Saturday, September 23, 2023 Sep 23, 2023
94° F Dallas, TX

How to Create a Wildscape in Your Own Backyard

Turn your backyard into a sanctuary for your feathered kids—er, friends—with just a few key native plantings that will have the winged ones flocking to your wild kingdom.

Nigel’s cheery, melodious song wakes me up every morning: tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle. Nigel is a Carolina wren who lives in my backyard, off Midway and Walnut Hill. Yes, I name my birds—they are my friends. I wake up early in the morning to spend time with them, and I have cocktails on the patio to watch them close the day. Besides the dapper Nigel, there are Sid and Nancy, a loving pair of northern cardinals; George and Martha, the boisterous blue jays; and Roberta, Robert, and Junior, a family of downy woodpeckers.

Think I’m crazy? What if I told you that I also have a lake house in Frankston, Texas, and I give the same first names to the same bird species there but alter the last names to suit their location? Nigel Frankston doesn’t know about Nigel Dallas. Ditto for the Frankston and Dallas downys. They just care about me and my endless supply of peanuts, suet, and seeds.

At the lake house, though, I live in the wilderness. My Frankston mockingbirds, Tequila and wife Killa, don’t need me to provide larvae-friendly trees or tall grasses to shelter bugs. So the last time I was there, I began to feel guilty about my Dallas feathered family. I mean, Tequila and Killa Frankston wouldn’t be caught dead in the branches of a crepe myrtle tree or a plastic hanging basket of asparagus fern. Tequila and Killa Dallas, with their infectious late-afternoon arias, also deserved a more natural setting to, well, be birds.

I called in two experts. A few months back, when I was in Wild Birds Unlimited, owner David Hurt told me about Chip Clint, a landscape designer who owns Clint Horticulture. Hurt said Clint had a proclivity for creating “wildscapes,” a design filled with native plants, grasses, and flowers that create a fantasyland for urban birds. I’m not talking about xeriscape—that’s a whole other issue involving the conservation of water. I’m talking about a distinctly non-Dallas wild and weedy backyard as untamed as my hair in the morning.

Clint and his designer Erica Simon looked at my backyard and listened to me explain how I wanted nothing but the best for my babies. They didn’t laugh. In fact, they enlightened me to savory nature recipes for birds. They convinced me that once I had the right mix of plants, trees, and bushes, I’d run out of names for the new species that would frequent my place. Clint warned me that going completely wild would mean a backyard brimming with lizards, snakes, bugs, and caterpillars, a veritable wild kingdom outside my window. I knew Clint was my man.

Eastern Wall
The most important feature of my new backyard will be the bird baths. “Bathing isn’t just a matter of hygiene for our feathered friends,” Hurt says. “It may be a matter of life and death. Dirty feathers don’t function well when flying or in protecting the body from the wind, snow, or heat.” To attract skittish birds (chickadees, ruby-crowned kinglets) or migrating birds like warblers, add a dripper so that they can see the rippling water as they fly over your house. Simon included three baths of various heights and depths. Larger birds will take group baths in the deeper waters, while smaller birds like house finches and sparrows will flit in and out of the shallow waters. Behind the baths, Simon lined the fence with little bluestem grass, which is alive with insects, to provide a quick bite for birds leaving the bath. Clint says, “Don’t cut back your grasses until early spring because you may disturb winter habitats for ladybugs.” Speaking of grass, the center of my proposed backyard will not be your average Dallas St. Augustine affair. It will be a real meadow seeded with buffalo grass and a few perennial wildflowers like bluebonnets, Mexican hat, Missouri evening primrose, and horsemint. Clint recommends mowing it only two or three times a year. He also warned me to wear shoes when filling my feeders; this meadow is heaven in the earth for insects, spiders, and lizards. Simon also added a woodpile, containing perfect nesting cavities for lizards and hideouts for snakes. Yes, snakes. (Don’t get me started on selective naturalists.) I can’t wait to welcome the first family of eastern screech owls waiting to snag one in my new backyard.

TRUMPET VINE: vigorous woody vine known for its showy trumpet-shaped orangey red flowers. Attracts hummingbirds and other birds that like to nest in the thick foliage.
SALVIA “INDIGO SPIRES”: a “tender” perennial with tall neon-blue spires of flowers that drive butterflies and hummingbirds wild.
LITTLE BLUESTEM: perennial bunchgrass with a bluish hue to the leaves. The leaves turn a rich orangey wheat color in fall.
PENTA: multi-stemmed woody-based perennial good in moist soil.
PINK VERBENA: a pink-purple annual that spreads to form a low mat 3 feet wide. Attracts insects and bees.
TURK’S CAP: evergreen shrub with red flowers attracts hummingbirds and butterflies.
FALL ASTER: drought-tolerant and attractive to bees, butterflies, and birds.
DESERT WILLOW: delicate, small, deciduous tree with showy clusters of flowers at the tips that bloom from late spring to fall.

Southern Wall
My picture window faces south, so the design along my back fence was crucial. Soon it will be a combination of multilevel butterfly- and bird-friendly plants perfect for a small, urban garden. By planting a trumpet vine behind the fence, the orange blooms will start at the top of the fence (perfect for lazy hummingbirds) and grow downward, toward stunning flowering plants. Once in place, the orange vines will contrast with the yellowy-red lantana; the green, airy, fernlike foliage of moonbeams; and the thousands of small, white, trumpet-shaped flowers of the abelia. For height and texture, Simon added several water-friendly plants, because I have a low spot in my yard where water stands after a heavy rain. To compensate for this, Simon placed female dwarf wax myrtle and buttonbushes, two moisture-loving plants, below the vines. Dwarf wax myrtle, a mainstay in many Texas landscapes, is valued for its aromatic, soft, evergreen foliage, with profuse silvery blue-gray berries that attract yellow-rumped warblers and brown thrashers. The new 6-foot buttonbush beside my gate will keep my backyard friends busy. This multistemmed shrub produces long-lasting, white spherical clusters of flowers that drive bees and butterflies crazy. And that makes the spiders that catch them happy. And what yummy snacks those spiders are for birds, frogs, toads, and lizards.

DWARF WAX MYRTLE (FEMALE): blue-gray berries on the female plants draw thrushes, warblers, and cedar waxwings.
YUCCA GLORIOSA: blue-green with rigid leaves bordered with a gold band, a color contrast holds all season! In mid-summer, this stunning yucca is topped with 3-foot-tall spikes and early-flowering nectar plants that attract insects and bees.
LANTANA: a compact bush with red, orange, and yellow blooms that spreads quickly and attracts butterflies.
ABELIA: shrub with glossy, dark green leaves and white flowers that stay in bloom for a long time; attracts butterflies.
COREOPSIS “MOONBEAM”: perennial with clusters of light yellow, daisy-like blooms.
BUTTONBUSH: a large woody shrub with showy, fragrant ball-shaped flower heads.
EASTERN RED CEDAR (FEMALE): evergreen tree with little blue berries that attract cedar waxwings and robins.
ROUGHLEAF DOGWOOD: hard white fruits ripen from August to October and provide food for at least 40 species of birds.
SIDEOATS GRAMA: the state grass of Texas is a perennial short prairie blue-green grass with bright purple flowers.
SALVIA COCCINEA: a clumping perennial that can reach 2 feet tall with bright red flowers loved by hummingbirds.
FROG FRUIT: very hardy sunny ground cover with small white flowers in the summer.

Western Wall
Simon’s design placed a miniforest of three 20-foot eastern red cedars on one end of my fence to balance the existing 25-foot cedar elm on the other. Then we got down to sexes—as in, you want to choose a female red cedar. The upright, super-prickly evergreen produces bluish berries and is a magnet for the dapper cedar waxwing, who gets its name from the tree. I could also expect American robins, mockingbirds, and yellow-rumped warblers. But the cedar waxwing is the best air show of the year. In the early spring, they flock in huge numbers to eastern red cedars and gorge themselves, sometimes falling down “drunk” as the berries ferment in their stomachs. Between the tall trees, Simon placed several tall roughleaf dogwoods, a favorite hideout for grasshoppers and other insects, perfect pick-me-up snacks for red-headed woodpeckers and northern cardinals. We added some salvia coccinea and turk’s caps for visual color and to draw the ubiquitous ruby-throated hummingbirds that inhabit Dallas. We  went with a couple of frog fruit plants—a creeping perennial with small clumps of white flowers and a purplish bud—to bring in butterflies. Simon created a paved walkway so that I could hang out with my new camera lens and take close-ups. Just beneath the red cedars, she included a bare patch of gravelly dirt and play sand for “dirt baths.” David Hurt of Wild Birds Unlimited says, “It rids or reduces external parasites, soothes skin irritations, and aligns feather barbs.” And who doesn’t love to watch their kids play in the dirt?