Making room for wildlife in the "City of Beautiful Homes"

UH resident Liz has let her backyard go unmanicured as part of her effort to provide a safe haven for local wildlife. Photo by Kaitlin Bushinski.

University Heights, the “City of Beautiful Homes,” could also be called the “City of Neatly Landscaped Lawns.” But one resident, bucking conventions, has turned her property into a certified wildlife habitat site, providing an oasis for the furry and winged residents of University Heights.

Liz (who requested that her full name be withheld to maintain her family’s privacy) and her husband are 12-year residents of Glendon Road. The heard about the National Wildlife Federation program on HGTV.  The program’s goal is to foster local wildlife. The species that find refuge in Liz’s back yard are not exotic; in fact, some would consider the squirrels and chipmunks pests, but Liz says these animals were here first and the point of the refuge is to provide a haven for wildlife in an increasingly developed world.

Applicants must provide four basic necessities to foster local wildlife: food sources, water sources, places for cover and places to raise young. Additionally, applicants must practice sustainable gardening practices such as composting and eliminating chemical pesticides. Liz completed an application, paid the $20 fee and submitted photos to prove wildlife lived on the property and that she provided the required elements to obtain certification. Soon after she submitted her application, Liz received official certification, along with yard signs that read “Certified Wildlife Habitat.”

Liz placed one of the signs by her garbage can so the service workers wouldn’t report her for having long grass in the backyard. "I would never do this in the front yard," she says. "It would bring property values down and disturb the neighbors.”

Three years into the program, Liz and her husband, who were already dedicated organic gardeners, are still happily committed to the refuge. They have cultivated a unique, vibrant backyard reminiscent of a wildflower garden. They’ve planted native flowers, butterfly bushes and an elderberry tree, and have allowed clover and natural grasses to grow tall. The result is a wonderful equilibrium between nature and human space. Long grasses and wildflowers separate the brick patio from the yard, pleasantly defining the space. Rabbits build their warrens in the thick patches of clover and birds flitter between the elderberry tree and the bird feeder.

Liz’s own trees as well as the neighbor’s pines and weeping willow complete the natural atmosphere by blocking views of other homes. In Liz’s backyard you truly feel that you're no longer in a densely populated suburb; rather, it invokes the soothing sensation of a rural retreat. Liz’s backyard, however, is hardly a jungle. Its growth, though uninhibited, is artfully maintained. “It’s not like it’s growing wild," she says. "It’s very meditated on; there’s definitely a purpose."

Letting your backyard go without a mowing is not everyone’s ideal, which Liz readily admits. But, she says, the benefits are many. She seldom needs to water the yard and when she does she gets water from the discrete rain barrels she and her husband installed. “We’ve never had an issue with rabbits eating our garden,” she says, because the clover she planted attracts their interest more.

Liz and her husband are extremely happy with hosting a wildlife habitat, however unconventional it may be, in their own backyard. “There’s this sense of release that comes with it,” she says. “You don’t have to obsess; you don’t have to feel like you failed. You don’t have to think ‘The grass isn’t perfect. This flower is failing,’ or ‘Oh, my God, there’s a dandelion out there.’ You don’t fight against any challenge, you work with it.”

Kaitlin Bushinski is a recent graduate of Oberlin College and was a summer intern at the Heights Observer.

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Volume 2, Issue 11, Posted 2:01 PM, 11.04.2009