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Watertown Bird Garden, Middlesex, MA

Featured Site Created By Mary Dunn

Mary Dunn and her husband have created an urban mecca for wildlife. As avid bird enthusiasts, they have transformed their parcel of land into native habitat that supports dozens of birds, butterflies seeking nectar, bumblebees who overnight on her flowers and a myriad of other creatures. This process has taken time, attention to detail, and dedication. About 11 years ago, the welcoming Carolina Wrens called them home when they were first looking at the property to purchase. And, from day one, they’ve made strategic changes to their landscape. Take a minute to explore all of their photos, appreciating the dramatic BEFORE and AFTER imagery. They teach us that no matter how quaint an urban property is, it can be enhanced to welcome “…the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees…”, all in the name of a love of birds.

What work has been done to improve this site for birds and other wildlife? How long did it take?

Before Landscape Work

Photo © Mary Dunn
When my husband and I first viewed the house on 60 Standish Road in July of 2003, we were leaning towards purchasing it. I admired the corridor of mature trees formed by the back yard of the neighboring properties. I was an avid bird watcher and was a frequent visitor to Mount Auburn Cemetery, our local bird watching hotspot, as well as other sites. What finally sold me on the house was a family of Carolina Wrens that were chattering in the overhanging branches of a neighbor’s tree on the day of the house viewing. Seeing those five Carolina Wrens bouncing around in the tree was exciting. This was the inception of the idea of having my own little bird haven in Watertown, MA. The gardens have been under development for the last ten years.
After Backyard Transformed

Photo © Mary Dunn

The lot had a lawn with an unlandscaped slope. The original plantings on the property included a Mulberry tree, Sugar Maple, Atlantic White Cedar, English Yew, Flowering dogwood, Bleeding Heart, and Forsythia, and a rosebush.

I used the first winter in our new home to plan the outdoor space. Research went into learning about plants that would benefit wildlife and would work with my growing conditions. Native plants were the clear winners. I planned the general layout of the garden on paper. We used rocks purchased at our local stone yard to delineate the different sections of the garden.

Patio Installed

Photo © Mary Dunn
The first thing we did was to create an outdoor patio surrounded by a trellis.
Patio Completion

Photo © Mary Dunn
Secondly, we used terracing to even out the slope. We constructed a low retaining wall out of metamorphic Gneiss, which is a tough rock to work with as it does not cut easily.

In order to maximize the use of space, we created more terraces, island plantings, and paths. It is rather amazing how a space can seem so much larger with islands and paths. We discovered planting in layers is very important for birds. They really like moving from the higher canopy of trees through the lower level shrubs and flowers.

As things grew, I paid careful attention to what plants were being used by insects as well as birds. Studying the lighting conditions in each part of the yard, throughout the year helped guide planting decisions. When plants were not successful in one spot they would get re-sited (sometimes numerous times). One should never be timid about moving plants around. If plants were unsuccessful, we dug them up and put them in pots, labeled with their name on a cedar shingle, and offered free for the taking on the sidewalk. These plants were always quickly scooped up.

Water is greatly appreciated by all wildlife. I increased the number of bird baths from one to four. During the spring migration the number of birdbaths increases to six. The migrants really appreciate the water.

In addition to the garden plantings, I provide birds with seeds, nuts, and suet throughout the year. During the winter and spring I provide live wax worms for the birds. Also, I have moved towards using organic soils for light soil amendments and organic enriching mulches. I do not use pesticides at all. I have been fortunate enough to have a spouse that enjoys birds and gardening as much as I do. Without his brawn and can do attitude this project would have taken twice as long.

What are some successes that you've seen since the improvements were made? (alternatively, "What are you most proud of, or excited to share about this site?")

Taking it in Stages

Photo © Mary Dunn
The improvements made to my yard have connected me more to nature. I was astounded at the amount of wildlife a small patch of well planted land can help support. I am always looking forward to discovering new species in the yard. This has led to a greater interest in plants considered weeds. I am in awe of the plants that have popped up, on their own, in my yard. My spouse likes to yank out anything that looks out of place. I like to see what is popping up and try to identify it. The fern section of my garden established itself on its own.

I never imagined the changes made in my yard would bring in so many warblers. That has been one of my greatest successes. During peak migration season I can watch birds all day. May, 2014, was a banner year. On May 13, 2014, as I was pouring my morning coffee, I heard a warbler by my window. I turned my head and saw a black-throated blue warbler in the gray dogwood about 2 feet away peering in through the window. That special moment was the best present I have ever received on my birthday. That afternoon was spectacular in the yard.

Flowers Attracting Wildlife

Photo © Mary Dunn

The hummingbird visits are becoming more frequent. This year was the first time I had hummingbirds from May until October. At times, when I watered the garden, I would get a hummingbird flying into the water spray! A lovely sight.

The number of bumblebees I get has increased dramatically. I had people taking pictures of all the bees I had on my plantings. It was amusing watching the bumble bees move in on the flowers in the evening. Some even overnight on the Pink Turtlehead flowers.

The butterfly plants increased the visits from butterflies. This year, however, saw a decrease in monarchs. I fear for their survival. I have several different milkweeds and an assortment of nectar plants but monarch visits were noticeably lower than last year.

Are there any tough decisions that had to be made regarding its management? How were they handled?

Taking a Break

Photo © Mary Dunn
I let go of the idea that plants must look perfectly foliaged. After all, insects have to eat and insects bring in the birds. With the introduction of native plants I had an astonishing increase in the number of bugs munching on foliage. At first there were plants that I considered removing because they were so defoliated by insects. I let things be and much to my delight a balance set in with ever increasing bird numbers reducing the number of bugs attacking the greenery. This started me thinking about the importance of establishing balance in my small ecosystem. I find the increasing variety of insects that visit my yard fascinating. Each insect species going about their lives has increased my appreciation for them.
Implementing the Plan

Photo © Mary Dunn

At times, removal of plants proved difficult. I had some issues with the Junipers (Juniperus virginiana) and the Serviceberries (3 Amelanchier canadensis, 1 A. arborea). For about three years the Amelanchiers were thriving, then I started to notice that the berries were becoming severely deformed, undeveloped and covered with spiky orange structures. At its worst, the Junipers, after the early spring rains, would be covered in this orange slime and the Serviceberries looked awful. Research revealed the problem, apple rust disease hosted by the Junipers. I consulted with a local nursery about how to address this issue. The decision was made to remove one of these plants because I did not want to go down the road of never ending use of fungicides to deal with this problem. It pained me to remove the Serviceberries for they were quite popular with the birds. I favored the Junipers for the cover, nesting sites, and berries they provided.

Another painful decision involved removing a Flowering Dogwood (Cornus floridus) that was on the property when we purchased it. The tree was too close to the sidewalk and we would have had to chop of an entire side so people could walk by. This plant did get a good home. We informed my neighbor that we were planning on removing this tree and he offered to dig it up and move it to his property. I really did not think this would work considering the size of the tree (about 12 feet with a trunk diameter of 7 inches).

Husband Hard at Work

Photo © Mary Dunn
My husband and a neighbor dug up the dogwood and dragged it across the street on a tarp. Going into its third year, it seems to be thriving.

Coaxing my spouse into letting go of the lawn idea was something I slowly worked at. Eliminating the lawn had been my plan from the outset. Now that the lawn is all gone my husband delights in not having to mow and really loves the gardens.

Backyard Oasis

Photo © Mary Dunn