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.
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
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
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
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."