Planting Signs in Your Natural Landscape Part One: National Wildlife Federation Program

Like many fairly new suburban neighborhoods, my neighborhood has broad stretches of lawns punctuated by landscape beds with shrubs (including those curlicue ones) and a few annual flowers surrounded by expanses of mulch or stones.  My beds are increasingly filled wall to wall with mingled native plants and flowers (as well as a few shrubs), leaving me with less and less open mulch every day.  And, as noted in the last post, I am leaving more and more browning stems and seedheads on my plants.

So, I have already signed up for two programs that provide explanatory signs for my native plants/wildlife habitat enhancing landscape.  I was going to write one blog post outlining some of the best of the sign-providing programs, but it immediately became clear that they offer very different things and that the signs are really just a small part of what you can get out of participation in each program.  So, this will be the first of a series of posts on sign programs, starting with the program of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), which has the sign I have seen most often designating a certified wildlife habitat.

NWF certification and a sign depend on your answers in five areas the organizations deems critical to providing wildlife habitat.  Before you launch right into the registration (and what I consider a rather expensive payment for your sign), you should read over the tutorials for each of the five areas.  Doing so can not only give you ideas on easy ideas for enhancing wildlife habitat, but will underscore what practices you are already taking to help wildlife.

FOOD SOURCES:  You need to be able to certify that you provide three types of food sources, not just three food sources.  The list of possible choices includes, first, food sources from things you are growing in your yard (which NWF prefers to be native plants):  seeds from a plant (see my last post, for ideas), berries, nectar, leaves or twigs, nuts, fruits, sap, and pollen.  Providing insects for consumption by birds or by other insects is mentioned several times, although not specifically on the tutorial’s primary list.  Other acceptable types of food sources are bird feeders, squirrel feeders, hummingbird feeders and butterfly feeders.  While the website describes the last four as “supplemental,” and indicates that such food sources can be particularly helpful in the winter, there is no apparent requirement that any of your food source types must be the plant derived ones.  See

WATER SOURCES:  You need at least one water source on or adjacent to your property.  I was thinking of my little birdbath as I made this certification.  It is true that you can create a birdbath quickly using a shallow dish of water, but a look at the NWF page specifically on birdbaths will help you understand that you can’t just put anything out and be finished.  You need to add a layer of stones for small birds to stand on when in the bath if the birdbath is too deep.  During winter your birdbath may freeze, making it useless—see for all sorts of considerations that go with a bird bath.


Acceptable water sources need not be right on your property—bodies of water such as rivers or bays visible from your property can be used for certification purposes.  NWF especially encourages people with larger properties to consider putting in a rain garden or backyard marsh, and provides special pages to help you with either of those.  See for more information, and links to descriptions of specific water sources.

SOURCES OF COVER:  Did you grow up with the image of birds sheltering each night in a nest, as I did?  Imagine my shock to learn—rather recently—that birds only build and use nests while they are laying eggs and raising young.  The rest of the year, many birds just hang out, day or night, in a place that provides cover.  They apparently don’t necessarily have settled “homes” like humans do, and may not even hang out with the birds that they share offspring with.

Other animals may use “homes” such as burrows or holes in trees for more of the year, but perhaps the chief sheltering need animals have, aside from raising young, is for cover–places to hide from predators, and places to shelter from weather.


NWF requires a certified wildlife habitat to have at least two sources of cover, with acceptable options including wooded areas, bramble patches, ground cover, rock piles/walls, caves, roosting boxes, dense shrubs/thickets, evergreens, brush/log piles, burrow, meadows/prairies, water gardens/ponds and even dead trees with tree cavities.  Cover is an area where a little reading can go a long way in opening up your understanding of the natural world.  See, and the several links included there.

PLACES TO RAISE YOUNG:  So now that we’ve established that birds only hang out in nests when they are laying eggs and raising young, we can consider the NWF certification category for places to raise young, which recognizes the fact that animals cannot survive long term if they cannot successfully raise a next generation of their own kind.  Raising young, as with cover, requires shelter; options you can offer to wildlife for NWF certification include mature trees, meadow or prairie, nesting box, wetlands, caves, host plant for caterpillars, dead trees or snags, dense shrubs or a thicket, water gardens/ponds, and burrows.


Actually, the main write up on this aspect of wildlife habitat, found at, notes that animals may not simply have baby needs and adult needs for shelter/cover, but varying needs at different stages of their lives—think human teenage or young adulthood needs.

SUSTAINABLE PRACTICES:  The last NWF requirement is that you be using two sustainable practices.  This is the one where reading the tutorial at, and clicking on links there is most useful.  The listed areas of sustainable practices are soil and water conservation, controlling exotic species, and organic practices (including eliminating chemical pesticides and composting).  Each of these areas has several sub-options.  You are probably already doing two things—however, reading the tutorial can suggest even more.



The Good Yet to be Done

By:  Lindsay Sementelli

Last week, I wrote a post inspired by the ideas of Philip Loring in his article “It’s Time for a New Story of Humanity’s Place in the World.” As a quick refresher, the article centers around the idea that we humans have long thought of ourselves as naturally at odds with the environment and all living non-human things. Why shouldn’t we think this way, when so many writings, teachings and experiences of the past have left us believing that we cannot thrive as a species without harming the natural world?

This is the type of thinking that this article is trying to help us to correct. Loring presents several writers, leaders and pieces of literature that have left us feeling like we are doing more harm than good in this world (see the article at for specific examples). Loring points out the flaws in that logic, and so, once again, I want to present another piece of writing to support the idea that while we have done our damage, there is still so much good yet to be done.

Since we need to move ourselves away from old ideas, I think it is important to look at familiar and much-loved works from new perspectives. I wrote about “The Road Not Taken” last week as it is a poem that is a favorite of or at least familiar to so many of us. Now, I want to introduce you to a song I have loved for quite some time from a band that has been one of my favorites for the past ten years or so. The verses of “The Good Left Undone” by Rise Against immediately came to mind for this post because I have seen a lot of arguments for why the lyrics of this song, like “The Road Not Taken,” shouldn’t be taken at face value and should be instead used to think about making an important personal decision, like walking away from a loved one. I always thought of the lyrics in a more literal sense, and I think other people could learn a few things from considering them differently! I should note here too that this band is known for their commentary on political and social issues, so I think looking for a double meaning is appropriate. The lyrics are as follows:

In fields where nothing grew but weeds
I found a flower at my feet
Bending there in my direction

I wrapped a hand around its stem
And pulled until the roots gave in
Finding there what I’ve been missing
And I know

So I tell myself, tell myself, it’s wrong
There’s a point we pass
From which we can’t return
I felt the cold rain of the coming storm

All because of you, I haven’t slept in so long
When I do I dream of drowning in the ocean
Longing for the shore, where I can lay my head down
I’ll follow your voice, all you have to do is shout it out

Inside my hands these petals browned
Dried up fallen to the ground
But it was already too late now

I pushed my fingers through the earth
Returned this flower to the dirt
So it could live, I walked away now but I know

Not a day goes by when I don’t feel this burn
There’s a point we pass
From which we can’t return
I felt the cold rain of the coming storm

All because of you I haven’t slept in so long
When I do I dream of drowning in the ocean
Longing for the shore where I can lay my head down
I’ll follow your voice, all you have to do is shout it out

All because of you
All because of you

All because of you I haven’t slept in so long
When I do I dream of drowning in the ocean
Longing for the shore where I can lay my head down
Inside these arms of yours

All because of you I believe in angels
Not the kind with wings no, not the kind with halos
The kind that bring you home
When home becomes a strange place
I’ll follow your voice, all you have to do is shout it out

One of the first things that jumps out at me is the fact that the song starts with “in fields where nothing grew but weeds,” as if to say that beautiful, useful or even life-changing things like that single little flower that gets plucked are rare; everything else is unattractive, disposable or detrimental. The flower gets forcefully picked in what seems like a selfish act, because don’t we all need to collect the best and brightest things for ourselves before they catch anyone else’s eye? There is something a bit off with all of this! We need to find a way to shift our thinking to appreciate and care for everything that appears as “weeds.” We cannot covet and hoard only the best things for ourselves, leaving castoffs for everyone and everything else as well as creating a lot of waste in the process. If we continue to do so, the conditions for inequality are created, pushing us as humans to desperate measures for survival, as Loring describes. When we are pushed to our limits just to get by, the natural world suffers too.

Luckily, by the next verse, a shift in thinking occurs. The flower is returned to the soil, but the problem is that it was only replanted because it was dying. A clear mistake was made, but what is important is that this person now knows better for the next time. They realize that what they did is wrong, and I think the repetition of the lyrics “I felt the cold rain of the coming storm” symbolizes that this person has had the realization that if actions like theirs are repeated, there will be harmful consequences for both humans and nature on a larger scale. The uprooting and replanting of the single flower in this song is a seemingly simple action. It is true that we cannot undo many of our past actions this simply, if at all. However, not making a change because we think it will be too difficult will keep us at odds at nature, and it doesn’t have to be this way. Changing our ways of thinking, finding new ways to thrive and keeping the earth alive and well for all living things will not be easy, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be done and that the small actions like the metaphorical one of this song don’t add up. This action makes a powerful statement that the little things that we are all capable of do count. All the little things add up to something bigger than ourselves, and we can all be the kind of angel without wings or a halo who shouts out to the rest of the world to make a difference.

A Garden is a Place We Are Invited Into

By:  Priscilla Hayes

I have the great privilege of being a part-time garden educator for two K-5 schools in Princeton, New Jersey, a town that has had a commitment to garden education for over a decade.  Generally, I am rushing around one of our school gardens either prepping a garden bed for a class that is coming out in 15 minutes or using a few spare minutes to weed and mulch.  But, I had a few minutes to just sit in the Community Park School “Edible Garden” one beautiful day this fall.  I had set up for a weekend garden event and was just waiting for people to arrive.  On a bench in our classroom/seating area, I enjoyed the rare opportunity to slow myself down.

For all my protestations about people just needing to get outside and observe more, and my tossing about of the phrase “nature deficit disorder,” I was rather shocked to find the garden full of critters—birds, bees, butterflies and more, all acting as though I weren’t there.

Only a few feet away from me, a quite bold squirrel flung him or herself off a tree branch onto one of our tall and lovely corn stalks, grabbed tight, and waited as his/her weight bent the stalk down to the ground.

I’m pretty sure that’s when I called out, “hey you, squirrel!”  It did occur to me, irrationally, that we needed a better name than just “squirrel” for our little friend, but in an instant, I had discovered who was stealing the corn from our corn patch.  I wasn’t going to let our new friend steal another ear of corn, at least while I was sitting there!

True confessions:  having saved an ear of corn, I somehow magically believed the squirrel (or squirrels) would never steal every one.  But our squirrel did just that, scattering empty husks around the Edible Garden.

I had been planning to bring the fourth grade classes out to pick our lovely Indian corn, from seed donated by my friend Zane.  But, having been reminded that a garden is not another human room, but a place where we are invited to share space with lovely living things, I created new lessons to let the kids experience the same reminder.

I asked each fourth grader to solve the mystery of the corn theft.  Each student had to find clues to the thief’s identity, and use them to come up with a conclusion.

I also created a game of “critter bingo” to ask the kids to see who else besides our corn thief was sharing the garden with us.  Students didn’t actually need to see a critter, but had to come up with clues that suggested that critter had been there.  From the kids, I learned where every hole in our fence was, and the location of some probable rabbit or vole holes.  We had a great discussion, considering seriously even the possibility that deer might have been here (in spite of our very tall deer fence).  There are probably still some kids who believe the deer steal in by dark of night.

In spite of my many years of being a gardener, and in spite of my burning desire to get kids outside more to experience nature, it took observing the squirrel to remind me that the critters and the plants are much more full-time residents of the garden ecosystem than we humans are.  We humans count mainly as visitors.  The critters and plants freely invite us in to spend some time in a place that is shaped by humans, yes, but even more by non-humans—from the living soil, which contains more organisms per square inch than any other segment of earth—on up through the wonderful shading trees.

I am indoors as I write this, dreaming my way into the lovely private CP Edible Garden at a time when the ground is frozen.  Me and the kids are really going to pay attention to the garden’s full-time residents this year, looking at the underside of leaves for insects, marveling at the small black voles that just love to hide under a flat of parsley plants and slowing down enough to see the birds.  Of course, we also have to come up with our name for the squirrel, one that will describe what he/she teaches us.

This is not a squirrel--it is a giant leopard moth larva that appeared equally magically in our garden.
This is not a squirrel–it is a giant leopard moth larva that appeared equally magically in our garden.