Don Torino’s Life in the Meadowlands: It’s Not Too Early to Plan Your Backyard Wildlife Garden

As we maneuver between spring like weather and living in the Arctic tundra we can’t help being teased by Mother Nature and have thoughts of the coming spring and the warmer weather ahead.

I love to daydream of Orioles feeding on Trumpet vine, Monarch caterpillars munching on milkweed and Hummingbirds visiting Cardinal Flower.

And so, after many of our BCAS Wildlife Garden volunteers began e-mailing me asking about our plans for the upcoming spring I thought it was about time for all of us to dig out our native plant books and think about new plants we could add to our existing backyard wildlife gardens to make them even better. If you have not yet set aside a place for nature in your backyard, begin to make plans to help our birds and butterflies this coming spring.

I am often asked, “Why should anyone start a backyard wildlife habitat in the first place? Is it really that important? And what is the big deal about native plants anyway?”

Unfortunately, we know all too well as residents of New Jersey that we lose more and more natural habitat every year to development. The habitat we are left with has become fragmented, sliced and diced, and divided up by houses, roads and commercial expansion which now makes our  backyard habitats even more important than ever for migrating birds, and survival for butterflies and pollinators.

The home environments have become vital stepping stones and rest stops for birds that may be passing through your little backyard stopping for food, water and resting just long enough to continue their long journey to their breeding or wintering grounds thousands of miles away.

Your yard could also be the only nesting place for birds such as the tiny House Wren, Woodpeckers and Chickadees for miles around. Your backyard habitat may be one of the last places that have milkweed in your neighborhood, the only plant that enables the regal Monarch Butterfly to survive.

A backyard habitat should provide food, water, shelter and places to raise young, and native plants are the best place to begin

The true foundation of any habitat, whether it is in the rain forest of Brazil or a backyard in New Jersey, is its native plants. Our plants and wildlife have evolved for eons together; they recognize them and depend on them.

Our natives get their berries when our wildlife needs them most. They attract the insects that are so important to our nesting birds. Native plants make the backyard a healthier place for both you and our wildlife by requiring less water, fertilizers and pesticides. The use of non-native plants puts a halt to this ecosystem; the circle of life comes to an abrupt end. But introducing natives will be like turning on a light switch in a dark room; plant them and the birds, butterflies and pollinators will come…and keep coming.

A few of my favorite natives that can be introduced into your backyard this spring are:

Serviceberry, Winterberry Holly and Elderberry, all will produce berries for everything from Orioles to Cedar Waxwings at precisely the time when our birds need them the most.

Cardinal Flower and Monarda are magnets for the Ruby Throated Hummingbirds which will return to the same backyards every year after an arduous journey north.

Milkweed is survival for the Monarch Butterfly who desperately needs our help. Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias Incarnata) has a beautiful flower but more importantly it will allow the Monarchs to lay their eggs and carry on their lifecycle.

Creating a wildlife garden is empowering. It is something positive that we can accomplish for the environment now, this year. We won’t need to write letters to the governor or our congressman. We don’t have to bother signing online petitions or carry a protest sign. We just need to add some native plants to our backyard and we have made our New Jersey eco-system a better place, not only for wildlife but for our families and future generations

The famous naturalist and environmental philosopher John Muir once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” That could not be more true when it comes to our own backyards

To date, Bergen County Audubon has over 100 Certified Wildlife Gardens. This program helps create stepping stones on the migratory path to help our birds and makes a place for butterflies and pollinators.

For more info on how to get you backyard, schoolyard or business certified go to

And for more info on native plants for your backyard go to



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