John Van Duyne's wildlife garden is a work in progress. And it has been for close to 35 years.
When he first moved into the Ventnor Heights home his grandparents built in 1920, what's today's wildlife magnet of a garden was a basic, everyday lawn. And the Van Duyne family - John and his wife, Scottie - left it pretty much that way for years, to give their three girls a place to run around and play and be kids.
But then the family put a pool in the back of the lot, so it made sense to cover up some of the grass with pavers. And then the girls grew up and moved out, which meant they didn't need all that grassy space for kids' games anymore.
So John - who's in charge of the great outdoors in the family division of labor - started getting rid of plain old grass and putting in some different plant life in the 37-foot-wide, fenced-in side yard.
Then he noticed that his new trees and plants, some of which he picked with help from a landscaper buddy who's also a wildlife buff, were drawing a whole different crowd to his little yard.
As Van Duyne explained during the National Wildlife Federation's Garden For Wildlife Month - better known to some of us as May - he was seeing hummingbirds and butterflies and red-winged blackbirds and even great blue herons, and more species he wasn't used to visiting his home in the old days of the lawn.
And that made him want to learn more about what plants were attracting those crittters and why, so he started doing some research. He's the first to say he hasn't always been perfect.
"You learn by making mistakes," says Van Duyne, a home-builder by trade who works mainly in the Downbeach towns on Absecon Island.
He mentions one mistake, buying and planting some "butterfly bushes," which do indeed draw butterflies, but Van Duyne later learned are an "invasive species" native to China, not South Jersey.
Pat Sutton, who has taught courses for years through New Jersey Audubon in how to garden to attract wildlife, says the key problem with those popular bushes is that while they do attract butterflies, they don't give them any place to lay their eggs. The butterflies will happily feed on the bushes' nectar, but Sutton explains that a gardener isn't helping create future generations of butterflies by planting that plant, no matter how logical it sounds. Monarch butterflies, for instance, need milkweed, not butterfly bushes.
To Sutton, a guru who also regularly writes about the subject, the single best thing an aspiring gardener with an interest in seeing local wildlife can do is to stock that garden with plants that are also local natives.
"Our butterflies and moths need to lay their eggs on specific, native plants and can not lay their eggs on the sea of froufrou, non-native plants that nurseries sell" - a list that to her includes hydrangeas, geraniums, crepe myrtles, daffodils and lilacs, she says.
Plus "many of our birds eat butterfly and moth caterpillars, or feed these caterpillars to their young. They can not find the caterpillar food they need" on those same popular and pretty - but non-native - plants in her list above, she continues. And "many of our birds and other critters feed on the seeds, cones, catkins, berries, and fruits of our native trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers, grasses, etc."
All that together adds up to why going native is this expert's top tip in planning and planting a wildlife garden - but she adds that this doesn't have to involve radical gardening surgery.
"You can start with this: Try to change 10 percent of your property to wildlife habitat. Just 10 percent - that's manageable. It might mean putting in a butterfly and hummingbird garden, or putting in an island of native shrubs. You don't need to be a maniac about it," adds Sutton, who will admit that she and her husband, Clay, have been accused of being somewhat maniacal in how far they've gone to attract wild creatures to their Middle Township garden.
It's such a magnet that Pat Sutton includes her own place on the regular tours she gives of wildlife gardens around Cape May County - you can find more details on the family web site, patandclaysutton.com. (That web site also has more useful information on wildlife gardening.)
A lot of the other gardens on those tours belong to people who have taken her gardening classes, and Sutton has seen students transform their own worlds by starting with a little, native island in the midst of their all-over-the-map gardens.
"Once people make that change, just change 10 percent, they're hooked," she says. "They see so much happening because of the changes they made that they want to do more."
Back in Ventnor, Van Duyne figures that he has been even slower in his transformation - probably closer to 5 percent a year. But he's been making those changes steadily for 10 years or more, and he's thrilled with the results.
He points out a garage grown over with plant life - that he says can look like it's alive and breathing in late summer and early fall, when it gets covered with a bright-orange carpet of monarch butterflies.
He has cedar and holly and juniper trees, some of which he rescued from lots that customers were clearing for new houses. That checks off another of Sutton's key recommendations for would-be wildlife gardens, providing cover for critters to hide out in, to stay safe from predators.
Plus Van Duyne has been following another Sutton tip - provide something for thirsty creatures to drink - with a little backyard pond whose always-peacefully moving water is a hit with both humans and wildlife of all species.
He's the first to say that he hasn't been "scientific" about everything he's done over the years, but he doesn't use pesticides in his wildlife garden and does use only organic fertilizer. He's done enough to have his little, ex-lawn off a standard Ventnor Heights street officially recognized as "Certified Wildlife Habitat" by the NWF.
Sutton - a longtime staff member for New Jersey Audubon who still teaches her lessons at Audubon's Nature Center of Cape May, among other places - prefers a more localized approach to wildlife gardening than NWF's countrywide standards. As a start, she offers two pieces she authored that are available on the state Audubon's side:
Van Duyne is always looking to learn new things, and willing to change to welcome new visitors to his place.
He sees no chicken-and-egg mystery in all the life that shows up in his yard. Ask him which came first, the animals or the plants, and his answer is instant: It was the plants.
But the critters followed, and they keep coming.
In the summer, "I can look out those windows and see a dozen hummingbirds on these plants at any one time," Van Duyne says. And they never have to worry about being lonely, because they always have plenty of company in this little yard.
Contact Martin DeAngelis:
Finding native plants
Native South Jersey plants can be hard to buy. For help, Pat Sutton recommends: findnativeplants.com/
Also, Clemenson Farms Native Nursery in Estell Manor, normally a wholesale supplier, holds three retail sale days each year. The next one is 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. June 7. Clemenson Farms is at 108 Linwood Ave., Estell Manor. For more details, see clemensonfarmsnativenursery.com or call 609-476-3903.