other wildlife. Beneficial insects and hungry spiders, toads, tree frogs, lizards, and birds will soon dine on troublesome insects that could otherwise become overly numerous.

THE GARDENER´S ROLE: Perhaps you noted in a recent Sunset magazine that, for the first time, a bluebird family moved into the birdhouse on Sunset´s grounds, but only after the adoption of a "sustainable approach to pest control." This emphasizes the importance of minimizing pesticides, using the least toxic products, only when necessary, and in targeted applications. In time, the insect population will balance, freeing the gardener from most insect management activities.

The gardener also needs to be sure there is drinking and bathing water so crucial for our garden friends during dry summers and freezing winters. A simple birdbath, reliably cleaned and filled, or a small pond, can do the job.

Wildlife also needs food and places to hide and to raise families.

The addition of well-maintained birdhouses and feeders are welcome but not required.

Many gardens already have food (leaves, berries, seeds, pollen, nectar, etc.) and cover in abundance. Wildlife is especially attracted to native plants and trees, those that were growing here before European settlers arrived. Wild creatures have already established a mutually supportive relationship with these plants over the centuries.

Oaks, pines, manzanita, toyon (Christmas berry), and other native trees and shrubs already welcome wildlife visitors in countless foothill yards. Native plants tend to be better adapted to our dry, hot climate and often resist browsing by a wildlife many of us prefer to garden without—deer. Local nurseries increasingly offer a variety of foothill–friendly native plants, as does the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society during their semi-annual sales.

Lawns, on the other hand, have a "drinking problem" and are often treated with chemicals that deter, even sicken, wildlife. In addition, lawns are a "mono-culture" and diminish the diversity necessary to support naturally occurring critter populations.

A NETWORK OF WILDLIFE GARDENS: The National Wildlife Federation has helped people garden for wildlife in backyards, schools, and communities since 1973. The 70,000th "backyard" garden to qualify for Certification was a 6th floor balcony at the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. Presently there are nearly 100,000 Certified Gardens nationwide—ranging from patios and balconies to entire counties. Twenty-five Certified Community-wide Gardens are scattered over the country, including the town of Alpine in southern California and the County of Sonoma!

The concept is simpler than you might think. Certification requirements are: water, food, cover with a safe place to raise young, and sustainable gardening practices. The applicant can choose from several sustainable practices including water conservation, composting, and minimizing chemical pesticides and fertilizers. For a simple two-page application form, visit www.nwf.org/backyard or call 1-800-822-9919. With your application and a $15 fee, NWF will send a certificate certifying your garden and a year´s subscription to National Wildlife Magazine. You can also order an attractive sign to post in your yard.

Looking for gift ideas? Think about helping a friend, neighbor, or shut-in complete the Certification application. You might include a birdbath or a native plant for a package deal.

If this sounds like more than you want to do right now, perhaps the easiest solution is to simply set aside a small patch of yard and let it go wild—no mowing, no pesticides. The tangle of plants, seeds, and untilled earth will be appreciated by birds and beneficial insects.

Meanwhile in the Demonstration Garden, we´ve done the right stuff. We´ve removed invasive plants, amended the soil, added water, and planted natives for wildlife food and cover. With the ongoing help of the Cassina students, our young garden will continue to thrive and, with time and patience, more and more wildlife is sure to follow.

-Vera Strader is fascinated by the many creatures visiting her Certified Wildlife Garden. She encourages readers to call Tuolumne County Master Gardeners at 209-533-5696 for guidance toward establishing a wildlife garden in their own backyard.