Where: Ottawa, Ontario
Owner profile: Em Stortroen and Michel René de Cotret are both teachers and parents of two children. They are also devoted to a variety of volunteer projects for wildlife.
Size of property: Five m wide by 36 m deep
Before: When Em and Michel moved into their Victorian row-house in 1983, the backyard was hardly inviting for wildlife or humans. The previous owners had given their dog the run of the yard. Uninviting stretches of chain-link fence separated the property from neighbours on either side of the narrow lot. "We carted out loads of garbage," says Michel, "including a Styrofoam sailboat." They also removed many large cement patio stones from a shady area by the back door.
Why they did it: "We lived with it as it was for a few years, but it wasn't appealing in any way," Michel recalls. "We wanted more variety in the yard and we wanted wildlife to use it too." Em saw transforming the backyard as a sanity saver: "Sometimes in the city, I feel like I'm squeezed into a box," she says. "When that happens, I can go sit in the backyard and pretend I’m in a peaceful woodland somewhere."
How they did it: When they decided to transform their sterile backyard, the couple had no master plan. Their first project was a patch of wildflowers that would do well in a shaded area near the house. The wildflowers came from a plant exchange that Michel organized at his school. Over the years, an abundance of other vegetation was rescued from bulldozers during the construction of roads, highway extensions, and housing developments. "We always had our eyes and ears open for signs of development," says Em. Other plants came from a friend's sugar bush when a path was cut along the sap lines. Many more were rescued from a sandpit near a relative's cottage. "The forest floor was collapsing into the pit as they took the sand out," Says Em. Sometimes, Em and Michel sowed seeds directly into the ground.
Today: Now, a delightful mix of wildflowers, vines, shrubs, and trees fills the narrow backyard. A grassy area down the middle is mowed - just occasionally - so visitors can go out and admire the garden. Closer to the house there is room for patio chairs and a table. A large ceramic bowl on the ground serves as a birdbath. A feeder attracts many bird species and squirrels. There's a bird house, too, but "the neighbours have four cats," says Em. "Once we found one sleeping on top of the bird house - so we haven't had much luck there!" Near the back step is a small water dish for toads. There are two composters, and an arbour draped with grape vines where birds love to perch. Even herbs, tomatoes, and scarlet runner beans have room to grow in this prolific garden. The only fertilizers used are compost and horse manure.
Wildlife visitors: squirrels, skunks, raccoons, toads, butterflies, moths, bees, cardinals, purple finches, juncos, chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, blue jays, and more.
Vegetation: Chokecherry, black locust, sand-cherry, lilac, hop-tree, periwinkle, Boston ivy, Virginia creeper, bittersweet, grape vine, wild lily-of-the-valley, moss, fleabane, lady's slipper, running cedar, squirrel corn, wild ginger, wild garlic, trilliums, Jack-in-the-pulpit, wood anemones, bloodroot, hollyhock, several fern varieties, and more.
Cost: Free, aside from the cost of birdseed
Dealing with problems:
- Raccoons were a nuisance until Em and Michel stopped planting corn.
- The elimination of corn from the mixed birdseed got rid of persistent pigeons.
- They pick some insect pests by hand, while birds keep the rest under control.
- They shoo neighbourhood cats away on sight. Plenty of vegetation on many levels provides handy escape routes for birds. Sticks and stones serve as a feline barrier around the back step, since toads make their home underneath it.
- Earwigs collect at night inside bamboo poles or lengths of hose placed on the ground, and are disposed of in the morning.
Tips to others:
- Take your time and be patient.
- Use fallen leaves to blanket the garden in winter, especially to help protect delicate species.
- Place flat stepping-stones here and there if you need a surface to walk on.
- To avoid wintering toads, wait until late in the spring to turn over the garden soil or compost. If you must turn the compost, wear gloves and do it by hand until you're certain that the toads are out and about.