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Establish Your Own Wildlife Habitat Garden

July 28, 2008

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. _ A young bunny munching on grass is barely aware of the audience he attracts while he eats lunch.

Bees buzz everywhere. A butterfly lands on a flower to sit and sip a while.

It’s yet another day in the new Habitat Garden at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., and designer Denise Greene is happy with what she sees. The 15,000-square-foot area, built in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation, is a teaching garden that helps theme park visitors learn about beneficial plants for beneficial wildlife. More than 90 different types of plants, mostly native species, are showcased for their ability to work with Mother Nature.

“This is a great way to be a part of nature rather than fight against it,” says Denise, a Gloucester, Va.,-based landscape designer who encourages homeowners to create wildlife-plant habitats in their yards.

“As we learn about wildlife, we learn to appreciate what a huge impact we humans are having on the rest of the creatures on this planet. We are the only hope they have.”

A member of the John Clayton Chapter, Virginia Native Plant Society, Denise has long championed the use of native plants in everyday landscapes and she’s made sure the habitat at Busch Gardens is built on that concept.

It pleases her there are frogs and toads in two small ponds in the garden. The garden also includes birdhouses, feeders and a bat house.

Native plants are also everywhere. Sweet pepper bushes bloom pink and white. Late asters and goldenrods are beginning to show color. Tiger Eye sumac will soon take on its fantastic fall foliage and Diablo nine bark shows off its dark purple foliage.

“Nine bark is wonderful,” she says. “It tolerates anything, sun, shade, wet, dry. Its ornamental peeling bark is very attractive in the winter.

“And I’m really starting to push sumac. It’s tough and drought-tolerant, a plant more people should use. It’s also salt tolerant and takes occasional flooding.”

If you want to establish your own wildlife habitat garden at home, it needs to have four elements: food, water, shelter and a place to raise young.

“Food is best provided by using native plants for their berries, seeds, nuts, nectar, pollen and foliage,” says Denise. “Natives rather than exotics are preferable because they and their native wildlife have co-existed and evolved together to be part of a mutually sustainable environment.”

For example, she says, native butterflies visit a butterfly bush for nectar but none use it as a host plant for caterpillars. Without caterpillars, you get no butterflies. For the sake of butterflies, it makes more sense to give them plants such as milkweeds, asters and native blueberries that they can use as nectar sources and as places to lay eggs and rear young.

For water, consider a small pond, birdbath or shallow muddy area.

Evergreens and densely branched deciduous shrubs and trees provide wildlife with cover and places to raise babies. Again, native species do the best job at helping wildlife with shelter and homes.

“I read where Eastern red cedar provides shelter and food to more wildlife species than any other plant in the mid-Atlantic region,” says Denise. “From a landscaper designer’s point of view, it also makes a much better screening plant than Leyland cypress.”

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10 BEST PLANTS FOR BACKYARD HABITAT

Serviceberry

Wax myrtle

Blueberry

Beautyberry

Yaupon holly

Milkweeds

Asters

Sunflowers

Switchgrass

Crossvine

Online: Visit the National Wildlife Federation at www.nwf.orgO to learn more about habitat gardening and to certify your own backyard habitat.

Visit Busch Gardens at www.buschgardens.com

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(c) 2008, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.).

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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