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A Backyard Sanctuary on a Budget
14 years ago
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A Backyard Sanctuary on a Budget

I'd lived in my suburban Maryland townhouse for five years with nothing in the backyard but mostly unusable lawn and a single tree when I decided to do something for myself and for the wildlife who live nearby. 

Working in the field of urban wildlife protection, I am naturally drawn to the "ordinary" creatures who struggle to find life's necessities in constantly changing, shrinking, and urbanizing habitats. The question was, how much could I accomplish on my small piece of ground? How could I enhance my twenty-by-sixty-foot lot to benefit local wildlife? And finally, what was possible on a small, fixed budget?

The Property

I am fortunate that my yard backs directly onto an undeveloped county park with no active recreational use or facilities, and while I have neighbors adjoined on either side, there are also mature forest, riparian habitat, and a wildlife corridor (an electric company right-of-way) all within several hundred feet. Indeed, with natural and expansive habitats for wildlife close by, my tiny backyard's potential to be of any real use to wildlife at first seemed puny.

Most of the lot is on a steep slope. The level part of my yard consisted of an unused sandbox, a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot flagstone patio, a twelve-by-one-foot planting bed, and a twenty-by-ten-foot yard with a Florida dogwood in the center.

Getting Started

I began with preliminary research, figuring out which wildlife species I wanted to attract, the food and shelter values of both native and nonnative plants and shrubs (cost and space limitations meant mere trees were not an option), the resistance of plants to the deer inhabiting the park, and what types of containers, birdhouses, feeders, and birdbaths would be suitable.

Once I decided what I wanted to incorporate into my urban wildlife sanctuary, I drew a simple diagram of the property, marking the sunny and shady areas. This is what I wanted my sanctuary to contain: a butterfly garden, a child's garden, a container hummingbird garden, a brush pile, a ground cover area, and hedgerows that would provide food and cover for birds while blocking the view of one neighbor's fence and establishing a border on an unfenced side of my property. My personal twelve-hundred square feet of land was to become a veritable paradise.

Then I priced it all.

That brought me down to earth. My fantasy yard would require over $1,000 worth of materials; I could afford $250. But I still wanted a total initial overhaul instead of a bit-by-bit rebuild. What I needed was to come up with creative, inexpensive ways to realize my dream.

Getting Realistic

The expression "with a little help from my friends" wasn't coined for nothing. Shamelessly, I put out the call for help to friends, neighbors, and coworkers. The response was tremendous. People donated birdhouses, pots (even broken ones), rocks, an old metal snow disk, and, most essential of all, plants.

Once I had a good idea of what supplies I could afford, I settled on short-term and long-term goals for my wildlife sanctuary. I would start by transforming the landscape - digging up most of the lawn area and planting whatever I could afford to buy, as well as transplanting whole and divided plants given to me by others. I planted hostas, purple coneflowers, perriwinkles, chrysanthemums, violas, various sedums, juniper, mugo pine, salvia, and lily of the valley, among others. Not all of my new plants feed wildlife, and not all are native. Yet each adds something, if only cover for chipmunks.

Nearly one third of my budget was spent on four two-foot-tall inkberry hollies, which over time will form an evergreen hedgerow on one property line. The rest of the budget went mostly for perennials (such as yarrow, lantana, coreopsis), a climbing evergreen vine, two butterfly bushes, chocolate boneset (a cousin of joe-pye weed), and various herbs, asters, and marigolds for butterfly larvae. The perennials will undoubtedly be moved around as the garden progresses and as I am able to buy the more expensive woody, fruit-producing bushes and trees.

I kept on shopping around and reading gardening magazines for helpful hints. And I discovered that persistence pays off. In a major home improvement store, I spotted some imperfect clay pots that I knew would be perfect for my container garden. After requesting a markdown several times, I was delighted when an employee offered a price I couldn't resist. So I got my hands on four sixteen-inch clay pots for only $2 each. Grouped in a corner of the patio, next to the dragon-lady cross vine, they house a humming-bird garden of foxglove, bee balm, pineapple sage, cardinal flower, delphinium, and phlox.

There is no natural source of water in my yard, but I read about an inexpensive way to create an in-ground birdbath by gluing aquarium gravel to a snow disk using waterproof adhesive. It wasn't long before I saw tufted titmice splashing in the cool water and, later, fat robins soaking themselves on a hot day.

14 years ago

Enjoying the Results

Over the two-week period that I dug up the sod, shaking the dirt from the roots and saving the beneficial worms, I had the pleasure of watching two fledgling robins grow up and gain confidence in their world. I saw them pluck the strawberries I had planted as ground cover, fumble, and chase the berries down the hill. I listened to them beg food, first from mom and pop and then from me for the unearthed grubs I set aside.

We created a child's garden in the sandbox, and my daughter chose the annuals herself. The child's garden turned out to be a bee garden as well, where placid carpenter and bumblebees sipped nectar and pollinated even as my daughter cut the dying flowers amongst them. The broken pots were colorfully painted and placed around the garden as "toad abodes."

One corner of the garden is for butterflies. Thus far, I have seen many species of "flying flowers," including Black swallowtails and Tiger swallowtails. They flit from plant to plant, bask on the large rocks, and obtain water from a dish of sand I keep well moistened.

Goldfinches, which I'd never seen in my neighborhood, now teeter regularly on the seeded heads of the coneflowers and amuse my daughter with their seed-eating antics. And although I see deer feeding on my neighbors' mowed lawns, my wildlife sanctuary has suffered minimal damage from deer, mostly because I selected plants that deer don't favor. I nearly lost a couple of black-eyed Susans, but that would have been a small price to pay for my daughter's being able to quietly observe the "offending" buck from our living room thirty feet away.

Making New Plans

In addition to extending the holly hedgerow, I plan next year to build my own birdhouses, platform feeder for seeds, and bat house. Often at dusk, my neighbors and I and our children lie on the steep backyard slopes at the edge of the woods and watch the bats begin their nightly forage for flying insects. What a sight it will be to see tens and possibly even a hundred bats swooping from the bat house in the summer.

The garden isn't as perfect or lush as I initially envisioned. That will take time. But the opportunities to view wildlife have been far greater than I ever expected in the first year. Even with my tight budget and tiny suburban lot, I found that I could do much to attract and benefit wildlife. I have bettered my little corner of the world. That's what creating an urban wildlife sanctuary is all about.

Sydney Smith
Wild Neighbor News
The Humane Society of the United States

Additional Thoughts:

  • Children discover all sorts of fascinating things when their backyards become urban wildlife sanctuaries.
  • A butterfly garden graces a corner of the yard, drawing many species of "flying flowers."
  • Even a small suburban lot can be transformed to attract birds, butterflies, and other wildlife, adding beauty and interest to our daily lives.
  • Attract hummingbirds and butterflies to your patio by setting up a container garden with the flowers they love: foxglove, bee balm, pineapple sage, cardinal flower, delphinium, and phlox.
  • A child's garden provides a place for memorable learning experiences. Try to include "toad abodes" made of clay pots, the child's own selection of annuals, and a nesting box.
  • A unique birdbath can be made by gluing aquarium gravel to a used snow disk.

14 years ago
I slowly worked on my backyard, and you'd be surprised at the stuff you can make homemade and it hardly costs a thing!!! 
14 years ago

Oh Kat, thank you for the wonderful ideas.  I've been relishing the coming of spring and wondering just where to begin transforming my home's yard into a sanctuary, both for humans and wildlife. 

I too am on a strict budget and you've given me some great ideas.  Some of my problems include balancing an area for the dog, some play area for my 23 month old daughter and providing the habitat most needed for the creatures who share our space.

It's not a huge lot either although it is mature with 30-40 year old pine and spruce trees which are a haven for the local critters.  We also have a cedar hedgerow at the back which has provided shelter for many birds and rabbits.

Still, there's so much that could be done to improve things. 

Oh speaking of toad homes...I have a moist little area in the back where there are ferns, hostas and lily of the valley.  I've used clay pots, half buried on their sides, for little toad homes.  I also added a little toad pond.  I used a large plastic base from a planter, buried to almost level with the surrounding earth.  In the center is a large flat rock and I sprinkled in some aquarium stones.  Add a little water and tada...a little toad pond.  I plan on adding little "village-like" additions, not for the toads perse but for the enjoyment of my daughter.  I think it will be a fun little area for her.

Ooooooh!  You've got me inspired now!


14 years ago

Jenny, those toad homes sound great!  Now you've inspired me!!!    I'm on a limited budget as well, but I have found some wonderful ideas on the internet that don't cost a lot, and check out the archives here at Backyard Wildlife and you'll see some of those ideas! 

14 years ago

I've been trying to read through all of the threads and there's such an incredible amount of great information.  I'm on idea overload at the moment.

Although I am trying to read through everything, I just wanted to apologize in advance if I mention something that's already been posted.  I get a tad er...excited shall we say and "my exuberance runneth over" at times.


14 years ago

Jenny, I call it "enthusiasm", and I think it's wonderful!    By the way, I sent you a personal message! 


Squirrels & blue jays
13 years ago
Until recently,Our backyard has only attracted a few squirrels and blue jays. Are walnuts the only kind of nuts the squirrels like? and local stores don't sell anything specifically for blue jays,so is that regular all-around bird food attracting enough?
13 years ago

Hi, Linda

I have a platform feeder with unshelled peanuts: blue jays, cardinals, black-birds, squirrels are all over it. Even the raccoon!

Bird food is good as well for the blue jays ... but they tend to hug the feeder for a while, and not let the other birds eat.

Hope that helps!

13 years ago

Recommended Feeders

Blue Jays may be fond of sunflower and safflower seeds, but they are fools for peanuts. They will grab whole shell peanuts from a platter and fly away with them. The recent introduction of peanut cages has made feeding blue jays much more rewarding. The birds considerably longer as they pierce nuts, flip them around and pull the smaller ones between the bars.
8 years ago

I started my first toad garden last year. I know it will take a while but I can hardly wait for one to move in. LOL


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