A Low-Maintenance Wildlife Garden At The Green Mountain Audubon Center
Tucked into the bright green mountains of Vermont, just a quick drive from our offices, is the Green Mountain Audubon Center. I had heard about their wildlife garden and initiatives to grow little conservationists and decided it was worth a trip.
In true Vermont fashion, the learning center and gardens are up a dirt road and so utterly peaceful I couldn’t help but smile when I got out of the car. I met the center’s director, Kim Guertin, at the bench in the shade of their wildlife gardens to talk more about the inspiration behind them.
It was almost hard to hear her talk with the constant background buzzing noises coming from a variety of bees, birds and butterflies.
“One of our biggest initiatives within Audubon is to create bird-friendly communities,” says Geurtin. “One of the things we do within that program is help people to learn and understand that no matter how big or small your space is – whether it’s an apartment balcony or in our case 255 acres of land – that the choices you make in your yard or balcony can make a difference for birds.”
The Green Mountain Audubon Center installed their wildlife gardens in 2011. “They focus not only on attracting birds, but also attracting pollinators and insects that are a valuable food source for birds,” explains Geurtin. She adds that this year they’ve had the added bonus of attracting small mammals such as rabbits that like to munch on the plants.
They work to bring in hummingbirds and songbirds with insects that are attracted to the plants, as well as seeds from the plants themselves. They have also added varieties such as Chokeberry that provides persistent fruit throughout the winter that birds can rely on.
“We wanted to show people, demonstrate for them, that you don’t need a lot of land to make a difference for birds and your gardens don’t have to be high maintenance,” says Geurtin. “… You can also see that [the garden] is pretty wild looking. We wanted to pick plants, many of them being native to Vermont.”
She explains that there is a big push within the national Audubon – with good reason, she adds – to be planting as many native plants as possible. “It’s because the plants that have grown here for generations have all of these insects rely on them and in turn, feed our birds and other wildlife, Geurtin says. “When we get into these really fancy, beautiful gardens that are full of ornamentals and exotics, they don’t always support the same species of insects that are valuable for wildlife.”
The Audubon’s wildlife gardens have a little bit of both, says Guertin. “There are things here – like Irises – that aren’t native to Vermont and a couple of other plants that aren’t native. However, most of what we’ve tried to do is plant [native] varieties that will spread.”
She explains that some of the plants were planted for their nectar source, while others – like the echinops (globe thistle) and echinacea – were planted for the seeds that are eaten by birds well into the fall.
They have what looks like an overgrown area just beyond the gardens that Geurtin describes as managed for early successional habitat. “We let it grow to a certain point – right now there are a lot of berries, milkweed and goldenrod – and we manage it for species of birds that like that early growth,” she says. As soon as it starts to grow up into more saplings, we cut it back because we want things in there, such as the common yellowthroats and the mourning warblers, that like that habitat.”
Geurtin says they’ve tried to mimic this naturally occurring habitat in the wildlife gardens. “That’s what we try to tell people [building a wildlife garden]. You don’t want to come in and create a space that’s totally unlike everything around it, instead you want to have ideally three things in your garden,” she says.
Three Key Elements To Your Wildlife Garden:
Food (berries, nectar & easily-accessible seeds)
Shelter (grasses, shrubbery, bird houses)
Water Source (bird bath or pond)
Besides these three key elements, the Audubon Center also wanted to add horizontal and vertical structure to their gardens for birds “Not all birds move around or forage in the same spots,” explains Geurtin. “Some of them are going to feel more comfortable running right through the bottom of the garden and some will feel comfortable at the tippy top. Like when we see the goldfinches come through and pick at seeds it’s going to be at the tops of the flowers and a sparrow is going to run along the bottom.”
Geurtin says that another key element to designing their wildlife garden was to keep it fun. They host dozens of camp programs and wildlife classes for young children, so a honeysuckle-covered teepee nestles in the corner of the garden, inviting children in for exploring.
As we talked, I started to notice bird boxes scattered throughout the property. Geurtin explains, “We have within this area bluebird boxes in the garden and further out into the field that are important homes for cavity nesting birds, including tree swallows, chickadees and the occasional eastern bluebird. We also offer hummingbird nectar sources on the front porch.”
"If you have a porch where you can hang one hummingbird feeder and a hanging basket that can help attract them, then you become an important food source not only for the hummingbirds that are breeding in your area, but also during migration when the hummingbirds start moving from the north and start going down the flyway on migration."- Kim Geurtin
Geurtin keeps coming back around to the point she made at the beginning – that no matter how big or small your garden is, you can make a real positive impact on wildlife. “You might feel like your little quarter acre garden is tiny and doing nothing, but if you think of it on a larger scale, within what we call the Atlantic flyway, birds are moving up and down with every migration, every spring and every fall, and as they do it they make stopovers at places like this along the way,” says Geurtin. “Your backyard could be that one stop, that one water source if you have it.”
Your little garden could be the spot that a hummingbird sees flowers at and knows it can get nectar at before it flies to the next one, she says. “Collectively, up and down the flyway, if we can all work together, we can create a whole network of bird-friendly people along the entire flyway. That’s what we’re trying to do as the greater, bigger Audubon.”
Our growing season in much of the Northeast – especially Vermont – is very short, so Geurtin stresses the importance of gardening for birds through the whole entire calendar year.
How To Keep Your Garden Bird-Friendly In The Winter:
Plant something that has winter persistent fruit (such as hollies, chokeberries and crabapples).
Keep your garden tall throughout the winter so birds have a food source. Cut old growth back in the early spring.
As I had anticipated, the wildlife garden at the Audubon is pesticide-free and Geurtin says that its very low maintenance. They add compost every other year if they can.
As we finish our conversation, we notice a few butterflies enjoying the echinacea. “What I love right now is that as I’m talking to you, I’m looking at the garden working with the butterflies and the bee balm is literally buzzing with bees and its just a treat to see that,” says Geurtin.
You can learn more about the Green Mountain Audubon Center on their website. Geurtin told me that the National Audubon Society will be launching a native plant list generator on their website soon. Exciting!