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Common Gardening Questions


1. How can I remove lawn from my yard?

Because lawn monocultures provide little habitat value; consume such large percentages of municipal water supplies; cause so much pollution in lawnmower, synthetic fertilizer, and pesticide usage; and require the continual input of time and money on the part of the homeowner, you should consider reducing or replacing your lawn with native species or other landscape features. Then, follow these steps:

  1. Plan how you would like your yard to look.
  2. Check your local municipality or neighborhood/homeowners association for regulations.
  3. To convert lawn:
  • Cover lawn with 6-10 dense layers of black and white newspaper or brown cardboard. Wet these layers.
  • Add a 4- to 6-inch layer of mulch or dirt.
  • Wait a few weeks during a rainy period so that the layers soften. Plant directly through the layers. If planting trees, dig holes first and layer around.

2. What is the best or most "natural" way to maintain a lawn?

If you still do not wish to remove or reduce your lawn, follow these suggestions for healthier lawn-maintenance practices. You may need to accept a lighter green color and some weeds, but your lawn will be better for the environment, wildlife, your neighbors, and your family.

  1. Mow high, mow often, and leave the clippings.
    - Set lawnmowers to 2 inches for most lawns.
    - Mow weekly in spring so that you will not stress the grass by mowing too much at once.
    - Use a mulching mower or push mower.
  2. Fertilize moderately with a "natural organic" or "slow-release" fertilizer in mid- to late May and early September.
    - A medium green color is healthier than a dark green.
  3. Water deeply, to moisten the root zone and promote deeper rooting, but do so infrequently.
    - Aerate if water will not penetrate.
    - Water about one inch per week during July and August and less in late spring and early fall. Consider letting the lawn go brown and dormant in summer, watering slowly and deeply only once per rainless month.
    - Water slowly or start and stop to allow water to penetrate instead of puddling or running off.
  4. Aerate compacted soil in April/May or September and then overseed.
  5. Refrain from using pesticides.

For more information:   www.savingwater.org


3. How can I control invasive plants such as English ivy?

Noxious invasive weeds are non-native plants that were introduced intentionally or accidentally by humans and now spread aggressively at the expense of native species, reducing crop yields and destroying native plant and animal habitat. These invasives should always be controlled and never introduced intentionally.

To prevent infestation:

  • Use weed-free seed.
  • Choose non-invasive species for your garden.
  • Cover compost, topsoil, and mulch piles with a tarp.
To control infestation:
  • Remove weeds physically.
  • Replant with native species to prevent weeds from returning.
  • Prevent seed production and spread of weeds.
  • Dispose of weeds and their seeds in your yard waste container.

For more information:   dnr.metrokc.gov


4. What nurseries carry native plants?

Definitions of native plants may vary to include cultivated varieties of native species or plants from hundreds of miles away. Local nurseries may not obtain their native plants from local sources, so be sure to ask where plants come from before purchasing. Watch for plant sales advertised in newspapers or flyers at your local nursery during the spring and fall.

Community sources that hold plant sales:

  • King Conservation District, 935 Powell Ave. SW, Renton, WA 98055, (425) 277-5581
  • Washington Native Plant Society, check out the website at http://www.wnps.org/ or email them at wnps@wnps.org 
  • Washington Park Arboretum, 2300 Arboretum Dr. E, Seattle, WA 98112, (206) 543-8800
  • King County Native Plant Salvage Program, Department of Natural Resources, 201 S. Jackson St., Suite 600, Seattle, WA 98104-3854, (206) 296-8024. They have opportunities to salvage native plants for your own use in exchange for volunteer work for the program.

For more information on choosing the right plants:  www.ci.seattle.wa.us

For a great list of native plant sources, visit the Washington Native Plant Society website:  www.wnps.org and click on "Native Plant and Seed Sources"


5. How can I get rid of particular insects?

Because less than one percent of the hundreds of insect species in a typical yard are harmful pests, you should not use pesticides that indiscriminately destroy all insects. If you do so, you may cause more harm than good. Instead, you should seek to maintain a population of predatory insects, songbirds, and other wildlife that will balance the pest population, though this may mean tolerating some harmful insects.

  • Although a controlled pest population may cause some damage to plants, you will likely find that the plants' general health is still good, with little long-term damage.
  • Natural insect predators include ladybugs, lacewings, syrphid fly larvae, ground beetles, spiders, songbirds, amphibians, and bats.
  • During the spring, the population of pests may seem to surge out of control. Do not be alarmed: the population of predators, which are slower to reproduce, will soon catch up to restore the balance.

For a list of plants that attract predators and other beneficial insects, consult Russell Link's books, Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest and Living with Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest. (Both are available in the Seattle Audubon Nature Shop.)


6. Where can I get information on composting?

Composting yard waste and kitchen scraps reduces waste and enables you to grow a healthy, sustainable garden. For more information:

  • Request a Composting at Home guide as part of the Natural Lawn and Garden Series from Seattle Public Utilities by calling the Natural Lawn and Garden hotline at (206) 633-0224.
  • Visit the Seattle Public Utilities composting website: www.seattle.gov/util/Services/Yard/Composting/

7. What do I do about a neighbor's cats? Where can I go for information?

Cats are a major threat to birds and other wildlife. Because they are maintained by humans in high numbers that multiply at three times the human birthrate, cats cannot be considered as part of the natural ecosystem that keeps wildlife populations balanced. And because hunting comes instinctively to a cat regardless of whether it is hungry and because a cat hunts nonselectively, cats do not fill a natural niche in the food chain. You may understand all this and keep your cats indoors, but if your neighbors do not:

  • First, share your concerns with your neighbors. Inform them of the dangers that domestic cats pose to wildlife and the benefits of an indoor life for cats.
  • Check local ordinances. They may allow you to trap and return the cat to the owner or to authorities if the animal comes onto your property.
  • Install scent- and sound-repellents, available at garden and pet supply stores.
  • You may discourage cats from your yard by persistently spraying them with a gentle blast of water.
  • Protect birds that come to your bird feeder or bath by installing the feeder on a tall pole with a squirrel baffle, a wire fence around the feeder or bath, or an inexpensive electric fence.

For more information on the impacts of domestic cats on wildlife and how to make an indoor cat happy, consult Russell Link's book,  Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest.


8. What should I do if I find a baby bird?
  • Fledglings learning to fly and found on the ground are still protected by their parents. Unless they are injured, you should leave them alone and keep cats and dogs out of the area until they can fly.
  • If a baby bird has fallen from its nest uninjured, return it to the nest. If you cannot reach the nest, place the bird in a small open box and attach the box to the highest sheltered branch you can reach. Be sure to wash your hands afterwards.
  • If the bird is sick or injured, it should be transported to a rehabilitation center as soon as possible. Call PAWS in Lynnwood at (425) 787-2500, (http://www.paws.org/), or the Sarvey Wildlife Center at (360) 435-4817, (http://www.sarveywildlife.org/ ). Or contact the Fish and Wildlife office for the phone number of a wildlife rehabilitation center in your area. Rehabilitators do not work with animals if they are not sick or injured. And if no rehabilitator is available, it is best to let nature take its course.
  • Place the bird in a covered cardboard box or large paper bag before and during transport. A securely plugged hot-water bottle wrapped in a towel will maintain the bird's body temperature.
  • Cautionary notes:
    • Because wild animals are protected by state and federal laws, they cannot be kept for any period of time.
    • Handle wildlife as little as possible, as it causes them stress.
    • Do not feed or give water to sick and injured animals, as it may do further harm.

9. How can I prevent birds from eating my garden or orchard fruit?
  • Use a flexible mesh netting to create a barrier between birds and vines, berry bushes, or small fruit trees.
    - Suspend from a makeshift trellis to avoid interfering with plant growth.
    - Or place netting over the plant just before the fruits ripen.
    - Secure netting at the base so birds cannot fly up from underneath.
    - Pull netting tight to avoid entangling birds.
  • Loud noises, scarecrows, and reflecting surfaces may all be only temporarily effective.

10. How do I attract beneficial insects to my yard?

Choose some of these plants that attract beneficial insects from a list in Russell Link's Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest:

  • Evergreen trees: bay, Douglas-fir, incense-cedar, madrona
  • Deciduous trees: alder, birch, cherry, cascara, dogwood, garden fruit trees, hawthorn, maple, oak, sumac, willow
  • Deciduous shrubs: deer brush, elderberry, oceanspray, potentilla, red-flowering currant, red huckleberry, serviceberry, snowberry, wild-buckwheat, spirea, wild rose
  • Evergreen shrubs: coffeeberry, coyote brush, evergreen huckleberry, hopsage, manzanita, mountain balm, Oregon-grape, rabbitbrush, sagebrush, salal
  • Garden flowers: alyssum, candytuft, coreopsis, cosmos, daisy, evening-primrose, feverfew
  • Wildflowers: angelica, baby-blue-eyes, goldenrod, fireweed, pearly everlasting, yarrow
  • Vegetables and herbs: carrot flowers, mustard family flowers, catnip, catmint, coriander, dill, fennel, hyssop, mint, parsley, rosemary, rue

11. How do I prevent rats and squirrels from hanging around my feeders?

Although squirrels may be cute to watch, you may not enjoy them eating the seed you intended for birds or tampering with your feeder. These methods will generally prevent both squirrels and rats from invading your feeders.

  • The right location for your feeder will prevent squirrels from jumping onto it: more than 5-6 feet off the ground and more than 6-8 feet from the nearest tree, building, or overhanging branch.
  • To prevent squirrels or rats from climbing onto your feeder from above: place a squirrel baffle or series of smooth metal discs (pie pans, metal lids, phonograph records) spaced with plastic tubing or segments of a garden hose over the feeder.
  • To prevent them from climbing up from below: if your feeder sits on a pole, install a pole more than five inches in diameter so that squirrels cannot wrap their feet around the pole.
  • Avoid hanging your feeder with rope, string, or even plastic or thin wire as squirrels will chew through these materials in order to upset the feeder.

12. How do I discourage aggressive, non-native birds from dominating my feeders?

Aggressive, non-native birds such as starlings, House Sparrows, and common Rock Pigeons may be discouraged in the following ways:

  • Use feeders with small perches and small openings.
  • Over platform feeders, place wire mesh of a permeability that filters out larger birds but allows smaller birds through.
  • Buy a suet feeder that requires birds to cling upside down. This will discourage starlings, which do not like this position.
  • Small feeders that swing and twirl when a birds lands on it deter starlings and House Sparrows.
  • Starlings do not like safflower seed, hulled sunflower seeds, or peanuts in the shell.

13. Does it help or hurt to feed birds?

Backyard birdfeeders that feed wild birds help a little bit toward their survival when considerable areas of their habitat are being destroyed. Feeders also allow people to observe birds at close range and increase their appreciation for wildlife. If you feed birds, however, you should take responsibility for the condition of the food you offer and the cleanliness of your feeder in order to prevent the spread of avian diseases. For more information about keeping feeders safe for birds, please download a PDF copy of our Backyard Bird Feeding Guide.


14. How can I increase the quality of habitat in my yard?

Some ways to increase the quality of habitat include:

  • Increasing structural diversity - vertical and horizontal connectivity
  • Adding layers
  • Using native plants
  • Providing food, water, and shelter for wildlife

For other ideas and more information, consult Russell Link's Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest.


15. What are good plants for attracting wildlife to my yard?

Some examples of native plant/wildlife relationships include:

  • Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum ) and the Rufous Hummingbird - the flowering of the currant coincides with the spring arrival of the Rufous Hummingbird.
  • Plants with berries - Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) attracts most songbirds and hummingbirds; Mountain Ash (Sorbus spp.) attracts waxwings and woodpeckers; other good berry plants include Huckleberry (Vaccinium spp.), Elderberry, and Snowberry.
  • Vine Maple (Acer circinatum) provides resources for many species: seeds for a variety of birds, wood and twigs for deer and beavers, shelter for larvae of the brown tissue moth, and a good nectar source for bees.
Other references:
  • Native Plants for Wildlife, presented by King County Wildlife Program, 201 S. Jackson St., Suite 600, Seattle, WA 98104-3854, (206) 296-7266
  • American Wildlife and Plants: A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits by A. C. Martin, H. S. Zim, and A. L. Nelson
  • www.wildwords.com (Pacific Northwest native plants for wildlife)
  • www.wnps.org (Washington Native Plant Society)

16. Do hummingbirds stay in the Pacific Northwest year-round?

There are four species of hummingbirds found in the Pacific Northwest:

  • Calliope
  • Black-chinned
  • Anna's
  • Rufous

Of these four species, Anna's Hummingbird can be found year round in some areas west of the Cascades. The other three species arrive in early spring, when native plants on whose nectar they feed begin to bloom, and usually depart by October for Mexico or the Southern United States.

For more information on hummingbirds, go to the Hummingbird Society website:  www.hummingbirdsociety.org


17. What are good features to look for when purchasing a hummingbird feeder?

There are many different types of hummingbird feeders. Some features that you should look for:

  • The feeder should be at least partly red to attract hummingbirds.
  • It should come apart easily for cleaning.
  • A feeder with a large opening will make filling and cleaning easier.
  • A glass feeder is more weather-resistant than a plastic one.
  • A perch on the feeder will allow for hummingbirds to conserve energy, although the feature is not essential.
  • Multiple small feeders scattered in different parts of the garden will enable you to attract more hummingbirds, as they tend to be territorial.

18. What should I feed hummingbirds?

You can buy a commercially produced nectar solution or you can make your own. Some tips about how to make your own nectar solution:

  • Solutions with dye, food coloring, or flavoring are considered unsafe.
  • Don't use honey, brown sugar, or artificial sweeteners.
  • A simple, safe nectar solution can be made by mixing one part pure cane sugar with four parts water, boiling for 30 seconds in order to retard mold growth, and then letting the solution cool before filling the feeder.
  • Clean and change the solution every 4-5 days.

19. Where should I place my hummingbird feeder?
  • Place it in a shady spot to retard mold growth (You can make a bonnet to place over your feeder to keep it shaded).
  • Place it somewhere with easy access so that it can be cleaned and refilled.
  • Place it in the vicinity of nectar-producing plants.
  • If you have several feeders, place them well apart from one another as hummingbirds are territorial with their food source.

20. What plants attract hummingbirds?

Hummingbirds are attracted to:

  • Nectar-rich plants with bright red, orange, or orange/red tubular-shaped blossoms.
  • Native plants, which evolved in association with the hummingbirds and which are adapted to the local climate.
  • The sound of running water.
  • Twiggy trees or shrubs that provide a place to rest and digest.

Specific plant species include:

Trees

Dogwood (Cornus spp.) Native
Crabapple (Malus spp.) Native

Shrubs

Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) Native
Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) Native

Vines

Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans)
Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) Native
Scarlet Runner Bean (Phaseolus spp.)
Vetch (Vicia spp.)

Perennials and Wildflowers

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spp.) Native
Coral Bells (Heuchera spp.)
Lavender (Lavandula spp.)


21. What plants will attract bees to my yard?
  • Plants that produce a lot of pollen
  • Plants with flowers in yellow, pink, blue, and lavender
  • Plants with a sweet or pungent fragrance
  • Sweet-smelling herbs

Specific plants that attract bees include: catnip, basil, lavender, mint, apple, raspberry, lupine, and wild strawberry.

For more information on attracting bees, consult The Naturalist's Garden by Ruth Shaw Ernst, The Book of Bees and How to Keep Them by Sue Hubbell, or:  www.powen.freeserve.co.uk


22. What are benefits of having mason bees in my yard?
  • Mason bees are native to the Pacific Northwest.
  • They are ideal pollinators for apples, pears, cherries, plums, rosemary, lavender, and Oregon grape.
  • They are easily encouraged to colonize the landscape because they have few requirements other than a dry nest site, damp soil, and a nectar and pollen supply and they are easy to attract with a nesting block and mud.
  • They rarely sting.

23. What can I do about birds that are continually crashing into the windows of my house?

Birds often crash into the windows of a house because they see the reflections of shrubs or trees nearby and do not realize what they are flying into. To prevent this from happening, you can:

  • Attach black silhouettes of flying hawks or strips of opaque tape or flagging to windows to make the glass visible to birds.
  • Put up an owl or other raptor statue close to the problem window.
  • Keep your blinds or curtains closed.
  • Move houseplants away from the inside of windows, as these will attract birds.

The Seattle Audubon Nature Shop sells anti-collision window decals or "bird guards." For more information about Nature Shop items, call (206) 523-4483 or see the Nature Shop on-line.

Seattle Audubon is nonprofit, tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization. Copyright 2017 Seattle Audubon.