A Certified Wildlife Habitat in an Urban Churchyard

“Wildlife” sounds like something that lives out in the wild, right?  We picture wildlife in the jungle, in the desert, or at least deep enough into the forest that it can’t hear motors.

But wild animals live in almost every acre of Earth’s surface.  Squirrels are wildlife.  Ladybugs, ants, and even pigeons are wildlife.  Leopards knock over the garbage cans in Nairobi, and groundhogs knock over my compost bins here in Pittsburgh–a hundred feet from a busy bus route!

It doesn’t take much to make a little patch of Earth just a bit more comfortable for wildlife.  A few years ago, my church actually created a Certified Wildlife Habitat in a small patch of our churchyard, in between two parking lots, near busy Forbes Avenue.  Birds, bugs, and squirrels can find shelter there–and it’s still a comfortable place for humans, too!garden in context

habitat signThe National Wildlife Federation offers guidance to make setting up a wildlife habitat easy.  If you like, you can get your habitat certified and make a donation to get an official sign–but don’t worry, the wildlife will be able to find the habitat without a sign!

I was barely involved in this project–I think I did attend one of the work days–but the people who organized it found it fairly simple to provide the four basic habitat elements:

  1. Food: Edible plants (including some that are edible by humans) and birdseed.
  2. Water: A birdbath and a shallow basin on the ground for animals like toads and turtles who can’t reach an elevated basin.
  3. Cover: Bushy plants that animals can hide under.
  4. Places to raise young: A birdhouse.  The bushes also could be used for nesting, and thriving soil provides habitat for earthworms, ants, and other ground-dwellers.

SW corner, birdbathtomatoesbirdhouseNE corner

It’s not complicated to maintain.  Most of the plants are perennials.  A few parishioners plant vegetables in the spring, weed and water them every week or so throughout the summer, and harvest some of the produce (sometimes they serve it at coffee hour!) while leaving some of it for the wildlife to share.  Somebody refills the birdseed every so often.  The water basins often stay filled with rainwater, but they need to be filled up with tap water during a dry spell and cleaned out occasionally when they get too full of leaves.

view toward churchIt’s okay that our habitat is also a human habitat, with chairs and a table and a small area of lawn that gets mowed (but is not chemically treated).  We are part of nature, too, and we can share the space with the wildlife.

The fence around the garden tells humans that this is a space to respect.  The gate isn’t locked; any passerby could walk into this garden at any time of day or night.  But we haven’t had much trouble with people loitering, littering, hurting the plants, or stealing all the vegetables.  Anyone can see that this is a nice place and its tangled appearance doesn’t mean it’s neglected–it’s just a bit, well, wild.  We humans need little wild experiences in our civilized lives, too!

pink and purple flowerspink flowers

(In some of these pictures, you can see construction in progress on the private school next door.)

hillsideSE cornerThis Certified Wildlife Habitat is the third reinvention of this space since the beginning of the 21st century. It’s sort of like recycling….

In 2009, when I was the leader of a Girl Scout Junior troop meeting at the church, my troop completed the Agent of Change Journey, and for our final project the girls decided to pull out the tall, ugly weeds growing on the slope between the two parking lots and plant lots of perennial flowers.  We hoped that our flowers would make people (in the church and in the neighborhood) happy for years to come.

I remember one of the girls coining the word “jaggerlion” for the most annoying type of plant we were removing: It looks like a dandelion, but when you grab it, it’s all covered with jaggers!!  Most people call these plants thistles.  There are still a few thistles in this garden, amid the pleasanter plants.  But thistles have value in the environment, too!  It’s all about balance….

butterfly bush thistle, hydrangea, columbine

We succeeded in reducing the invasive weeds to much more manageable levels.  But our flowers didn’t grow very well: About half of them bloomed the first year, but only about 5% came up the year after that.  After one more year, the hillside was looking like some random piled-up dirt with various plants here and there.

morning glory zinnia? Meanwhile, the preschool that was renting our church basement classrooms was attempting to earn Keystone STARS, and one of the requirements was a fenced outdoor play area.  They proposed installing a fence around this portion of the yard, enclosing some of the flat lawn as well as the hillside.  I was a member of the vestry (the parish’s governing council, which had to accept or reject this proposal) at the time, and one of the conditions of our agreement was that, if the preschool moved to a new location, they would leave the fence in place.  (We didn’t want fence remnants tripping people!)

They did, in fact, move to a larger space only a year or two later, leaving behind some cultivated garden beds and some perennial plants in this fenced yard.  A committee of church members took over, turning the preschool playground into the garden we have today.

thunbergia vegetable garden

I love having this semi-wild little garden alongside the stone path that leads pedestrians to our church! I often walk that way myself, and it’s such a relief to step away from the busy street into a green and living space–instead of just a swath of boring crew-cut grass or, worse, a walk across a parking lot!

But that’s just my human experience.  To a rabbit, a robin, or a salamander, this little space can be home.  Entire lives are lived in this garden.

The plants soak up some of the carbon dioxide pouring out of the cars and buses and trucks that pass by, and they release oxygen for us to breathe.  Many of our plants were chosen to appeal to native pollinators–urban gardens can help to sustain bee populations!

We can do this even on our narrow strip of land in the city.  Imagine what a suburban church could grow instead of a big, boring lawn!  A Certified Wildlife Habitat can be quite tiny and doesn’t even have to include any ground–it can be on a balcony or a rooftop.

What can your place of worship or community center do to walk more gently on the Earth?  Find 9 more ideas in my article at Kitchen Stewardship!

view from street

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