If you’re thinking about sticking a couple of butterfly bushes in the yard and calling it a pollinator garden, Barbara Driscoll and Jim George want you to think again.
The two leaders of the New Hope chapter of the Audubon Society are asking wildlife gardeners to consider the various layers of natural habitat around them as they make decisions about what to add – or remove – from their yards.
“Pollinator-friendly plants are just one layer of the landscape,” said Driscoll. “There’s more that wildlife gardeners can to do help all pollinators, especially birds.”
New Hope – which covers Chapel Hill as well as Orange and Durham counties – has launched a Bird Friendly Habitat Certification Program that goes beyond the mere basics.
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To participate, gardeners are asked to plant native species “from the tree canopy down to perennials and ground cover” and rid their property of invasive plants, including kudzu (Pueraria montana), Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) and mimosa (Albizia julibrissin) – and that’s just for starters.
There are three levels of certification gardeners can aim for: silver, gold and platinum.
Silver calls for 15 percent of the property to be filled with native plants, including trees, shrubs, ground cover and perennials; no more than 25 percent of the area to be covered by invasives; minimal use of harmful chemicals; and at least three wildlife habitat features, such as a water feature, leaf litter piles and bird boxes.
Gold certification requires 30 percent native plant coverage and removal of additional invasives, including Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), Multiflora rose (Rosa mulitfolora) and Bradford pear trees (Pyrus calleryana), plus the addition of two more habitat-friendly features, such as bat boxes and rock piles (or other insect nesting sites).
To achieve the platinum level, 50 percent of the area should be filled with native plants, chemical use eliminated, eight habitat features installed and further invasives eliminated, including wisteria (Wisteria floribunda), Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense), Johnson grass (Sorghum halepense) and various forms of lespedeza.
If it sounds like a tall order, remember that your colleagues from the Audubon chapter are here to assist.
“We will send a team to walk the property and identify your native plants and trees, grasses and vines,” George said. “This gives you a chance to identify what is good in your yard, as well as what you need to do to improve your landscape.”
Carrboro resident Lorraine Aragon said the experience has been positive since she applied for the certification about a year ago.
“They came out and told me what was native and what was invasive; it was a great learning experience,” Aragon said. “I had to remove more of the invasives, and then they came back out and certified us in the spring.”
The $50 application fee for the certification not only includes repeat visits by these knowledgeable gardeners, if needed, but also a charming sign anointing the property as an official “Certified Bird Friendly Habitat.”
What makes this process different from some other wildlife habitat programs is the focus on layers in the landscape, which serve various functions, from food sources to host plants for caterpillars, George said.
“We are asking ‘What is everything this garden is doing to support wildlife?’ ” he added.
Trees are especially important, yet often overlooked by wildlife gardeners. Species such as Tulip trees (Liriodendrom, also known as yellow poplar) and sourwood (Oxydendrum arboretum) and, especially, oaks (Quercus robur) are capable of feeding and sustaining hundreds of animals with nectar, leaves, stems and other parts.
“Trees may be the most critical element in a wildlife garden,” Driscoll said.
They also urge planting native shrubs and perennials that not only provide nectar but can be host plants for butterfly larvae, such as milkweed (Asclepias L.) and spicebush (Lindera benzoin).
“Sometimes people are concerned when they see caterpillars or insects in the garden because they are afraid they will eat the plants,” George said.
But birds, like many other small animals, get much of their nutrition from insects, especially baby birds, which require the extra protein to thrive. Without insects and caterpillars, a wildlife garden will be missing important links.
For information on the New Hope Audubon Society’s Bird Friendly Habitat Certification Program, go to newhopeaudubon.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.