Where the Wild Things Are

Some wildlife, including deer, are more likely to meander into your backyard garden if you encourage a “natural lawn” look with thickets to provide shelter. Photo by Craig Lewis, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

AMHERST – “My Dad’s head would explode,” at the idea of leaving fall leaves on the ground or letting daffodils and other weeds run rampant on his lawn, Alicia Geilen told her audience at Parkhurst Place recently.

But if you want to attract interesting critters to your backyard, skipping fall cleanup and encouraging a more natural lawn are good things.

During her presentation, “Gardening for Wildlife: Natural Landscaping for a Better Backyard,” Geilen showed slides of a typical suburban house and lawn. “We Americans spend a lot of time and money to make our yards look like this” – boring and sterile, with short grass, a lot of bark mulch and sheared hedges.

Then she showed photos of a lovely shade-dappled garden with different textures and colors from native shrub, trees and flowers.

A garden like that has plenty of “coverts” – thickets that provides shelter for wild animals.

“They are attractive to you and also to wildlife,” she said, offering safety and food to birds, animals and insects, a category that includes insects that are pollinators and insects that provide food for birds.

For example, cardinals prefer dense shrubs, while saw whet owls are attracted to dense conifer trees for roosting. Dead trees develop cavities for wrens, woodpeckers and bats, becoming “critter hotels.”

One of Geilen’s slides showed the Blaisdale Memorial Library in Nottingham, where the grounds, with flowering trees and textural variety, are very attractive to wildlife. Logs and brush piles also give salamanders and other reptiles places to hide.

Geilen is with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension’s Coverts Project, which trains volunteers to promote wildlife habitat conservation and forest stewardship.

She is also the conservation agent for Ipswich, Mass., and has an undergraduate degree in environmental studies and a master’s degree in environmental policy.

Another reason to “reconsider your lawn,” meaning shrink it, let it be more natural or do away with it completely, she said, is that lawn mowers are highly polluting.

And lawns that become meadows because they are mowed less frequently can become habitats for ground-nesting birds, Geilen said, and we are losing those bird species, including kildeer and woodcock.

Conservationists also strongly encourage the use of native plants, she said. Native dogwood species, for example, support more than a hundred different moth species and butterflies. Some non-native plants are invasives that “crowd out native plants and don’t provide what wild creatures need.”

“Gardening for Wildlife” was an Amherst Garden Club program. During the question and answer session, Geilen suggested the New England Wildlflower Society as a source of native plants, and its website has photos and tips.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.