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Nature's best
The Braunreiters’ Wauwatosa garden invites wildlife in as a place of refuge

By PATRICE PELTIER

September 2007

Mary Braunreiter hopes her wildlife-friendly Wauwatosa yard will inspire others to discover the delights of inviting birds, bees, butterflies and all manner of critters to share their properties.

The winged, furry and even scaled animals that visit the nearly half-acre lot provide endless interest and entertainment, as well as a sense of serenity, for the Braunreiter family. "It doesn’t take much to make a real nice, peaceful area in your backyard," she says.

Creating a wildlife haven was Mary’s goal when the family moved to this house in January 2001. She succeeded in fairly short order. Already her yard has been certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat.

To become a certified wildlife habitat, a property must offer wildlife food, water, shelter and places to raise young. The National Wildlife Federation created the certification program in 1973 to promote conservation, planting native species and improving the environment for people and the animals who share this planet. Since then, more than 69,000 sites have been certified. Of those fewer than 1,500 are in Wisconsin.

When it comes to creating gardens, Braunreiter has an edge on most of us. She is the horticulturist in charge of the perennial and peony gardens at Boerner Botanical Gardens, where she has worked for 10 years. Still, she maintains that you don’t have to be a professional horticulturist — or even a seasoned gardener — to create a haven in your own back yard.

To transform her own property, Braunreiter started by planting a mix of balsam fir, Serbian spruce and Canadian hemlock near the street. The evergreens provide the human inhabitants with some privacy from the street and a sense of enclosure for the property. For wildlife, the evergreens provide shelter in all seasons as well as a place to build nests or otherwise raise their young.

To add another layer to the landscape, Braunreiter used a variety of native and cultivated shrubs. Tiger eye sumac brightens the garden with its showy chartreuse leaves. Later in the season, its bright red fruits will provide food for birds as well as fall color. A bottlebrush buckeye attracts people with its textured leaves and impressively large, white blooms. Nearby, a native spirea offers shelter for wildlife while its white flowers provide food for insects and birds.

Braunreiter fills the ground level with a colorful mix of perennials. Her preference is to use native plants where possible because they are compatible with both the local climate and the ecosystem of native birds, insects and animals. So, she incorporates coneflowers, including the lesser-known pale pink coneflower with its graceful, drooping petals. There’s also blanket flower, wild petunia and turk’s cap lily.

But, Braunreiter’s not a purist. Her garden is also full of non-natives and as well as cultivated varieties of native plants. In fact, her job puts her in a great position for spotting interesting new plants that come onto the market. Every year, Boerner Botanical Gardens receives many seeds and plants for its trial gardens, she explains. After plants are evaluated for two years, Braunreiter transplants the best performers to the display gardens. By then, she’s had a great opportunity to decide which ones she wants to purchase for her own garden.

Towering mature ash trees joined by hawthorns frame the side yard and mark the beginning of Braunreiter’s shade garden. It’s not until you walk through the vine-laced arbor, made by Braunreiter’s brother, that you discover the focal point of this wildlife retreat — the pond.

Complete with a splashing waterfall set into the hillside, this natural-looking, stone-edged pond is deep enough for the hardy water lilies and the playful koi to survive there year round. Braunreiter’s husband, John, dug the pond during his two-week vacation three years ago. Well, on second thought, he says, it wasn’t really much of a vacation.

Still, everyone — including John — considers it time well spent. "We love to sit here in the morning and have our coffee while we watch the butterflies and birds," Mary explains. On a hot summer afternoon, a comfortable grouping of lawn chairs also offers a cool, shady, end-of-the-day gathering spot for the family.

In addition to creating a pleasant place for the family, the pond has another important function in this landscape. It’s the habitat’s water source. Already, a frog has made itself at home here, and a pair of mallard ducks have stopped by, Braunreiter reports. Deer sometimes drink here. Once when she was watching from inside the house, budding photographer Heidi Braunreiter was able to get a picture of a fox lapping from the pond.

Beyond the pond, the Braunreiters’ narrow back yard is shaded by ash, cherry and walnut trees.

If you think that shade gardening is limited to hostas, this is the garden that proves you wrong. Tucked beneath this cool canopy are hostas, yes, as well as ferns, bleeding hearts, lady’s mantle, black-eyed Susans, ligularia, pulmonaria, corydalis and more. Openings in the canopy provide enough sunlight for colorful bursts of monarda. Here and there, the brilliant red blooms of native cardinal flower create a vertical accent.

Although the gardens have a pleasing, cohesive flow, Braunreiter claims she never had a plan. "I just kind of play it by ear," she says. Relaxed in her approach, she doesn’t mind when Asiatic lilies and coneflowers mingle with the sumac, sending their rosy flowers up through the shrub’s lacy foliage. In fact, she often encourages this blending of plants, sometimes sprinkling columbine seeds throughout the garden. Noting that plants grown from seed are often different from the parent plant, she says, "That way I get a surprise when they bloom."

Even though she spends her workdays gardening, Braunreiter often heads out into her own yard as soon as she gets home. "My family wishes I would come in some times and make dinner," she says.

Despite all the effort Braunreiter puts into her garden, she doesn’t mind when the family’s four cats loll among the flowers or when the dog goes tromping through. She’s even fairly good-humored about the rabbits that feast on her plants. She’s willing to share.

One of the things Braunreiter hopes to share is her enthusiasm for creating habitats that nurture humans and other living things. You don’t need a lot of property, a lot of money, or even a lot of experience to turn your yard into a relaxing, nature-filled space, she says. "Anyone that puts their mind to it can do it."