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Backyard Habitat classes help urban gardener

Posted by: Julie Webster, Zoo volunteer and Backyard Habitat class participant

Editor’s note: Woodland Park Zoo is once again offering its popular Backyard Habitat classes to help you bring more wildlife to your yard. Former class participant and zoo volunteer, Julie Webster, shares how the lessons she learned have transformed her urban garden.

When I first signed up for Woodland Park Zoo’s Backyard Habitat workshop, I was already mindful of the four basic needs I had to meet to support local wildlife in my yard: food, water, shelter and a place to raise young. But it was in the workshop that I really came to understand the importance of cover and plant layering—the essentials to diversifying a habitat—and how these principles could be applied even in a small, urban garden.

Maple in my yard before I learned about layering through the Backyard Habitat classes. Photo courtesy of Julie Webster.

Layering isn't specifically listed in the four basic needs, but go to the forest and you will see first-hand how essential it is. From the tallest conifers down to the mosses that hug the ground, there are large deciduous trees, smaller trees, tall shrubs, shorter shrubs, ferns and other perennials, tiny wildflowers and spreading plants. Each layer has its denizens, animals who are most comfortable at that height.

I came home from the workshop with a list of plants I wanted to include in my yard and a goal of providing better cover. One of the plants I was particularly enamored with was serviceberry. I usually buy my plants small and wait for them to grow in, but at a native garden sale in the spring I found a 6-foot serviceberry that I brought home and planted near my vine maple.

Layering in effect: serviceberry fruit with the maple above and behind and the dogwood on the right. Photo courtesy of Julie Webster.

That summer turned out to be one of the hottest I could remember since I relocated to Seattle. The plant struggled, but survived. The next year, it had a few bunches of fruit. The third summer, it was covered with clusters of purple berries. When I crouched beneath it to try to get a picture, I suddenly understood the connection between cover and layers. Over the fruit I was trying to photograph arched the longer branches of the maple. Twining in from the south was dogwood. A bird that perched there, plucking ripe berries, was hidden from above by the maple and from the sides by the dogwood.

The zoo’s Backyard Habitat workshop taught me many things, but the most important is how to look at my garden with what Jon Young would call Native Eye. I think of it more as nature’s eyes. Sitting outside, trying to do some work, I would look up to see a flock of tiny chickadees fly across my neighbor’s yard and fan out at the fence. They disappear into the evergreen clematis that covers the chain link, invisible except for the exciting twittering. On some mysterious signal, they emerge, re-form and move en masse for the feeder and nearby oceanspray.

Using nature’s eyes, in this case those of a chickadee, I see how the rigid form of the chain link covered in foliage is an adequate substitute for the thicker inside branches of shrubs and trees. Many habitat books list out what various species need. The workshop presenters were able to introduce us to how these needs varied by species and behavior.

Strawberry tree. Photo courtesy of Julie Webster.
As an urban gardener trying to create habitat, I need to be as flexible as those chickadees. If I was in the country, I might be able to construct habitat entirely from native plants. In the city, my choice of evergreen plants is more limited. I don't have room to plant a cedar or Douglas fir. However, I do have room for a strawberry tree, a plant mentioned by one of the workshop presenters as a favorite non-native. It does well in our climate, is relatively compact, produces edible fruit and provides cover year-long.

These are the kinds of tips that have allowed me to enrich my garden and bring a diversity of life to it. I even learned to plant thorny plants, such as native rose, around my birdbath to protect birds from the local cats that try to stalk them!

Want to learn how to bring more wildlife to your backyard? Check out the zoo’s five-part Backyard Habitat class series offered this spring (classes may be taken separately, or enjoy the whole series). You’ll learn from community partners about how to design your wildlife habitat, attract birds and other wildlife to your backyard, select and care for native plants, manage your backyard sustainably, and get your yard certified as a Backyard Habitat.


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Urban gardening has a sort of magic to it when it comes down to the size of one's garden, I think its wonderful to see the versatility of which people use their little pockets of Earth.

-Evergreen Tree & Shrub Inc.