Enjoying Garden for Wildlife Month with National Wildlife Federation’s David Mizejewski

May 17, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have our good friend and repeat guest, David Mizejewski, on with us and David is the Naturalist, the Spokesperson, and the Media Personality representing the National Wildlife Federation. Welcome back to Green is Good, David. DAVID MIZEJEWSKI: Thanks for having me again. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Oh, happy to have you on and you were just so amazing as a guest when we had you on last time. We were thrilled to have you on again so we’re here and just for our listeners out there that are with us on the show, please go to just an amazing website, David’s website, the National Wildlife Federation. It’s www.nwf.org. I’m on it right now while we’re talking to David. David, you have some great things coming up. Can you talk a little bit about the Garden for Wildlife Month that’s coming up? DAVID MIZEJEWSKI: That’s right, yeah. This is going to be the third annual Garden for Wildlife Month. That’s the entire month of May and what it is is it’s really a big promotion that we do to try to encourage as many people out there across America to get outdoors to look at what’s going on in their yards and garden and think about it through the lens of what the local ecosystem and wildlife are going to be needing because even though gardens are green, that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily environmentally friendly so there’s some really simple fun things that you can do that will actually make your yard fit better into the local environment and attract all sorts of cool birds and butterflies and other kinds of backyard wildlife. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s so amazing because on today’s show earlier, we had Lisa Novick from the Theodore Payne Foundation and she was talking specifically about native plants and things and just about what you’re talking about in terms of wildlife. Why don’t you hit upon that and talk about the importance behind natural wildlife in our backyards and communities that we live in? DAVID MIZEJEWSKI: Absolutely yeah, so the Natural Wildlife Federation has actually been this for 40 years and this year is actually the 40th anniversary of our Certified Wildlife Habitat Program and that’s what Garden for Wildlife Month is all about promoting. This is a program that we designed back in 1973 that really was about two things. It was about helping out the wildlife that’s losing habitat because of human activity in urban and suburban areas, so development, roads, pollution, all of these things that kind of make it harder for wild animals to survive so it’s about helping the wildlife but we also created this program to help people. We know that people spend so much more time indoors than they used to and that’s not a good thing, both for our health and also our ability to sort of know about nature and so this is a program to try to get folks to turn off their TV and get outside, even if it’s just in your yard and you really will find out that nature is all around you and like I said, the things that you do in your existing yard, you can make it even better so what are those things? What are things that we try to get folks to do? You mentioned native plants and that really is kind of the backbone of creating a wildlife friendly garden because Mother Nature provides habitat first and foremost through the plant community and so if you kind of learn from Mother Nature and look what she does out in the true wild, you can kind of mimic that in your yard and there’s four things that all wildlife species need. They’re food, water, cover or shelter, and then places where the wildlife can breed and raise their young and native plants actually provide three of those four things. The plants are at the bottom of the food chain, as I just mentioned, so plants are providing food in the form of seeds, nuts, berries, and some cases foliage, nectar, pollen, sap. All of these are ways that plants are providing food to a whole variety of different wildlife. They also are the food for smaller critters, insects and smaller animals that become food for animals higher up on the food chain so you really need to have a good diversely planted garden. You want to focus on native plants, which again are the species that just naturally evolved in your area. They’re the species that the local wildlife have depended upon for tens of thousands of years and they’re the plants that are best for providing food and then also, the shelter and the places to raise young for the wildlife so that really does need to be the first thing that you think about when you think about creating a wildlife friendly garden and participating in the National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat Program. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know David, so you create this wildlife friendly garden. I live now in New York City and I grew up in New York City. Talk about then the animals that potentially could even show up once you’ve created this wonderful wildlife friendly garden that you’re articulating so well. DAVID MIZEJEWSKI: One of the things that I think is so cool about this concept and our program is that it doesn’t matter where you live. It doesn’t matter how much space you have. It doesn’t matter what your budget is. If you can do any kind of gardening, even if it’s just container gardening, even if you’re in the middle of Manhattan in New York City, there are things that you can do that will actually help out the local wildlife and all it really requires is that you have just a teensy little bit of space and that you can actually get some plants in the ground but if you have a rooftop garden, if you have a balcony or a deck or even just a window box, in some cases, you can meet those basic requirements of food, water, shelter, places to raise young for certain wildlife species so as far as the kinds of species that are going to show up, that really is dependent upon how you provide that habitat and where you are so in the middle of New York City, you’re probably not going to get deer or something through your neighborhood unless you’re right near- JOHN SHEGERIAN: Central Park DAVID MIZEJEWSKI: Yeah, exactly. I think it really depends. If you’re in an urban area, probably you’re looking at birds, butterflies, and other insects. JOHN SHEGERIAN: They’re still beautiful. DAVID MIZEJEWSKI: Absolutely and important. Those animals count as wildlife. I had a series on Animal Planet a few years back all about this idea of gardening for wildlife. It was called Backyard Habitat and we travelled the country and we kind of made over garden spaces and made them into wildlife friendly habitats that the National Wildlife Federation then certified in our program and we did a few episodes in Chicago. Chicago is the city that’s known for having green roofs. These are converting the rooftop buildings instead of just having the tall shingles or gravel up on the top of buildings, actually turning them into garden spaces and I’ll tell you I was skeptical as to the value for wildlife that some of these rooftop gardens would have and City Hall in Chicago is known for having this amazing rooftop garden but it’s 13 stories up and I was thinking to myself what’s going to really be up there? Let me tell you my jaw dropped when I got up there. It was literally teeming with wildlife. There were so many butterflies and dragonflies and beetles and other cool insects, bees that were pollinating everything. There were a ton of different kind of bird species and not just the pigeons and the sparrows that you might think of and being in the city and they actually had raptors that would patrol around there and lots of different songbirds so again, the point is is that no matter where you live, if you live in the city, if you live in the country, or probably like most people that this program is going to appeal to, if you just have a typical suburban backyard, there are simple things that you can do that will make your yard more environmentally friendly, more wildlife friendly and will make you eligible to participate in National Wildlife Federation’s program, specifically for Garden Wildlife Month in May. JOHN SHEGERIAN: If you just joined us now, we have David Mizejewski on with us from the National Wildlife Federation and please go to their website. We’re talking about their Garden for Wildlife Month. It’s wonderful and gorgeous website. I have it up in front of me. It’s www.nwf.org. David, what we love to talk about in this show is problems that are out there and then we like to give solutions so how do people create a wildlife garden in particular? And explain a little bit about that whole thing and how easy it is. DAVID MIZEJEWSKI: One of the first things that I’ll tell folks is definitely check out our website that you’ve plugged a couple times. It’s nwf.org and if you go to /garden, it takes you right into our site and so we have lots of different projects and ideas and kind of step-by-step articles and info on how to do all of this stuff but again, the thing that you want to think about are the four components of habitat that you want to apply into your garden space so they’re food, water, cover or shelter, and then places for the wildlife to raise their young so keeping it really super simple, as far as providing food, you definitely want to think about the plants first, as I’ve mentioned. Native plants are best and again, because that’s how Mother Nature feeds the wildlife so even if you go out and say plant a bunch of wildflowers that are going to provide nectar to butterflies and bees and other pollinators, that’s a form of food and those same wildflowers might then also later in the season go to seed and then they’ll produce seeds for birds like Goldfinches and other seed eating birds so right there, that’s one kind of plant and I’m thinking of things like very common garden plants, Black Eyed Susans, Purple Coneflowers, things like that that you can get in almost any garden center. These are going to be good food sources for different kinds of wildlife. If you want to plant a shrub that maybe also has flowers that are going to provide nectar or pollen and then those will later in the season produce berries, blueberries, blackberries, huckleberries, elderberries, these are all great plants that are native, depending on where you are in the country, that will provide that sort of double whammy, nectar and then also seeds or fruit later in the season so again, even if you only have containers, you should have enough space to provide a couple wildflower plants and then maybe a couple shrubs. If you have a bigger space, obviously you can add more of these kinds of things. That’s going to form the basis of the food in your garden. Now if you want to supplement that for birds, it’s totally okay to put up a few bird feeders but I always try to emphasize that bird feeders are kind of like the fast food of the backyard habitat and so birds really do truly only use them to supplement the natural foods that they’re finding out in the landscape and before we handle a bird species, we’ll actually even visit a bird feeder so if you really are thinking about it and you want to help out the wildlife and you want to meet this first component of food, think of it in the right order, that you want to do your plants first. They’re going to provide the seeds, the nuts, the berries, the fruit. They’ll also support the insects that birds need, especially in the springtime. Something like 96% of songbirds in eastern part of North America at any rate where this has been studied rely on insects as the primary food source for themselves and their babies so that becomes important too when you think about things like spraying pesticides and chemicals all over your yard. If you wipe out the insects, you wipe out the bird food so that’s important to remember as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk about that, insects and garden pests and stuff of that nature, weeds that crop up then when you start to venture into this wildlife idea? What happens then? Is this good or bad and how do you deal with it? DAVID MIZEJEWSKI: Yeah, so one of the biggest questions that we get at National Wildlife Federation when we talk about creating these wildlife friendly gardens is, ‘Oh does that mean that my yard is just going to be covered in weeds? Does that mean that I’m going to be like the neighbor that has all the rats in my yard or nothing but raccoons coming and getting into my trash cans?’ and the answer to those questions is no. The whole idea here is, like I’ve been saying, is kind of mimic Mother Nature. That doesn’t mean that you have to invite every single animal out there into the world and there’s certainly species that are more appropriate and less appropriate so our program is not about attracting bears or mountain lions. Depending on where you live, these are things that could happen and so it’s about attracting appropriate wildlife and we try to teach people how to, what I call, live in harmony, or avoid conflict with other wildlife species so we do try to give people tips on planting a garden for butterflies but also make sure you store your trash in a secure trash bin so that the raccoons don’t get into it. If you live in bear country, don’t just put your trash cans out on the corner. We have tips on keeping your plants from getting all munched from the deer. People love or hate deer. It’s just like with squirrels so it’s about doing all those things and we recognize that not everybody wants every kind of wildlife species and/or plant. When it comes to the weed question, the idea here is that you can implement these four things, food, water, cover, and places to raise young and if you want, as far as your garden design goes, you can make a very naturalistic or wild looking garden, a meadow garden. You can let a portion of your yard literally just sort of grow wild and see what comes up and manage it that way but if you live in a neighborhood where that’s really not going to be okay in terms of neighbors and things like Homeowners Associations, you can take these principles and apply them to a very traditional looking suburban landscape. You can even have a very formal looking landscape where things are neat and in rows and geometric patterns and things like that and if you’re picking the right plant species and you’re making sure that you have the right features in there, it can still be really beneficial to wildlife and I’ll say this: Probably the wildlife like it wild and that’s going to be their biggest preference but at the same time, we also recognize that people who choose this kind of gardening and choose this kind of landscaping, they are ambassadors for the whole notion of living a little bit softer on the earth and if you take it too far to one extreme of wild, you actually could hurt the cause. You could get people sort of having a negative association with it so we try to encourage folks to think in balance and if you do want to have a really wild look, one of the best habitat features that you can have in your yard for example, is a dead tree. We call these things snags and they can be like wildlife hotels. As the tree breaks down and it deteriorates and branches fall off, you get all sorts of insects moving in and then the birds come in to get the insects, woodpeckers and other insect eating birds. Cavities form and then squirrels and birds, owls and woodpeckers and other cavity nesting birds, chickadees, bluebirds, things like that, maybe even wood ducks will form their nests in there but most people are not going to want a big dead tree in their front yard, right? So one of my tips is if you do have that kind of feature and you do want to have a wild look, think about maybe just doing that at the back of your property and making a little bit more of a formal traditional landscape in the front with the right plants that are still going to provide habitat for wildlife but neighbors that might not be into the idea would never know the difference. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, like I shared with you on an earlier show today, we had Lisa Novick on talking about the importance of native plants. Share with us your take on that and when you’re doing a wildlife garden, the importance of sticking natively. DAVID MIZEJEWSKI: Yeah, so I’ve touched on that a little bit. The whole idea with native plants are that they’re just the plants that wildlife have evolved with. They’re the most useful when it comes to providing habitat for wildlife. The animals and the plants have their lifecycles in sync with each other so for example, right now springtime, a lot of the plants are blooming. Flowers are blooming for the first time and that’s timed with the weather and with the seasonal change so that those plants are providing nectar, for example, for all of the emerging bees and other pollinating insects and so if that gets out of sync, then you start kind of removing links in the food chain, so to speak, and weaken that web of life so if you use native plants, it makes it really easy. You don’t even necessarily have to think about it or worry about it. Mother Nature does the job for you and again, that’s not to say there aren’t certain ornamental exotic plants that might not still provide food or that resting place but they’re not as good at fitting into that sort of web of life that existed before we came in and bulldozed everything. That’s the idea here. You can start putting those pieces back in place and start subtly weaving in some of the complex relationships to form this sort of tapestry of Mother Nature that were there before we changed everything. Again, the idea here is that we can give back and again, simple choices. Maybe instead of having nothing but lawn, which doesn’t really have any habitat value, maybe you add some beds where you’re planting some native wildflowers or an ornamental but still native shrub and that’s another important point here too and that’s sort of a misperception that native plants are just weeds. Totally not true and some of our most common ornamental landscaping plants are native. Purple Coneflowers are a great example, Black Eyed Susans, Flowering Dogwoods, just a few of the very commonly planted ornamental landscape plants that are completely native so again, if you go to our website, it’s nwf.org/garden, we’ve got some really great native plant resources , lists of native plants, we actually even have a native plant program called American Beauties and this is a really neat program where the garden industry actually came to the National Wildlife Federation and said, ‘We recognize that there’s a need out there to be doing better when it comes to providing appropriate plant material that is native and we want to work with you,’ and so we got this great program that is regional right now but our goal is to sort of spread it all around the country and get some of these beautiful amazingly diverse native plants out there in to the marketplace so that folks can be planting stuff that is going to benefit wildlife and fit best into nature so you can get that all on the website. JOHN SHEGERIAN: David, we have about a minute left. Any final thoughts for our listeners out there? Because you’re so articulate and you really get the message out. DAVID MIZEJEWSKI: The big thing is that this May is the third annual Garden for Wildlife Month so our goal for Garden for Wildlife Month is to get as many people out there to create wildlife friendly garden and certify it with the National Wildlife Federation. All the instructions are up on the website, nwf.org/garden. When you do that, you’re doing something good for wildlife but if you certify your yard, you get a great certificate. You can purchase a yard sign. You become a National Wildlife Federation member, lots of really great benefits and if you do it during the month of May for Garden for Wildlife Month, NWF will plant a tree in your name so the value of creating a wildlife friendly garden is going to go a long way and what we’re trying to do is get 4,000 people within the month of May to certify their garden so hopefully lots of the listeners will go out, check out the website, make some simple changes in their yard (it doesn’t have to be hard) and then they’ll be able to participate in Garden for Wildlife Month. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That would be just wonderful and again, David, we thank you for coming back on today. You’re always welcome back on Green is Good. For our listeners one last time, it’s www.nwf.org. It’s an amazing website. I’ve been looking at it while David’s been sharing his great story. David, you are an inspirational environmental evangelist and ambassador and truly living proof that green is good.