A Tiny Oasis for Birds and Butterflies

A Tiny Oasis for Birds and Butterflies

By Edie Parnum

A small property in the city would seem to be an unlikely place to successfully attract wildlife. Lynn Jackson loves birds and butterflies, but her entire property in the East Mount Airy section of Philadelphia is a mere 25 by 125 feet—and that includes the house and the cement walkways and driveway. In a sterile area of concrete, asphalt, and patches of grass, the nearest natural area, the Wissahickon section of Fairmount Park, is about five miles away. Undeterred, she decided to create a habitat to attract her beloved winged creatures anyway.

Lynn’s central backyard garden plot is only 12 by 15 feet. Here she has dense plantings of nectar-rich perennials, mostly natives, for butterflies. In the middle of summer when I was visiting, the Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Joe-pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum), Blazing Star (Liatris spicata), Coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata), Anise Hyssop (Agastache lamiaceae), Scabiosa (Scabiosa dipsacaceae), and Butterfly Bush (Buddlea davidii) were all blooming profusely. In the middle of this area she has installed a 3 by 8-foot pond. Farther in the back is another plot measuring 10 by 20 feet where she has planted two Eastern Red Cedars (Junipera virgiana) and a number of native grasses like Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), and Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum).

The front yard measuring 25 by 25 feet is densely planted too. From her front porch she can watch the birds using the feeders, bathing in the birdbath, or eating berries from shrubs such as Red Chokecherry (Aronia arbutifolia), Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica), and Inkberry (Ilex glabra). A Red Maple (Acer rubrum), still young, will eventually supply shade and more cover for the birds. Only one third of this area is grass, and Lynn eventually wants to get rid of even this small lawn.

Lynn’s little yard has succeeded in attracting a variety of birds and butterflies—more than Lynn had imaged possible. Fifteen species of butterflies have visited her yard including more than fifty Sachem Skippers at one time. One August day she had more than forty Cabbage Whites, eight Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, five Silver-spotted Skippers, two Red Admirals, one Monarch, and one American Lady. Her yard bird count stands at twenty. In addition to the common feeder birds, she has had Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and once, for about a week, a Merlin hung around picking off House Sparrows. An American Robin has nested in one of the cedars. Although the nearest body of water is two miles away, Blue Dasher dragonflies started laying eggs immediately after the pond was installed.

Actually, Lynn feels there are advantages to having a small, compact yard. It’s easy for her to view the wildlife activity near at hand as she does her garden chores. Little weeding is necessary because everything is crowded together and any small open spaces are covered with mulch or groundcovers such as Green and Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum). She doesn’t own a lawn mower since a weedwacker is sufficient for her little patch of grass. The small yard is economical, too. She spends little money on plants since she can conveniently divide perennials or move small volunteers to nearby locations. In fact, she was able to finance the original plants and installation of the pond by bartering with a friend.

According to Lynn, her little yard has succeeded as a natural habitat well beyond her hopes. She says, “I often look out of my kitchen window and can see something interesting going on all the time. Nothing is happening in my neighbors’ yards. If I can attract wildlife here where there is no surrounding habitat, anybody can do it.”