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How to create a backyard or patio garden as a sanctuary

Updated August 27, 2020 - 5:14 pm

Tranquility is a hot commodity during a pandemic, and it may be as close as your backyard or patio.

No matter the size of your space or your budget, a backyard or patio garden, particularly one that uses native plants, can be a haven for you and the many wildlife species that either call Southern Nevada home or pass through each year.

“During COVID, we’re all looking for that moment of calm, that moment of Zen, and your patio, backyard and your home itself is your sanctuary,” said Amanda Crinigan, social media specialist for the Red Rock Audubon Society. “And you can create a sanctuary for birds in your yard, and that is going to just generate even more calm in your life.”

When Crinigan, moved to Las Vegas from Florida in 2018, she believed that the desert was largely a wasteland when it came to wildlife.

“There couldn’t possibly be anything out here. There can’t be birds. There’s not wildlife. Everything’s dead out here,” Crinigan recalled of her first impressions of the area.

But one day, Crinigan saw a hummingbird that was attracted to a native bush she planted in her backyard, forever changing how she looked at nature in the desert.

The local Audubon Society chapter recommends native plants rather than seed birdfeeders when trying to attract birds to backyards.

“I am a good example of a failure initially with seed feeders. I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just buy a bag of seed and put out a bird feeder, and I’ll get all these birds to my yards. Well, I did. And it included what we would consider to be more of like the pest species like rock pigeons, mourning doves and collared doves,” Crinigan said.

If not cleaned properly, birdfeeders can become vectors for diseases. They also may attract non-avian pests like roof rats.

Seed feeders also can change birds’ behavior, Crinigan said.

“You create a change in their behavior that requires their dependency on you to supply their food source,” she said.

Native plants, on the other hand, “provide habitat, food and nesting material that those birds need to survive.”

Common birds in Las Vegas

Las Vegas is home to many species of birds.

Native and other desert-adapted plants are likely to draw birds such as house sparrows, goldfinches, flycatchers, red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, hummingbirds and others.

In addition to admiring the winged visitors, there are many tools available to help you identify these species.

“The first thing that I would recommend to any new birder is to get a field guide,” which also will teach you about the bird’s natural history, Crinigan said.

The Merlin app for smartphones can help identify even the briefly spotted birds, as it has an array of photos captured by other users.

Creating a garden sanctuary

Milkweed is the perfect first plant for your garden.

“You can get a milkweed and have that in a pot and that hosts monarch caterpillars,” Crinigan said. “It will attract other insects that are going to be eaten by other birds. Hummingbirds will feed at milkweed flowers. And then when we have orioles that come through typically during migration season … (they) use those milkweed fibers for their nests.”

Crinigan also suggests sunflowers, honeysuckles and persimmons, all of which can be potted or planted in the ground.

New gardeners can reach out to one of the many clubs under the Nevada Garden Club umbrella.

“Gardeners are so willing to help you and share what they know,” longtime Nevada Garden Club member Kristie Livreri said.

Livreri has lived in Las Vegas since she was 17 and has been a member of the Nevada Garden club since 1976.

Growing any kind of plant life in the desert can be challenging, but some seasons are better than others, Livreri said.

“Planting in the fall is really beneficial to the Southern Nevada gardener,” she said. “You can have a very successful vegetable garden planted in the fall. Last year, I picked my last tomatoes in December.”

Gardening can be accessible to all budgets and space limitations.

Livreri said another garden club member, Nancy Bovill, grows vegetables and flowers on the small patio of her upstairs apartment.

“She’s an older lady that really can’t get out and do a lot of gardening, but it’s right there at her fingertips on her patio,” Livreri said.

A low-cost way of getting seeds or starter plants is by going to one of the Nevada Garden Club plant sales. Because these plants come from people’s backyards, they tend to be much cheaper than at a store.

Crinigan said other local groups such as the Facebook group Las Vegas Backyard Gardeners also can help a novice get started.

“Regularly, those people will have seedlings and sprouts from their plants … and sometimes there’s so many that they just offer those plants and seed pods to other gardeners,” she said.

You also may want to consider installing a water feature.

“A rock and a potted plant reservoir dish from the dollar store is all you need,” Crinigan said. “In terms of maintaining it, just clean it every day. Scrub it out, make sure you’re not growing algae or mold and then just refill it every day with fresh water. If you have the ability to get a waterfall or fountain, those are great too. Moving water is more of an attractant for hummingbirds.”

The Audubon Society has an online native plant database at audubon.org/native-plants/ that uses ZIP codes to identify the best native plants for an area and lists the kind of birds they will attract.

Surprise visitors

In addition to the many birds that can be seen year-round, your garden may attract rare species.

This year, Crinigan had a wood thrush visit her garden. This migratory bird is rarely seen in Nevada. Only one sighting has been recorded in the past decade, and there have been only seven sightings since 1970.

“Those migratory birds are going to stop in your yard and you might get something really exciting … and it’s just going to change your life. I had no idea of what bird this was in my backyard, and then to find out that this bird chose my yard of all the yards to stop in, it was really amazing,” Crinigan said.

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