Gardening with Jennifer: Winter Gardening - A Great Time to Create a Wildlife Habitat

Monday, January 10, 2011

Photo by Jennifer Rotermund
by Jennifer Rotermund

The winters in Upstate NY, where I grew up, were bitter cold and the landscape - consisting mostly of deciduous trees - often looked quite barren. My parents, being nature-lovers themselves, purposely chose a house in a very wooded suburb in which to raise their family and then looked for ways to invite wildlife as close to the house as possible.

We had every type of bird feeder that my Dad could find and enjoyed watching and identifying every type of bird that could visit a backyard in the New England area. We fed Chickadees and Chipmunks out of our hands. We watched in awe as Deer, Fox and even an occasional flock of Wild Turkeys walked through our backyard. Squirrels worked tirelessly to find a way to our feeders, my Dad always one step ahead of them. To me, it was heaven.

But what I wouldn’t realize until years later, when I was all grown up and a home-owner myself, is that all that wildlife in the backyard provided not only hours of education and entertainment, but it made winter feel less desolate.

Photo by Jennifer Rotermund
As much as I love Autumn for all its vibrant color, I lament watching all of my favorite plants die back for the winter and disappear. I take great comfort, though, in looking out my window on a cold day in January and seeing the yard alive with activity. Chickadees compete with Finches at my feeders, Flickers follow small flocks of Bushtits to the suet. A Towhee will fly in to join the Juncos hopping around my garden beds, and I’m temporarily transfixed. Even the mischievous Squirrels and occasional flocks of Starlings seem to provide comfort to me on the darkest and coldest winter days.

These insights only serve to remind me of the importance of providing habitat for the wildlife that has some how managed to adapt to our urban and suburban areas. A Chickadee’s metabolism is so fast that, in freezing temperatures, it can freeze to death overnight without adequate food in the evening - the same is true of many small birds. Urbanization removes many of their natural food sources, but as urban dwellers, we can make amends.

I fell in love with the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Backyard Wildlife Habitat program ( the moment I learned about it almost 4 years ago, when I bought my home in Shoreline. In Washington State, we benefit even further from a partnership between the NWF, The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Woodland Park Zoo and Aquarium Alliance which offers a special “Triple Certification” when you certify your yard as a wildlife habitat.

As a residential gardener, I’m continually amazed at how many people already maintain wildlife habitats in their yard and don’t even know it - I suspect it is that same pull so many of us feel to connect with nature and life. So why not make it official and certify? It is so rewarding.

Photo by Jennifer Rotermund
According to the NWF, this is what’s required to certify a wildlife habitat:
  • Food - Any plants that provide nectar, pollen or seeds and any kind of bird or hummingbird feeders.
  • Water- Just like people, wildlife needs a source of water to drink and to bathe. A water source could be as simple as a shallow bird bath or as elaborate as a pond.
  • Shelter- Birds and other wildlife need a place to hide from predators. Shrubs and trees provide camouflage and refuge in a hurry.
  • Place to raise their young - All wildlife needs a place out of the elements to birth or hatch young and raise them to independence. Trees and shrubs, rock and brush piles or simply a bird house can provide this.
January is a great time to dream fantastic gardening dreams and draw up detailed gardening plans. Why not start with a wildlife habitat? You can start right now - it is never too late. You’ll have a more enjoyable winter garden, and it’ll make a big difference in the lives of a lot of important little critters.

Jennifer Rotermund is the owner of Gaiaceous Gardens (an edible landscaping business with a teaching garden/urban farm and certified wildlife habitat located in Shoreline) and a Habitat Steward.


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