A love of birdwatching started Jennifer Bowman on her path to creating a certified wildlife habitat in her backyard
For Jennifer Bowman, it all began with birds.
A longtime birdwatcher, Bowman has also been a lifelong gardener, enjoying beautiful gardens created by her father since childhood. Originally from California, Bowman has lived in Virginia for 26 years, first in Augusta County, then in Roanoke, and finally in Fauquier. “There’s something magical about Fauquier County,” she says. “There is such an amazing variety of birds — I’ve seen over 25 varieties of birds in just our small garden, more than I’ve seen anywhere else, and I’m only now starting to learn about the variety of insects. I really love to garden, and I feel like the birds give it a lively, animated feel.”
Last year, Bowman saw an ad on Facebook about certified wildlife habitats from the National Wildlife Federation. She thought, “Well, I pretty much do all that anyway,” and decided to investigate further.
At 1/3 of an acre in rural Catlett, Bowman’s garden is small, but that’s no impediment to certification which, she explained, is not very complicated or especially difficult. And it’s very rewarding.
For certification, there are five factors to be addressed: the yard needs to provide cover for shelter, food sources, water, a place for wildlife to raise young, and sustainable, eco-friendly gardening practices to make it a healthy place for animals, birds, and insects.
Bowman’s style of gardening is best described as “an English cottage garden with a Virginia overlay.” Committed to using native Virginia plants, she has had to forego some of her favorites, such as the red poppy, native to England, and the golden poppy, which is also not native to Virginia and therefore not attractive to our local birds or insects. Using a combination of perennial and annual varieties, she creates a stunning garden for people and for birds every year. “I use the perennials to provide the bones and structure, and fill in with annuals for more color. Especially when I first started the garden, when the perennials weren’t mature yet, I used a lot of annuals for variety.”
It was tough, slow going at first. When she and her husband first moved to their Catlett property, the yard was overgrown and filled with junk. Cleaning it up was a big job, and then she turned her attention to the creation of the garden. After a lot of clearing, Bowman noticed a natural path through a wooded section, so she created a natural woodland area. “You have to walk around your yard and get the feel of it, to find out what it wants to do.” she said.
Bowman sees all sorts of small wildlife in her yard: squirrels, chipmunks, hummingbirds, butterflies, insects, and bees. “We must get five or six different kinds of bees,” she said.
But really, it’s more for the birds in Bowman’s garden. Providing two birdbaths for a source of water, she also puts out six bird feeders, especially in the winter when food sources are limited. She uses a variety of seeds, attracting all different kinds of birds. “Be consistent,” she advised. “Birds have really good memories, and they’ll keep coming back to your feeders if you serve what they like.” And, she adds, “There’s always a chance that you’ll attract a bird that missed his migration. It happens sometimes. One winter we had a Yellow Breasted Chat. He was supposed to have migrated to Central America for the winter, but somehow he didn’t. He was the cutest thing ever. He found a good food source in my garden, and he stayed. We saw him twice a day, at least.”
Bowman recommends Zinnias for hummingbirds and goldfinches, and one of her new additions in her Fauquier garden is the Mahonia Holly Shrub, she said. “It was new to me, but I didn’t see an Eastern Bluebird until I planted it. One year we had so many bluebirds it looked like a Disney cartoon.” Viburnums, holly shrubs, and black chokeberry bushes are particularly good for birds, also.
The importance of insects can’t be ignored, Bowman explains, even if they’re a pest to humans, like mosquitoes. “You have to have plants that attract insects, because that’s what the birds feed on.” A wildlife habitat is really its own ecosystem.
Does she have a problem with wildlife eating her flowers? After all, the beauty of the garden is for people to enjoy as well as wildlife. “It happens,” she said. “After all, they’re only doing what they are programmed to do. You can’t fault them for that. If I have something that I don’t want them to eat, I make sure to put it up higher where they can’t get it, and then make sure to plant other things that they can eat where they can reach them. Otherwise it’s not fair to them."
Yellow Breasted Chat
One of the features of a wildlife habitat is the absence of chemicals, such as fertilizers, weed killers, and pesticides. Does this make maintaining the garden more difficult? “Not really,” Bowman said. “When we first moved here and the property was such a mess, I did use some weed killer. Virginia is like a jungle in the summertime, it’s almost impossible to kill things. But now that the garden’s established, I take care of it without chemicals.” Bowman creates and maintains the garden herself, spending at least 20 hours a week there in the spring and summer. “My husband loves to enjoy the garden, but he doesn’t enjoy the gardening itself. He mows the lawn and does any heavy lifting needed. But I get a lot of joy from the garden, as well as the process of creating it. It’s very therapeutic, and it’s very healing. It’s such a blessing.”
What has changed for Bowman since the decision to create a wildlife habitat? “I’m more mindful of what I do with the garden. What’s going to benefit the birds and wildlife is foremost in my mind. It’s a gentle reminder of who’s in the garden besides me.”