Converting your yard to a habitat

By Dr. Bob Gilbert

We are all becoming more conscious of our environment, becoming “greener.” The property surrounding where we live is no longer a yard but can be called a habitat. We are being urged to use more native plants, fewer chemicals and natural products. You can now even register your property with the National Wildlife Federation and become a Certified Wildlife Habitat. Attempting to create an inviting space for animals, birds and butterflies has become popular, very popular. Someone said to me the other day “I am a new gardener, I do not know much yet but I do know that I am only going to use native plants.”

What motivated us to begin the development of Smith-Gilbert Gardens in Kennesaw, Georgia was planting fruiting trees and shrubs to attract more birds. As we searched nurseries and mail order catalogs we became tempted to add highly developed hybrids and cultivars. If a Rhododendron is a cross between a native and one from Scotland does that make it undesirable? A red flower truss the size of a human head is hard to pass up. It became a dilemma. What pushed us over the edge was reading J. C. Raulston’s newsletters about the fabulous plants he was discovering all over the world. One example will suffice. J. C. told of his experiences trying to grow Firs in Raleigh. He found only one that could tolerate heat and red clay, Abes firma, Momi Fir from Japan. It took me five years to locate one for the garden. During rutting season deer rubbed off all the bark and killed it. Two years later, in 1998, I found another and fenced it. It is now 15+ feet tall, stately and beautiful. It is not invasive, does not drop seeds everywhere and seems happy by itself. Field sparrows nest in its branches. The important point here is that nurserymen are now using the rootstock of Abes firma to graft other firs on to it thus expanding the number of species that are hardy for us. This may not be so “green” but personally I enjoy discovering and learning about new plants.

We had to build a road to get access to our building site here in Franklin (NC). As a result steep banks were created. We knew that eventually these slopes would repopulate with wildflowers, trees and shrubs. But to hasten the process we purchased a selection of 300 inexpensive rooted cuttings of native plants. They were two to three inches upon arrival. We grew them in nursery pots so by the time we were ready to plant them they were six to eight inches. So this has helped repopulate our roadside banks. Plants have volunteered. This year we found a Michaux’s lily blooming on one of the cut slopes. This must have been a wind carried seed or a seed that was originally buried too deep to have germinated. We are about as proud of this lily as anything. Also we found an Orange (Yellow) Fringed Orchid blooming on another slope.

Photos/Karen Lawrence
A Michaux’s or Carolina lily, left, showed up on a cut slope on Bob Gilbert’s property this year. Compare it with the Turk’s Cap, right, with its visible central green “star.”

The Michaux’s prompted Karen Lawrence and I to seek out a Turk’s Cap Lily for comparison. Note the green star in the center of the Turk’s Cap. Also Michaux’s likes dry slopes and the Turk’s Cap prefers moist stream edges.

So we have jumped started the reforestation of some of our slopes and are finding that exciting things are happening on their own, the natural process. Fortunately we do not live in a subdivision where weeds (wildflowers) would not look so great. For us the more wildflowers the better and one of those just might be special.

But the question still looms in my mind, if I were to find another Abes firms would I be tempted to plant it here in WNC? Do the rare, unusual, advanced varieties and the exotics have to be confined to public gardens? Can not they be called ‘green’? Not all non-natives are invasive. Perhaps nurseries could label both native and non-natives if they are invasive? Certainly there are natives that are invasive. Consider the native Cross Vine, Bignonia (big-no-ni-a) capreolata (kap-re-o-lata). If you stand still too long it will grow up your leg but hummingbirds and butterflies love it. I regret the day in 1986 that I planted it at Smith-Gilbert Gardens; we are still trying to control it. It has grown to 70 feet, vertically as well as horizontally North, East, South and West.

If interested in registering your property, contact the National Wildlife Federation, P.O. Box 1583, Merrifield VA 22116-1583 or call 1-800-822-9919. Create a habitat of your own with everything you like.

Dr. Bob Gilbert’s articles are being reprinted with the permission of the Franklin Press in Franklin, North Carolina.