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Thursday, September 28, 2023
Sept. 28, 2023

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Gardening for wild creatures

Smithsonian exhibit highlights gardens’ importance to wildlife

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Smithsonian Gardens has opened its first museumwide exhibition, “Habitat,” to convey the importance of gardening for wildlife. Outside the National Museum of American History is the sculpture “Arches of Life,” by Foon Sham.
Smithsonian Gardens has opened its first museumwide exhibition, “Habitat,” to convey the importance of gardening for wildlife. Outside the National Museum of American History is the sculpture “Arches of Life,” by Foon Sham. Smithsonian Gardens Photo Gallery

Before gardening for pollinators and wildlife habitats became fashionable, the National Wildlife Federation presciently encouraged homeowners to create gardens that provided sustenance and shelter to all manner of creatures.

These gardens would stick out on a block as much for the paucity of the yards around them as for their own richness. In the animal-friendly landscapes, lawns were diminished and gardens were full of long-flowering plants such as lavender, asters and coneflowers.

The federation would certify qualifying gardens — you can get a sign to announce your habitat to the world — marking the recipient as a person who cared about our world and the creatures in it.

Flowers are joyful to us, but for a moth or a bee or a hummingbird, they are essential. A hedge may give us a green screen, but for a songbird, it’s a place to escape the hawk or your neighbor’s free-range cat.

What struck me about these examples was that, although they were made for animals, they were great gardens because they were planted for continuous flowering from March to November. Or to flip that, if you made for yourself a wonderful garden, it would inherently become a great place for birds, small mammals, insects, reptiles and amphibians. It would provide shelter, bloom and fruit virtually every month, have a constant source of water, and grant all the homebuilding material any life form could want. (The complete garden zoo includes caring for all the beneficial microbes in the soil, too.)

As my understanding of the needs of our fellow creatures has grown, I have come to do a little more for the animals than I used to. For example, in choosing a shady vine for my arbor, I put in a Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia macrophylla) instead of a clematis, knowing it would draw the beautiful pipevine swallowtail butterfly, which is large and black with iridescent blue lower wings. Its caterpillars feed on the leaves, raising another key point: All kinds of flowers feed the adult, but the larvae need specific host plants.

If you are setting out to create a welcoming garden, there are a few basic measures. It’s all right to douse aphids with soapy water, but don’t use insecticides, especially systemic ones. Not only will you harm bees and other beneficials, you will destroy the larvae that birds need to raise their young.

Another key strategy is to convert some (or all) of the lawn into plant beds and start planting ground covers in place of mulch. Also high on my list would be to add — and maintain — a water feature, if only a bird bath, and keep the cat indoors. You also have to be more relaxed. It was a revelation to discover that large autumn stands of Swiss chard were not being devoured by slugs but by goldfinches.

In Washington, the Smithsonian’s horticultural division, Smithsonian Gardens, has organized an exhibition named “Habitat,” which explores how gardens can nurture nature. Linked to landscapes at 14 sites across the National Mall, the exhibit seeks to convey three key messages, said Barbara Faust, director of Smithsonian Gardens: “Habitats are homes, they are fragile and interconnected, and they need to be protected.”

Her staff worked with exhibition specialists and craftspeople at the Smithsonian, and turned to wood sculptor Foon Sham for some of the large outdoor sculptures linked to the show. This includes “Mushroom,” made from thousands of slabs of timber and positioned in a shady grove on the west side of the National Museum of American History. It represents the microbial life in healthy garden soil that not only nourishes and protects plants but also allows trees to signal to one another chemically when they are threatened by pests or disease. Nature is connected in ways we are only beginning to comprehend.

The sculptures and other pieces work with interpretive panels to heighten the show’s theme. They also lighten it with their whimsy. If you want a laugh with your education, the display named “Nests,” on the Constitution Avenue side of the Natural History Museum, offers vastly upscaled re-creations of nests, conveying the immense design variety between species. Slung from one limb like a hammock is the pendant nest of a Baltimore oriole. Nearby is a bottlelike nest made from dried mud reinforced with feathers — the nursery of the barn swallow. In the Middle Ages, cottages were constructed from mud and horsehair, and thatched with reeds. It’s as if the birds were showing us the way.

The replicated nest forms are drawn from the Smithsonian’s collection of 5,000 nests, Faust said. Each species brings its own marvelous architecture to the world.

The pollinator garden is a series of linear borders on the east side of the Natural History Museum. It has always been a place full of large summer perennials and annuals that are easy to grow, long-flowering and happy in this town’s heat and humidity. They include various asclepias, tithonia, giant coneflower and the Maryland wild senna, the last a native plant deserving much more garden use.

As part of the exhibition, natural materials have been assembled within the framework of playful insect sculptures to provide habitat for various species of bees and other insects.

By July, the garden has a lush quality that persists into the fall. It is in not cleaning up all the fading material in autumn that allows creatures such as bumblebees, fireflies and various butterflies to maintain their life cycles and flourish.

“It’s OK to be a little bit messy,” said Marisa Scalera, the project manager for “Habitat,” which runs until the end of next year. “Messy can be beautiful.”

“Habitat” is the first coordinated exhibition by Smithsonian Gardens. Others are planned.

“We have 25 million visitors annually,” Faust said. “We hope to bring this into their consciousness, what they can do.”

Gardening tip:

Many late-season perennials benefit from cutting back now to keep them inbounds and prevent flopping. Candidates include asters, Russian sage, caryopteris, lespedeza, buddleia and chrysanthemums. Cut back spring growth by about a half. Hedging shears are an ideal tool.