Posted by: underseaencounters | April 11, 2009

My city backyard, aka certified wildlife habitat

I saw a cardinal in my backyard this morning and it reminded me that I wanted to register my backyard as a Certified Wildlife Habitat through the National Wildlife Federation.

I live in an apartment in the most densely populated city in the US (according to my son). We have a small deck and a tiny backyard surrounded by tall walls. When I’m feeling romantic, it seems like a secret garden.

Ten years ago, I tried to turn it into a suburban-type backyard, where I could walk out on a summer morning barefoot on spongy green grass. I bought a seed spreader and grass seed, topsoil. Uh..forget it. The grass was enemic-looking, scraggly, and a mess. I have one remaining patch of grass that my cats enjoy chewing on.

Then I thought it might be fun to have a whole backyard of clover—why not? I bought clover plants and tried this. They grew about 2 feet tall and it was a mess. A horse would have loved it. I tried pachysandra. No go. And so on.

I also planted a tree—a Norway maple, which I’ve been told is considered a weed tree. It has thrived, and despite almost everyone urging me to cut it down (evidently they more or less take over your yard), I don’t have the heart to do it.

Finally, some native plants, or plants that just came over from other people’s yards, took root. One is a fern I call the “New Jersey fern” because I’ve seen it all around New Jersey, and another is a no-name decent-looking ground cover that covers 1/2 the yard. It stubbornly refuses to grow in the other half. Oh well. But these plants are hardy and require little additional watering.

What I’ve noticed is that I now have a little nature sanctuary back there. The birds love the Norway maple. I have seen ten birds hanging out on that tree. I fill a birdbath regularly, and have seen a mourning dove sitting in it for twenty minutes. Grackles (?) splash in it, and sparrows are regular visitors. My neighbor has a grape vine that wandered over to my yard and at certain times of year, the grackles swoop down en masse and eat the ripe grapes.

I also tried putting out birdseed, but it attracted squirrels and pigeons so I stopped (any advice about this would be appreciated). Don’t feel sorry for the pigeons. The “pigeon mothers” in this city feed them excellent leftover Italian bread.

I planted a pine tree that’s doing well and I have vines growing up the walls that also came from someplace else. I see worms everywhere (a good sign) and slugs as well (not so good, but I haven’t figured out how to get rid of them. I tried the beer trap, but it didn’t work. Suggestions?).

I need to add a few things to meet the National Wildlife Federation requirements, but I’m almost there. Certain elements are needed for food sources, water sources, places for cover, places to raise young, and evidence of sustainable gardening.

I love seeing birds, butterflies, and fireflies in my city backyard. I highly recommend turning your backyard into a native wildlife-type environment, especially if you have a troublesome yard where you can’t grow much. It’s very satisfying. I’ve read recent reports about a dramatic decline in some bird groups, so it’s very much needed as well.

Here’s a photo of my semi-wild morning glories taken last September. I’ll try to take some pictures of my backyard wildlife, too, this spring and summer.


My roses are blooming….and the “NJ ferns” have returned and have doubled the area they cover. I never water anything except the potted plants and so far have not used any pesticides or anything (of course, everything will be chewed up later in the season, but for now everything looks great).

The other morning I saw a robin for the first time. It was all bedraggled and I thought it might be sick. Then I realized it was sunning itself after a bath in my birdbath. Its mate was splashing around in the birdbath. They appeared the next day too. To country people, seeing a robin probably isn’t that exciting, but to a city person like me, it’s pretty cool to see them in my yard. In the Land of the Pigeons, any bird that isn’t a sparrow or a grackle (? shiny largish blue-black bird), is reason for celebration.




  1. I love this post. I had a suburban/country garden for many years, and my biggest problem was keeping the deer from decimating it. I am fascinated by urban gardens – I love the intimacy of them and the challenge, as you noted, to find the right kinds of plants to fit your little ecosystem. Again, as you noted, a lot of it is trial and error. My advice is to never be discouraged, and if something doesn’t make it, well just try something new! I loved mixing bulbs (for early Spring blooms) and perennials and annuals (instant gratification). There are bird feeders designed to discourage squirrels and pigeons, so you might want to search them out. Good luck with your garden!

    • It’s true, I don’t have to worry about deer! (I did have an opossum family living in my windowbox one summer). I will look into pigeon-proof feeders.

      Thanks, Kathi, for your comment!

  2. We have a raccoon that visits our yard… at 2:30 AM. He’s a partier.

    Anyhoo, I love your backyard! So do Smoke and Shadow :).

  3. I’ve never seen a raccoon in my yard. You seem to have different “wildlife” on your side of the city! I often see rabbits over there too!

    We did find an injured baby bat once in our backyard (we put it in a cardboard box and it recovered and flew away).

    Thanks for the comment!

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