Creating Your Backyard Habitat

By: Stacey Wildberger

The Habitat Hero Award is something we have been handing out for three years now to people in the neighborhood who are creating wildlife habitats in their own back yards.  Many people are unsure what means or how to get started.  Some of you are already doing it and don’t even realize it.  Where and how do you get started on creating backyard habitats? All living creatures have basic needs of shelter, food and water so we will examine how we can provide that on our property for the local fauna.

Water is a very basic need we all have It is very easy to provide water sources for wildlife.  It can range from a backyard pond to a bird bath to a water station or even as small as a dish of water with pebbles.  The pond will not only provide the needed water but will become a haven for frogs, toads, dragonflies, and pollinators.  A bird bath or water station is simple to put out and maintain. What fun to look out and see a small flock of blue birds crowded in your bird bath splashing around! Of course be sure to empty and clean it often to avoid mosquito larvae.

Bird bath with heater

Another necessity to sustain life is food.  Obviously each species has its own requirements for food but we will examine a few natural ideas.  Food sources can be as basic as leaving dead leaves or keeping a partial trunk from a dead tree (called a snag).  Birds can find all kinds of insects in the leaf litter and in the trunk of that tree.  Woodpeckers will delight in beetle larva, flickers will search through the fallen leaves for hours.  Native plants will bring in the butterflies to lay their eggs on their favorite host plants and those caterpillars will be used by 96% of the terrestrial birds to raise their babies.  Did you know it takes 7,000-9,000 caterpillars to raise a clutch of chickadees?  Consider adding in some night blooming plants to support moths, having something in bloom throughout all seasons and having a variety of types of plants, groundcovers, flowering plants, shrubs and trees.  The plants will provide nectar, seeds, nuts, berries, pollen and insects; something for everyone!

Snag, leaf litter, and branches

Shelter and nesting areas are also an important need for survival. Animals need a place to feel safe from predators to raise their young.  We can help birds by providing nesting boxes in a variety of styles for different species or nesting materials (natural is best) such as small twigs, dead leaves, dried grass, feathers, plant “fluff”, pine needles and bark strips; all make safe and excellent nest materials.  Avoid string, plastics, tinsel, cellophane, foil and dryer lint.  Planting shrubs and trees will provide natural areas for nest building, and so is leaving a “snag” on your property.  The cavity nesters will love to carve out a nest in the decaying bark.  Some birds will also use mud. So if you keep a bare spot in the landscape you could help swallows, phoebes and robins construct their nests. Other wildlife will benefit from the fallen leaves to shelter in.  Did you know there are hundreds of caterpillars that will complete their life cycles on a single species of tree – the Oak – which is considered a keystone species (Doug Tallamy)?  The butterfly or moth will lay their eggs, the caterpillars will hatch, eat the oak leaves, hang on to a branch as chrysalis or drop to the ground to pupate in the ground .  In a typical landscape that tree will be surrounded by grass or worse pavement and typically that moth or butterfly will die because it cannot penetrate the ground. If instead we flipped that on its head and planted around our trees a layered garden to include groundcovers, flowering perennials, small shrubs you will greatly increase their chance of survival and you will have a lovely landscape as well. 

After a storm we go out into the backyard and clean up all the leaves, twigs, branches that may have been blown down and set them out on the curb, off to the landfill.  What if instead you took the “debris” and made a small pile off to the side or back of the property to provide a safe haven for wildlife, a rabbit may seek shelter, a salamander may call it as it home, snakes may hunt rodents there, butterflies and other insects may overwinter and birds can use it as a hiding spot or safe place as the go-between area of the yard.  Consider placing it in between two areas like the woods edge and a pond.  It is a great transition area as they move between the two spots.  Allowing vines to grow over the brush or log pile will help keep it looking well intentioned.  I leave my Christmas tree in the very back of property ever year as it offers the benefits of a brush pile.  Of course a pond can provide many opportunities to shelter for amphibians and aquatic life, no matter the size.

I watched the entomologist Doug Tallamy today and I am going to close with the eight things he suggests we can do to restore the ecosystem to your backyard which will create a habitat-friendly yard:

  • Cut your lawn area by at least ½ then add in native plants
  • Plant for specialized bees, the generalist will use them too
  • Remove the invasive plants from your yard that are outcompeting the natives (English ivy, Barberry, porcelain berry, privet, to name a few)
  • Plant keystone species that will offer the most bang for your buck (oak, native cherries, native willows, goldenrods, aster and native sunflowers)
  • Landscape for caterpillars – see my description above about layering plants around your trees
  • Reduce light pollution- use motion sensors, replace white bulbs with yellow or use LED lights
  • Cancel your mosquito spraying- the sprays kill anything despite what ”Joe” tells you.  Natural products are still poison!  Need to stop them at the beginning of the life cycle –larval stage.  Fill a bucket then add a mosquito dunk after they have laid their eggs.
  • Eliminate  all insecticides.  Insects are not the enemy, they are bird food

I highly recommend you read Doug Tallamy’s new book “Nature’s Best Hope” this winter in preparation for this spring.  It will help you plan your gardens and landscape to create a more friendly and inviting habitat to the “little things that run the world”- insects – (E.  O. Wilson.)  If we start by creating a safe place for insects the birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles will follow.  It is no longer enough to think nature exists somewhere out there, it begins in your own backyard and Tallamy’s book will help you create your own Homegrown National Park, and maybe you will be our next Habitat Hero.  I am happy to help you come up with some ideas of where to start.

Contact me at president@capeconservationcorps.crg

Native Alternatives for Your Landscapes

By: Stacey Wildberger

Let’s talk about some native alternatives to non-native, even invasive, common plants found in our landscapes.  First, what are the definitions of native, non-native and invasive?

  • A native plant is one that has formed symbiotic relationships with native wildlife over thousands of years, and therefore offer the most sustainable habitat. A plant is considered native if it has occurred naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat without human introduction. (National Wildlife Federation).
  • Non-native or exotic plants are ones that evolved in other parts of the world, or were cultivated by humans into forms that don’t exist in nature, do not support wildlife as well as native plants. Occasionally, they can even escape into the wild and become invasive exotics that destroy natural habitat. (NWF)
  • An invasive plant is a plant that is not native to the ecosystem, which can cause economic and environmental harm to the ecosystem by out competing the native plants.

Most typical landscape companies are going to use a variety of over-used, non-native plants in their installations because they are widely found and often times cheaper than a native alternatives.  Typical foundation plantings will include non-native holly species from Japan, China or Europe, nandina, barberry, liriope and some hostas.  None of these plants offer any wildlife value: they are devoid of life and disrupt native food webs. You can make a difference to the ecosystem with a few simple swaps, either removing a non-native or invasive plant you already have with a native, or choosing native alternatives when you are adding to your landscapes.

Hedera helix English ivy has long been used to create the look of a classic English garden but we now know it climbs our trees, killing them.  If you are looking for a groundcover that will be beautiful and provide wildlife benefits there are several groundcovers that you should consider.  Chrysogonum virginianum green and gold is semi-evergreen that will delight in the early spring with its cheerful daisy like yellow bloom. Asarum canadense wild ginger’s heart shaped foliage has a velvety texture that will add interest as groundcover, with a small, dark red to brownish flower that develops in between the two leaves.

Geranium maculatum

Hostas are quite popular for many local gardeners because they are low maintence but they offer no value to the natural world around them. This is another one that Asarum canadense wild ginger could be used instead.  You could also use Geranium maculatum wild geranium for a pop of color.  This will spread quickly and form a beautiful groundcover. Also check out Polygonatum biflorum Solomon’s seal in place of hostas.

Day lilies or ditch lilies will take over and choke out native plants that are supporting our ecosystem.  There is a very interesting alternative that is very under used but will offer great structure and interest to your- Eryngium yuccifolium rattlesnake master.  They mid-summer blossom is highly attractive to adult insects. If you are looking for an orange alternative use Asclepias tuberosa butterfly milkweed.  Not only do you get the orange color but you are providing larval host plant for Monarch butterflies.

Rattlesnake master

There is another underused plant, a shrub that is an ideal alternative to Spiraea japonica spiraea – Ceanothus americanus New Jersey tea with its similar shape you won’t notice the difference but the wildlife that benefits from you choosing a native will! Itea virginica sweetspire would also work well in place if spirea.

To replace the overdone liriope there are many beautiful species of Carex.  I recommend Carex blanda woodland sedge or bright green ornamental Carex plantaginea seersucker edge for a beautiful alternative with wildlife value.

Carex plantaginea

Instead of using chrysanthemums in your fall garden, plant any number of our native Asters, they provide fall color in an array of pinks to deep purple and offer a nectar source for migrating butterflies.  Paired with the dazzling yellow Solidago sp. You will have a fall combination that is beautiful to behold and beneficial to insects.

People will argue with me that butterfly bush is not invasive and it attracts so many butterflies but this a highly invasive plant that offers nothing but a high sugar nectar—the equivalent to us eating a candy bar.  And not one species of Lepidoptera will use it as a host plant.  There are several beautiful natives that will attract your butterflies just as well.  The one that comes to mind first is Eutrochium sp. Joe Pye Weed.  The E. maculatum species will reach heights of 6-8’ and be covered in swallowtails, monarchs, buckeyes and many more!  Use Asclepias syriaca common milkweed as another alternative, not only is it an important nectar source but it is a larval host plant for monarchs. If you want a shrub to replace it with go with Clethra alnifolia summersweet, this sun to shade lover will bring in many different pollinators.

Viburnum dentatum

I have saved the “best” for last. Please, please consider getting rid of Nandina domestica nandina and Berberis  barberry.  These two are highly invasive, even if you don’t see it spreading in your yard trust me the birds are carrying those seeds in their bellies and spreading them far and wide into the natural areas where they will wreak havoc on the natural landscapes.  They form dense stands that will outcompete all natives.  The barberry stands become a haven for ticks! The nandina berries are toxic to birds and have been known to kill cedar waxwings. These two shrubs are revered for their gorgeous fall colors so let’s look at some shrubs that will offer you the colors you want and add value to the surrounding wildlife and enhance the ecosystem.  The list for alternatives is lengthy and I’ll share just a few.  I advise looking up the conditions these native alternatives prefer and match them to your site.  If you are looking to capture that amazing fall color of burning bush use Physocarpus opulifolius ninebark, Vaccinium corymbosum northern blueberry, Itea virginica sweetspire, Hydrangea quercifolia oakleaf hydrangea and Viburnum dentatum for a beautiful autumn red display.  If it is the red berries of the nandina that captivate you consider using Ilex verticillata winterberry, Aronia arbutifolia red chokeberry and I would highly recommend using Ilex glabra inkberry for its deep ink colored berries, and it is evergreen!


We need to reach deeper into our imaginations to find alternatives to the use in our landscapes that should be more about providing for wildlife, giving back our landscapes for the greater good of Mother Nature.  Re-think what pretty means and stop making our gardens “an expression of personal style” that imparts human supremacy over wildlife. (Benjamin Vogt)

2020 Wrap Up—Keeping Busy

By Stacey Wildberger

Wrapping up 2020 (can’t end soon enough) I wanted to take some time to thank all the volunteers that have come out to help Cape Conservation Corps with our restoration projects, a big one being our Wednesday Weed Warriors, a weekly removal of invasive species at the Serene Ravine.  We started in mid-March with a kickoff event “Wine in the Weeds” to recruit volunteers and show the community what we did since 2012 at the Serene Ravine to eradicate invasive plants and establish natives. We had a great turnout and lots of interest but then COVID-19 hit and we were locked down.  A few regulars showed up in the early weeks with masks and safe distancing to tackle the first to emerge Alliaria petiolata garlic mustard.  As people became restless our volunteers continued to increase.  We offered ice cream treats, Rita’s and Gatorade to keep them coming back.  We had high school and middle school students trying to get service hours or build their leadership skills, scouts of all ages, as well as community members wanting to get involved.  As the garlic mustard started to disappear the dreaded Cayratia japonicabushkiller began to rear its ugly head.  The volunteers were shown what to look for and how to remove it (getting as much of the roots as possible).  We showed them how it will quickly climb the small understory trees and shrubs as it tries to reach sunlight and will choke out and kill those trees.  We worked diligently all summer, each week new volunteers would join us as others faded away.  Some weeks we had 12-15 people working on a hot, humid Wednesday evening.  The record number of bags pulled was 19 by 10 volunteers in early October.  In 2012 when CCC (then known as Friends of Lake Claire) began their work at the Serene Ravine the bushkiller was discovered and reported to State and County officials.  They confirmed that it was the first known population of this invasive creep.  It is thought to have been introduced by a former homeowner in the area, and then escaped cultivation and overtook the Ravine.  Early efforts to control this beast included Eco Goats and pesticides.  As more native plants have been planted or arrived on their own we have stopped spraying and have opted now for hand pulling.  We have experimented with a variety of ideas but little to no information has been found to eradicate it.  We will continue our efforts to control it manually as we brainstorm other options. 

Bush Killer bagged by Wednesday Weed Warriors

In addition to our efforts to remove invasives we also want to encourage native plants that either have volunteered or have been planted by us to help the ecosystem along.  We started last year with a large planting of Packera aurea golden ragwort to help us outcompete the garlic mustard (and it is working!) The beautiful early spring bloom of the golden ragwort enticed dog walkers and families to walk along the path. We followed up this year by planting 3 species of Carex (a grass-like plant) suited to different conditions found at the Serene Ravine.  We followed that planting with another round of planting in mid-May.  We planted some Phlox divaricata woodland phlox in 2 colors so next spring there will be even more color to the passerby.  We also wanted to add some fall blooming plants so we added Eurybia divaricata white wood aster, Solidago flexicaulis zig-zag goldenrod and Aster cordifolius blue wood aster as well as the fern Athyrium filix-femina lady fern for texture.  If you walked through there this fall you would have seen the colorful fall display and the happy pollinators. 

Over the summer we applied for a Unity Gardens grant and received $700 to purchase additional plants.  On October 17th we planted over 50 shrubs and 100 ferns along an area of high erosion.  We are hoping the plantings will slow down, spread out and soak in the runoff from the road.  Again, we had many volunteers from scouts, students, community members and board members there to help us.  We appreciate the large number of volunteers that we have had this year and we hope many (or all) of them come back next year to continue our efforts.  Of course we are always looking for new volunteers so please reach out to see how you can be part of the solution and help our ecosystem.  Be a good steward of our land to help reach our goals for clean water and a healthy ecosystem.  Thank you to Matthew Toronto for transporting our shrubs and ferns from St. Michaels to the Serene Ravine safely.  Be sure to remember Matthew for all your hauling needs $75-100 DUMP RUNS! 443.838.4352

Packera aurea blooming at Serene Ravine

Another project we are excited about is Eagle Scout Candidate Sam Papps’ Eagle Scout project for the Serene Ravine.  Sam is building three Leopold benches complete with plaques containing a different quote from Leopold about conservationism. We hope to have the project completed this month so stay tuned for pictures and then stop by to stroll through the Serene Ravine and enjoy the sights and sounds of Mother Nature from one of the new benches.

Another big project of ours this year was our annual Native Plant Fest and Sale.  This was our 4th year doing this and much was changed this due to, well you know!  We did not have much of a “Fest” feeling as we didn’t have informational tables but we still had many experts on hand to assist in finding your plants and answering your questions.  We also had the added pressure to keep everyone safe so we implemented a safe plan by having one way in, one way out, limited the number of shoppers at a time and required social distancing and masks.  The event was a huge success and people came from many surrounding counties to attend the event.  The only problem was that we did NOT HAVE ENOUGH PLANTS.  We ordered 1,450 plants, expending $9,000 of our funds, and still ran out in about an hour.  We had to turn away a long line of native plant enthusiasts empty handed.  For that we are terribly sorry.  We did not anticipate this level of demand.  We are working on ways to have more plants next year and hope for as less challenging environment as this pandemic ends! We thank you for the support of the sale and apologize if you were one of those that missed out. 

Native Plant Fest and Sale ready to start

Please follow us on Facebook, visit our website and become a member and/or volunteer.  It takes money and muscle to build a better ecosystem for us all! or email me at

Praying Mantis

Read this fascinating article on praying mantis from The Nature Conservancy (click on the picture below):

While you are there, The Nature Conservancy has more interesting articles at the page:

Cape Conservation Corps Fall Native Plant Fest & Sale

By Stacey Wildberger

What can we say about 2020 that hasn’t already been said?  Everything has been cancelled or “postponed” or reimagined.  This year nothing has been the same but people have found a way to persevere, find new hobbies, spend quiet time with their families, and escape the hustle and bustle of life.  After much thought Cape Conservation Corps is pushing forward for their annual Fall Native Plant Fest and Sale with of course a few modifications.  We will of course be following all state and local protocols for social distancing, including requiring masks to be worn.  If anything changes before the sale we will make adjustments up to and including online orders with curbside pickups but for now the sale is ON! 

We are once again offering a variety of native plants that will bring all the pollinators to your yard, contribute to a healthy ecosystem and create a beautiful landscape for you to enjoy.  The selection of plants will include many fall bloomers for show stopping autumn color and fuel for migrating butterflies as well as summer bloomers, ferns, groundcovers, grasses and my favorite group the grass-like sedges.  Many of these are host plants for butterflies and moths, offer nesting sites for overwintering insects (the hollow stems of Joe-Pye Weed) and food sources for birds, small mammals and pollinators.  We will have sun loving plants as well as many plants ideal for the shady gardens of the Cape! 

Ferns- We will have three varieties of ferns this year in a quart size.  They will include Polystichum acrostichoides Christmas fern, Athyrium filix-femina Lady fern and Dryopteris marginalis Eastern wood fern.  These make great additions to your shaded woody areas.

Christmas Fern

Groundcovers- There will be several groundcovers to create that “green” layer to reduce our dependency on mulch.  Plants make the best “mulch’ to suppress weeds.  Our selection includes, Chrysogonum virginianum Green and gold, my favorite work horse that will outcompete invasive plants Packera aurea golden ragwort, Antennaria plantaginifolia plantain-leaf pussytoes – the host plant of the American Painted Lady butterfly.  Low growing Phlox stolonifera and Phlox subulata will be on hand for your early blooming needs as well as Salvia lyrata “purple knockout” lyre-leaf sage.  Did you know there is a great native Pachysandra- Pachysandra procumbens?  Well, we will have it too.  While it is a slow grower, it makes a beautiful shade groundcover. We will also have four species of Carex sedges that make groundcovers.  My favorite is Carex pensylvanica– perfect for the dry shade.

Carex pensylvanica

Grasses- Our selection of grasses include the upright Switchgrass Panicum virgatum “North Wind” which will give structure to the landscape, Schizachyrium scoparium Little bluestem that will withstand the toughest conditions and Muhlenbergia capillaris Pink muhly grass for the beautiful foliage.

Little Bluestem

There is a long list of early to late summer bloomers that will offer all the nectar the butterflies and other pollinators are looking for from Amsonia, Eupatorium dubium Joe-Pye Weed, Chelone glabra Turtlehead, Echinacea purpurea Purple coneflower, Swallowtail magnet Phlox “Jeane”, Lobelia siphilitica great (blue) cardinal flower, and Vernonia noveboracensis  New York ironweed – a towering 6-8’ tall beauty.

Great (blue) cardinal flower

What’s a fall sale without fall bloomers?  We will have several varieties of Solidago Goldenrod and Asters that the fall migrating monarchs need to fuel up for their long trip ahead.  In addition to the butterflies you will see a high number of bees and other insects on these.  There are Goldenrods and Asters for the sunny to part shade to shade areas of your yard

Don’t worry we didn’t forget Asceplias sp. Milkweed.  We will have two – Swamp milkweed (pinkish) and Butterfly weed (orange).  As we know they are the host plants of the much beloved Monarchs but don’t forget there are many species of butterflies and moths that have specific host plant requirements and we will have those too!  These include the Turtlehead (Baltimore checkered spot), Pussytoes (American Painted lady), Panicum for a variety of Skippers. Solidago Goldenrod, and Asters are the top two host plants for a number of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). And did I mention the super low prices: quarts $4, gallons $6 and assorted prices of flats of plugs (16-25 count trays?  Experts on hand, including Nancy Lawson author and wildlife blogger.  See you there (from a distance of course!)

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