Habitat Gardening

First Steps Into A New Land

Jim Scarantino
6 min read
Habitat Gardening
Virginia Burris (Jim Scarantino)
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The dead zone out our back door is gone. It took five men, two jackhammers and a hydraulic breaker to remove tons of concrete patios, sidewalks and a swimming pool installed a generation ago. Our Northeast Heights house had been landscaped with concrete. All those hard, flat surfaces meant no trouble and no maintenance. It also meant no natural life outside our doors.

After the dust settled, we stepped onto our patch of raw earth. Now what? We wanted an abundance of life to fill the space where lifeless concrete once reigned. What plants would create the habitat needed to attract New Mexico’s birds, bees and butterflies to our back forty?

We called Judith Phillips.

Phillips and her husband, Roland, operate
Bernardo Beach Native Plant Farm. They grow xeric plants in Veguita, south of Belen, and retail them out of the backyard of a house in Albuquerque’s North Valley. Phillips taught herself what she knows about Southwest horticulture. She has authored three books on xeric landscaping and designed at least a thousand landscapes for homes and public spaces, including the Visitor’s Center Habitat Garden at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge.

“A habitat garden doesn’t have to be very different,” says Phillips. “Habitat is a feature of any good garden.”

The keys to a habitat garden, according to Phillips, are food, water and places for nesting and cover. Many commercial, non-native plants have had food—nectar, berries and seeds—bred out of them. “With xeriscape,” Phillips explains, “there can be a wide plant diversity to support a wide range of wildlife. Xeric plants generally produce seeds and are nectar-rich.”

Phillips encouraged us to look beyond the walls of our yard. “The best way is to have neighbors work together,” Phillips says. “Song birds need several acres of habitat to support them. One yard definitely is not enough. But birds don’t recognize property lines.”

Phillips also encouraged us to look upward. “A lot of Albuquerque’s big tree canopy is dying off,” Phillips laments. She says global warming is playing a role. “This will hurt some birds, like orioles. We need different elevated canopies to support wildlife.” Accordingly, she encourages mixing trees and shrubs that grow to a variety of heights.

“The city is getting so large that much habitat is being pushed to the fringe,” Phillips says. “It is really important to make up for the habitat and wildlife being displaced. Each yard can make a contribution to that goal.”

Virginia Burris began turning her yard near the University of New Mexico into a habitat garden in 1991. “I had Bermuda grass, Lombardy poplars and pyracantha—nothing native,” recalls Burris. “We found only one single earthworm in the entire yard. No bees. No birds. No butterflies.”

A walk through a nearby canyon inspired her to replace her lifeless greenery with diverse, xeric native species. “Native plants are so important to the lifecycle of insects, birds and wildlife.” Since “going native,” she has enjoyed seeing three different kids of swallowtail butterflies in her yard, “some large enough to cast a shadow.” She marvels at the many songbirds attracted by the native plants around her house. And she is fascinated by the varieties of native bees and how they relate to particular native plants.

“On penstemons,” she says, “only those bees heavy enough to pull down the flower’s lip can get in to reach the pollen. I’ve seen other bees drill through the side of a plant to get the pollen out.” Burris adds, “A habitat yard is a great educational experience for adults and children alike.”

Don’t be squeamish about mice, Burris advises. Field mice dig burrows. Lizards and bumblebees move into abandoned burrows. Lizards attract roadrunners. “Roadrunners follow the food,” says Burris. Roadrunners eat a range of things, from insects to prickly pears to snakes and young birds. Roadrunners are also tough enough to make it in the city. “A cat would probably get the losing end of a fight with a roadrunner,” she says.

Burris researches the types of food needed by local wildlife species when choosing what to plant. She has learned that many gardening publications are too vague to help. “They’ll say certain butterflies like ‘nectar,’ but not specify what nectar.” Burris recommends Phillips’ books and the National Wildlife Federation’s
Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife. She especially likes Millie and Cyndi’s Painted Ladies: Butterflies of North America, published by Johnson Books of Boulder, Colo. It lists the types of plants desired by species of butterflies.

Like Phillips, Burris was not trained in horticulture or landscaping. Her passion for native plants has led her into a new career. Her design for a habitat garden at the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque will be honored this May by the
National Wildlife Federation.

A habitat garden must avoid monoculture and intertwine different plant and soil types. “Seek different textures,” Burris puts it. But a habitat garden’s diversity is not solely for the benefit of the critters. “A good garden uses all our senses. It’s not just about color, but also sound, touch, taste and smell. My advice to anyone who starts this journey: Get ready for a wonderful trip to a new land.”

Phillips drew for us in one visit a landscape design that can be implemented with our own labor and limited skills. A landscape supply company delivered a waist-high mound of pecan shells for mulching around our new Apache plume, turpentine bushes, dalea, desert zinnia, red yucca, blue salvia, sage and fig tree. At least a hundred mourning doves, smaller Inca doves, juncos, towhees, chickadees and flickers feast on bits of pecan left in the shells. A field mouse dashes through the throng of busy birds. Overhead, a sharp-shinned hawk perches on a telephone pole. He watches the all-you-can-eat buffet, selecting his own meal. This habitat garden is underway.
Habitat Gardening

Tiger swallowtail butterfly on valerian blossoms.

Jim Scarantino

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