Things are getting really ugly in Pat Sutton's world.
And she likes it that way.
Sutton enjoys going out in her backyard garden in the Goshen section of Middle Township sometimes these days and checking out all the dying flowers and shriveling plants.
She likes that, mainly because she knows lots of birds and butterflies like a garden the same way now, when the days are getting shorter and food for wildlife is getting scarcer in our part of the world.
And Sutton, who for 25 years has taught local workshops on how to attract exotic wildlife into everyday gardens, says the proof her plan works will show up all over your garden all winter.
"It might look a little ugly," she says, "but it's going to be jam-packed with birds. Once people see that, that's the great, 'Ah-hah!'"
She and her husband, Clay - who's also her co-author on a half-dozen or so books (and many more articles) about birds and butterflies in southern New Jersey and beyond - have kept a running count since they moved into their home more than 30 years ago.
They've had 211 species of birds and 75 different kinds of butterflies that stayed around long enough to be counted - although some of them shouldn't normally have been within hundreds of miles of Cape May County. Still, all those critters were somehow drawn by all the nectar-producing plants and other wildlife-friendly habitat the Suttons have put in their garden over the years.
What to plant is a different subject, for a different time of year. But for right now, with December and winter closing in on us fast, Pat Sutton says it's easy for anyone to qualify as an expert wildlife gardener by doing one simple thing - nothing.
Just let your dead flowers and other fading vegetation stay where they are. Don't feel and feed that old urge to pretty up the place by cutting back and tossing out everything that died since the sun started heading south on us, because hummingbirds and monarch butterflies and other popular species don't see anything beautiful in bare dirt and grass.
"It's a great excuse to be a lazy gardener," our expert witness says, although she adds smart gardening for wildlife is hardly just a work-avoidance scheme.
"It's just during the winter months - it's not as if you're going to leave things all helter-skelter and crazy all year," Sutton says. "But spent flower-heads are food, the kind of food source most people don't even think about. It's like a supermarket for (birds)."
All that brown and tan and tangled vegetation can also be good covering for lots of critters - including ones who might be tempted by the type of food some people do think about, the stuff they like to put in bird feeders to see what it draws.
"If people want to have more activity in their own yards, if they want a closer look at things, they really want their yard to simulate a natural area, a meadow," Sutton says. "What bird with any common sense is going to be attracted to a bare, open, foodless, coverless lawn? Basically what wildlife needs is pretty simple - food, cover and water. That's what we try to offer in our garden, and what I tell people who have taken the classes with me."
Sutton also likes to do a little show-and-tell in the workshops, a quick lesson in what people can see out their window in December and January and February if they're willing to make that breakthrough in November and not tear out everything that's seen better months. As an example, she passes along a picture from last December of how an early blizzard turned her graying garden into a scene fit for a painter.
"When I show pictures like that one, it often does sway people," she says. "They start to look at things differently."
People who let their gardens go during the winter sometimes learn their neighbors have a harder time seeing the hidden beauty, because those neighbors may complain to the gardener - or to the local zoning officer.
In those cases, Sutton says it can help to add a few nice-looking signs identifying the area as wildlife habitat, plus maybe a split-rail fence, a clear border around the area and/or a clear walkway through it.
"Put up something that defines it ... tastefully," she suggests, adding it usually works for "people to present what they've created in such a way that from the street it looks interesting, not just a forgotten wasteland."
And some people can educate their neighbors. Sue Slotterback, the program director of New Jersey Audubon's Nature Center of Cape May, says she started getting violation notices from Dennis Township shortly after her family moved into a home there five years ago and left a natural area for wildlife.
After she got several tickets, she was called into the municipal court, but Slotterback says the township dropped the charges when she showed her landscape-design plans and explained the family planned not to use pesticides or put in a watering system. The local prosecutor actually commended them in court for those steps, she adds, but knowing the complaints originally came from their neighbors, she put together and gave out an information packet explaining all their plans.
"I got a lot of, 'Oh, OK,' and 'That's really cool, thanks for explaining,'" she remembers. "I haven't seen anybody else on the block put in anything like it, but at least they're not tugging against us anymore."
But Pat Sutton knows she has converted hundreds of people, if not thousands, with her workshops, which she now offers through the Nature Center of Cape May. She has a five-part series scheduled that starts early next March, with "How to Create a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife," and continues into April.
You can find more details on the seminars, and the subject, on the center's website -
www.njaudubon.org - but again (and unfortunately), spring is a different subject, and a whole different time of year.
For now, if you're a wildlife fan, just take a little encouragement from an expert: Ugly, too, is in the eyes of the beholder.
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