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How to Get Wild in Your Garden

Gardeners are tuned in to the weather; we can't help it. We grumble over droughts and fret about when the first hard freeze will hit. We notice when lilac and cherry blossoms emerge earlier in spring, or when butterflies take flight weeks ahead of schedule. We're quick to spot an unfamiliar dragonfly or hummingbird in the backyard. But those aren't just idle observations; to us they're signs that global warming is happening at home.

The response from the horticultural community has been swift, but varied. Hardiness zone maps are being redrawn to reflect the shifting ranges of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. The New York Botanical Garden's biannual symposium on climate change in the garden is attracting hundreds of plant lovers, many of whom waver uneasily between alarm and furtive excitement. Watching the state flower disappear is intolerable, but in an unusually mild winter, is it wrong to dream of tropical plumerias and kaffir limes? What is the proper response?

I see global warming as a call to action for gardeners. Wild creatures bear the burden of our behavior just as much as we do: unprecedented droughts, floods, and freezes erode habitat, throw off migratory routes, and make food and water sources scarce. Suburban sprawl only compounds the problem: each year, development claims more than a million acres in the United States alone, making it harder for a bird to find a meal or build a nest.

Turning gardens into habitats is a way to fight back, and that's what I decided to do. I took the only piece of land that I can control--the 6,000-square-foot (that's about one-sixth of an acre) patch of land surrounding my home in Eureka, California--and restored as much wildlife habitat as I possibly could.

My earliest forays into wildlife gardening started a few years ago, and my motivation was sheer vanity. The dance of orange painted-lady butterflies and the fierce whir of ruby-throated hummingbirds would, I thought, improve the allure of my flower beds. It turns out these creatures weren't terribly interested in hydrangeas or roses--not enough nectar--so I found a delicate native fuchsia with red trumpet-shaped flowers for the hummingbirds to sip, and for the butterflies I planted yarrow and tall purple verbena, plants with sturdy, flat-topped blossoms that make good landing pads.

Observing wildlife is addictive. Soon I found myself cataloging the activities of the black and yellow agriope spiders that hung, pregnant and swollen to the size of grapes, from their webs in the fall. I began to count on the flock of red-breasted American robins that arrived each December to pick winter berries off the shrubs. I watched, astonished, as a leafcutter bee cut a perfect round hole in a leaf of my rosebush and flew unsteadily back to a tiny nest in a bit of rotten wood, clutching the leaf fragment that it would use to swaddle its eggs.

Over time, my garden became a wildlife haven, a little refuge from extreme weather and ravaged ecosystems--and now I've made it official. In early October, my backyard became a certified wildlife habitat, registered through the National Wildlife Federation's Certified Wildlife Habitat program. The designation might not mean much to the critters in my garden--they can find me without the help of a yard sign or a certificate--but in going through the process I was able to make a statement not only against global warming but also in favor of something: in favor of nutritious seeds in wintertime and feathered nests in the spring, in favor of slippery tadpoles and fat grubs and delicate egg cases suspended from blades of meadow grass.

The Certified Wildlife Habitat program began in 1973, but it's gained momentum recently as gardeners like me start to think of their own backyards as ecosystems. The Internet has helped spread the message too.

"It was a little more complicated before," says program manager Kim Winter. "You'd mail in your application, photos, and checklists. It took a while. Now that people can apply online, it's much easier. We're seeing about 400 new applications a week."

By early 2008, the National Wildlife Federation expects to have certified more than 100,000 wildlife habitats in yards and gardens near homes, businesses, schools, and places of worship, in both urban and more rural areas. My small urban garden is number 91,664.

The new, streamlined application is only two pages long. It lists five components of habitat gardening and a few options for satisfying each requirement. I started with an easy one: sustainable gardening practices. I had already eliminated chemical pesticides, substituted compost for chemical fertilizer, limited my water use, and planted drought-tolerant native plants. "Reduce lawn area" falls under the sustainable gardening category, and I'd ripped mine out several years ago, even before I moved in, in favor of ornamental grasses, asters, lavender, and salvias.

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Amy Stewart gained national attention for Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers (Algonquin). She blogs with a group of highly opinionated gardeners at gardenrant.com.

It's fun to read an article in a national publication and find out the author is a neighbor. I also live in Eureka and have a Certified Wildlife Habitat (#88469). My sign is in the front yard, although most of the habitat is in my backyard. I solved the stagnant water problem with a solar powered fountain in a small pond. The birds splash around and the night visiting critters drink from it. The local chapter of the California Native Plant Society had an after-summer tour through my yards to show what happens when you don't water, fertilize or mow - it all looks good, even after the blooms are gone. As I told one reporter, my reasons for doing this include being lazy and frugal besides helping wildlife.

mjvega -- Thanks for reading, and adding depth to the story. After many years as urban renters, my wife and I are house-hunting right now, and I'm with you -- if I never push another lawnmower, I'll be a happy man. (Plus, as a birder, I know that the wilder your backyard gets, the better your chances of hearing a larger, more varied songbird chorus.) Ian @ OnEarth