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How to Share the Yard Without Giving Up the Garden

Maria Tranberg
Maria Tranberg has figured out how to share her garden with wildlife.
Maria Tranberg loves gardens—and wildlife. And after a little trial and error, she has figured out a way to accommodate both in her Long Island yard. "It took years for us to understand how to feed both wildlife and ourselves," she says. Maria's yard is certified as a backyard habitat through the National Wildlife Federation. She is also being trained to help certify others backyard habitats. "Even growing up in Brooklyn, I was always fascinated with wildlife. I guess it's in my blood."

When she moved to her current home 9 years ago, there were no gardens and little food or habitat to attract wildlife. Over the years, Maria has planted ornamental grasses by the water to shelter ducks, swans, and egrets, many berry-producing shrubs for the birds such as viburnum and holly, and butterfly-attracting buddleias. "The butterflies seem to like the species buddleias better than the hybrids," she says. Maria's goal is to reduce the amount of lawn and increase the amount of shrubs and other plantings to attract as many creatures as possible. Already, blue herons, fox, opossum, and raccoons are regular visitors in her yard.

This list of backyard animal friends may sound great to a nature lover, but what if you also wanted to garden? "I grow vegetables and herbs in pots due to arthritis in my hands," says Maria. "I tried keeping these containers on the ground, but the ducks would come up and eat everything," she says. "They would dig up the carrots, mow down basil and oregano, and even ate my hot pepper plants -- peppers and all."

Now Maria places the containers on the roof of her sunroom instead. The roof supports 20 containers, holding even large plants such as tomatoes and peppers. She starts many heirloom tomatoes from seed and particular likes the 'Mortgage Lifter' variety for its size and flavor. "I also love the Gardener's Supply Tomato Ladders," says Maria. "I have 20 of them and notice that plants supported by ladders have more tomatoes, they are better quality, and the stems are straighter, stronger, and thicker," she says. They produced so much fruit last year that Maria was able to can 38 quarts of tomato sauce.

Living near the ocean, Maria's plants are exposed to plenty of salt spray. She has to wash off the leaves frequently to keep them healthy. "I love the GSC Hose Butler because it's the only hose holder I've found that's sturdy enough to hold the heavy hose that I use to water down my plants," she says.

Maria has created her own suburban wildlife oasis where both plants and animals can coexist. She can watch the ducks and swans nesting, the birds feeding and the raccoons fishing, while tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables flourish.

Living With Ducks

Because Maria has a special liking for ducks, we asked her to talk a little more about how she does it:

Q: Do you feed the ducks every day? What do they eat?
A: Yes, actually twice a day. They eat cracked corn as a steady diet. Whenever, they can, they steal the peanuts that I feed to the squirrels. They consider that a real treat. They also like leftovers from my dinner table, bread, salad, cake, potatoes, some meat and vegetables, with each duck having a slightly different preference. They absolutely love pasta!

Where did the ducks come from? Did they find your yard by chance?
While I feed them and look after them, all the ducks are wild. They come and go as they please. The muscovy ducks flew in by chance and decided to stay. They nest around my home and have their babies under my shrubs. The pekin ducks, sadly, are usually abandoned in the creek by people who have bought them for Easter and don't want them anymore. I usually have to stand on the dock several times a day and throw them bread daily until they begin to trust me and then I make a trail of food up my duck ramp so they get the idea.

Also, the mallards and the truly wild ducks which use my yard year after year on their flyway just seemed to learn that I had food and shelter for them and just kept visiting ... and bringing their friends.

Do all the ducks cause any problems that you have to work around?
Yes, I had to learn how to garden with ducks. On the plus side, I never have to fertilize. Also, they eat mosquito larvae, snails and slugs so I almost have no problem with any sort of pests. On the minus side: They especially love hosta, tulips, plump rhododendron buds and any small seedlings. They also love vegetables, so I grow mine on a "rooftop garden". I once planted very hot chili peppers in a big wine barrel, foolishly thinking that they would never touch the peppers. They didn't until the hot peppers had fully ripened and then they flew up and ate not only the hot peppers, but the leaves and some of the branches, as well.

It has been a fun experience for me -- learning what to plant and what not to. The one given is that whatever I do plant has to be large and have a substantial root system.

Read about other gardeners and how they succeed in our Success Stories.

Last updated: 10/24/15