Bonnie McLaughlin’s Tree House

Bonnie McLaughlin lives in a tree house. At least, that’s the way it looks from the front porch of her wood frame house on Fairweather Lane. Butterflies cavort amongst the leaves of the Beach Sunflowers, and hummingbirds feast on the nectar of the Yellow Necklace Pod. The entire home is nestled in the cool, shady embrace of the surrounding foliage. How did this come to be? Is Bonnie some Master Gardener? No, she simply decided five years ago to plant only native plants, a decision that has earned her a certification from the National Wildlife Federation and the envy of her neighbors.

McLaughlin, who bought her Island home 30 years ago after growing up in Naples, told me that she was on a nature walk with her hiking club several years ago when she heard another member, a man from the National Wildlife Federation, talk about the benefits of native plants, and how they were necessary for the survival of butterflies.

“I’ll admit, I thought natives were ugly,” she said. “But he told me that if I wanted the local butterflies to live, then I’d have to try it. So after my conscience worked on me, I went to the Sanibel Captiva Foundation to research them. When I saw a Necklace Pod for the first time, I realized how wrong I was.”

Bonnie, who says that she had “had tried planting a million things but they all died”, quickly discovered how easy it was to care for her new native garden, and from then on she was hooked. “It kind of snowballed after that,” she said.

Along with the plants mentioned earlier, Bonnie’s yard features a Mulberry Tree, Fire Bush, Buttonwood, Jamaican Caper, Thatch Palm, and Jatropha Plant. She has families of turtles, possum, squirrels, woodpeckers and cardinals sharing space with the butterflies and the hummingbirds.

“Critters find this place congenial,” said the affable McLaughlin, laughing.

Bonnie told us that the plants are easy to care for, requiring little maintenance. “This stuff lasts through hurricanes!” she said. “Also, when there’s a drought and everyone else’s yard looks brown, mine still thrives.”

McLaughlin’s yard was recognized as a Certified Wildlife Habitat a few months ago, and Bonnie thinks that the program is great. She directed us to the NWF’s website, where we learned more about what the program is for.

The NWF began the Wildlife Habitat certification program in 1973, and has since certified over 86,000 habitats nationwide. The majority of these sites represent the hard work and commitment of individuals and families providing habitat near their homes, but NWF has also certified more than 2,800 schools, and hundreds of businesses and community sites. Certified habitats can be found everywhere from post offices, hospitals and places of worship to community parks, corporate buildings and municipal facilities. The average habitat is between 1/3 and ½ acre, but certified sites range from urban balconies to thousand-acre areas.

Habitats Program Coordinator Roxanne Paul told me that any interested person can create a certified habitat. “The NWF teaches the importance of environmental stewardship by providing guidelines for making landscapes more hospitable to wildlife,” she said. “In order to become certified, a property must provide the four basic elements that all wildlife need: food, water, cover, and places to raise young; and must employ sustainable gardening practices. In addition to providing for wildlife, certified habitats conserve our natural resources by reducing or eliminating the need for fertilizers, pesticides and/or irrigation water, which ultimately protects the air, soil and water throughout our communities.”

According to the NWF website, creating habitats “not only helps wildlife, it can help reduce global warming pollution and save energy costs as well. Burning fossil fuels to heat and cool our homes and maintain our lawns releases carbon dioxide in to the atmosphere, which is the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. Replacing lawns with strategically located trees and other native vegetation can insulate our homes from heat, cold and wind, reducing our heating and cooling needs and thus our carbon dioxide emissions.”

The website shows how easy it is to get your yard certified. Go to http://www.nwf.org/backyard, and follow the step-by-step instructions. The site covers each of the four requirements, with simple instructions and suggestions as to how to meet them. For example, here is a sample list:

Food Sources: Native plants, seeds, fruits, nuts, berries, nectar

Water Sources: Rain barrel, Birdbath, pond, water garden

Places for Cover: Thicket, rock pile, birdhouse

Places to Raise Young: Dense shrubs, vegetation, nesting box, pond

Sustainable Gardening: Mulch, compost, rain garden, chemical-free fertilizer (Bonnie uses ground coffee beans)

The last step is registering your yard and receiving your certification. Roxanne told me that this is done on the honor system. “We don’t have the resources to go out and inspect every yard. We trust people to complete the requirements.”

Participants who achieve certification receive membership in the NWF, including a one-year subscription to National Wildlife magazine, a personalized certificate, quarterly newsletters and are eligible to post NWF’s special outdoor sign designating their yard or garden as wildlife friendly.

“Florida actually has more certifications than any other state,” said Roxanne. “They just reached the 7,000 mark, which puts them above California. This shows how much the people there care about the environment.”

Bonnie plans on giving a presentation at the Beach Library on August 16th to help people learn how to have their yard become a Certified Wildlife Habitat. The presentation is scheduled for 10:30 am and is open to everyone.

“This is the kind of thing that is especially good for people who aren’t here all year, because it kind of takes care of itself,” she said. “Part of this is planning where to plant everything so you can see it all. I usually try to plant so that something’s in bloom all the time.”

Local member of the Fort Myers Beach Yacht Club, Commodore Chris Christensen, is a big proponent of the program, too. His yard was certified when he lived in Virginia 15 years ago, and he loved having such low-maintenance grounds, and sharing it with the local wildlife. “The important thing is not to have invasive exotic plants,” he told me. He said that he wants to get his yard certified here, too, and he thinks it would be easier here than in Virginia. “Up there, I had to heat my bird bath!” he said.

“I love this house, just sitting on my porch,” said Bonnie. “I can sit out here for hours and never get bored, watching all the creatures do their thing.”

Just like living in a tree house.

Keri Hendry – originally published in the Island Sand Paper, July 18th, 2008

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