Why Certifying Your Backyard Habitat is a Good Idea
Since the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) began its Backyard Habitat program, my partner and I have set up two different backyard habitats. For us, the plants are only half the fun. We really enjoy watching the birds and other creatures that show up. Ethically, we think of it as The Thing To Do.
NWF has set up a number of videos on YouTube describing the benefits of setting up a backyard habitat. These videos take a simple approach that is excellent for kids or folks who are just getting started, and they have the advantage of being in that powerful media--video!
For those of you still hanging around and not watching videos, the basics of habitat gardening are simple. There are five essential elements: 1) food sources, 2) water sources, 3) places for cover, 4) places to raise young and 5) sustainable gardening. Lots of bird watchers do numbers one and two with just feeders and a bird bath. More "advanced" habitat builders add shrubs, trees or perennials that provide fruit, seeds or cover, as well. A certain apartment dweller I know in Los Angeles, CA, provided nesting habitat for a hummingbird with a ficus tree on her patio--in a pot. If having a bird's nest on your patio isn't evidence of doing something right, I don't know what is! It's really item number 5 that is the stickler, but that is precisely the item that is the most important for our own health and welfare.
NWF lists examples of "sustainable gardening" such as mulch, compost, a rain garden and chemical-free fertilizer. When you delve a little deeper into their site, they get into more detail. I have preached about the benefits of mulching, primarily as a means of reducing the need to water your plants as often, but also as a means of providing protection for earthworms and other soil organisms that help us build good dirt. NWF provides a bit more guidance about types of mulch and such.
In our current yard, just about anything we did would have been an improvement. Except at the periphery, the majority of non-paved space was "lawn." Grass has been 90% eliminated in the back yard, cut 75% on the sides, and reduced to roughly 40% of the front yard. One of the selling points of grass removal is that you spend less time on lawn maintenance. I'm not certain that this maintenance claim is actually true--we spend more time edging now than previously. But we don't fertilize the "grass," and we don't water it, either. These are two huge consumers of resources that could be better used in other ways.
The majority of non-organic commercial fertilizers and pesticides are petroleum based, so NWF habitat guidelines encouraging you to ditch these products are aimed primarily at surface water quality. Any time we add fertilizer or pesticides to lawn areas, the chance of run-off into water supplies is very high. Those water supplies get consumed by us, so it's best not to pollute our own pot, so to speak. Recent studies documenting the buildup of chemicals inside both adults and children ought to give anyone pause. The NWF guidelines for sustainability are aiming at these issues. We don't always see the damage we are doing to ourselves, much less all the other critters using that water. Rain gardens (a small one is pictured above) are one way of mitigating storm water runoff from roofs, allowing water to seep through the roots of plants rather than just dashing down to the street.
Going through the process of certifying your yard as a wildlife habitat gives you the opportunity to assess what you have, what you can reasonably do, and what you might like to do--setting goals for future performance. Deciding whether you want to reduce your exposure to these chemicals we use that have almost certain health risks is part of that assessment. (I mean, really. They print the warnings on the labels. Did we really think none of them applied to us?) If you make the leap to certify your yard, consider going a step further and putting up a sign to let others know what you have done. This gives them an opportunity to wonder what it's all about--and perhaps ask.
The ball's in your court!