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The Flaminglist: 10 Ways to Grow a Wildlife-Rich Garden

Susan Carpenter shares 10 tips for how anyone can foster and nurture native wildlife in their own backyards.

Megan Provost ’20
June 17, 2019
Susan Carpenter MS’80, MS’99

Susan Carpenter MS’80, MS’99 is the senior outreach specialist and native-plant gardener at the UW Arboretum. As such, she is responsible for leading volunteers in maintaining the Arboretum’s four-acre native plant garden, which represents the flora of southern Wisconsin. She also works with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in its efforts to monitor and document endangered species of bumble bees. Here, Carpenter shares 10 tips on how anyone can foster and nurture native wildlife in their own backyards:

  1. Plant milkweeds.
    Milkweeds are the host plant of monarch butterflies. There are 12 kinds of milkweeds, so there’s guaranteed to be one to suit even the most arid or swampy of yards. “And don’t be put off by the word ‘weed’ in the name,” Carpenter says, “because lots of plants have the word weed in the name. It doesn’t mean they’re actual weeds.”
  2. Make a list of birds and animals that you see in your garden.
    Carpenter recommends sites like to identify the different types of birds spotted in and around one’s garden. “If you make a list of birds and animals, you might be surprised how many things you see, especially if you’re growing native plants,” she says.
  3. Don’t “clean up” your garden too much.
    Carpenter encourages gardeners to “use nature” when it comes to the visual appeal. Bits of grass, leaf litter, and other natural garden debris are often used by birds for nesting or could be hosting insect larvae waiting to hatch. In other words, “don’t work so hard,” she says.
  4. Don’t fill or destroy chipmunk or ground squirrel holes.
    According to Carpenter, bumble bees will use the abandoned holes to build their nests underground. But have no fear, she says: these bumbling, buzzing guests are not aggressive, and an honor to host in one’s yard.
  5. Look for caterpillars and make note of which plants they are on.
    Just as monarch butterfly caterpillars are partial to milkweed, other caterpillars feed on their own specific plants, which can help in identifying the caterpillar (and its later form) according to the plant it’s feeding on.
  6. Refrain from using insecticides.
    While using insecticides may protect plants against munching insects, a lack of insects cannot support the survival of the insectivorous bird population. “Sure, the plant wouldn't get eaten because it would kill the insect that was eating the plant, but that whole rest of the chain is broken then,” Carpenter says. Instead, welcome the chew holes and insect presence in your garden, knowing that the plants are resilient enough to come back and that you’re supporting a balanced ecosystem.
  7. Join and submit a picture of a bumble bee to Bumble Bee Brigade.
    Submitting pictures of the bumble bees in and around your yard, whether or not you are able to identify them, helps experts like Carpenter at Bumble Bee Brigade to document which species are present in Wisconsin and where they are located.
  8. Harvest and plant seeds from native plants.
    Watch for when the flowers are blooming, where the seeds are, and when they are mature and ripe. “You can either plant the seeds, or you could make them seed packets and give them for gifts,” Carpenter says. She offers the Prairie Nursery website as a resource for seed identifying and harvesting.
  9. Use sites like Bug Guide and Wisconsin Butterflies to identify bugs and butterflies in your yard.
    Much like Bumble Bee Brigade, these sites are designed to allow novice bug-spotters and avid gardeners to submit photos of insects found in and around their yards and have them identified by experts, or to try to identify them themselves.
  10. Do a photo point in your yard or garden.
    Choose a spot in your garden and take a photo every day, week, or month and watch the progression and changes in your garden over time.

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