Garden With a Tender Heart

Bullock's Oriole nest

Bullock’s Oriole nest

Pamela Geyer’s garden is a Santa Fe oasis, a tangle of flowers, bushes, trees, birdhouses, birdbaths, rain barrels, composters, watering hoses and more. Orioles, towhees, cedar waxwings and other birds flit from branch to branch, darting down to feast from dangling suet cages, protected in this safe haven from predators, wind and other threats.

Pam’s garden lies a block away from the Santa Fe River, a well-traveled migratory corridor for all kinds of wildlife, including more than 40 types of birds that visit her garden throughout the year. To provide them with food and shelter, Pam’s planted flowers in a variety of colors and shapes so they appeal to a range of birds; three different honeysuckles that bloom at different times, providing food throughout the season; and trees and bushes at varying levels, appealing to ground-feeders, mid-level and canopy birds. She’s also created a garden for hummingbirds and another for bees.

PAM_GEYER_08_KL“All the living beings that inhabit or move through this space are co-creating this habitat with me,” Pam, who sits at her kitchen table, where you can see at least half a dozen bird feeders and countless birds outside the window, says. “I provide the infrastructure and materials they need, and they bring the life and wonder. It is an incredibly gratifying and joyful process, knowing that my efforts have provided the environment for these creatures to have such a healthy life, and I get to be in the middle of it.”

As an urban homesteader, Pam is part of a global movement to expand “pollinator habitat” in the face of increased urbanization, chemical pesticides and fertilizer, and other threats. In recent decades, the world’s pollinator population has plummeted, from honey and native bees to butterflies, birds and bats, profoundly threatening agriculture and food, as pollination plays a vital role in the production of fruits, nuts and vegetables.

The drastic loss of pollinators prompted President Barack Obama to launch an initiative in 2014 to promote the health of pollinators. More than a dozen embassies, consulates and ambassador residences around the world signed on—from a consulate in Mexico growing native milkweed to feed monarch butterflies to the residence of U.S. Ambassador to Canada Bruce HeyPAM_GEYER_09_KLman, who teaches visitors about declining bee populations using his native blooms. At the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Ethiopia, Girl Scouts give garden tours. In addition, the National Wildlife Federation has certified more than 150 wildlife-friendly public and private properties in 35 states as Community Wildlife Habitats, which help create new corridors where wildlife can thrive.  

The movement has turned legions of local citizens around the world into knowledgeable wildlife advocates like Pam, who believes her wildlife garden—occupying all of half an acre, or a small city lot—can help retain the vitality of the Santa Fe River ‘s ancient migratory corridor by providing temporary refuge.

“Can little pocket wildlife gardens play a role in the rapidly changing biosphere?” Pam asks. “Very possibly. By creating oases of robust biological diversity, we increase nature’s chance to adapt and recover in times of increasing habitat destruction and climate change. We can plant scattered seeds of an evolving and robust ecology even just in our own back yards. Though we can’t know what will adapt and thrive, and what will disappear, it is joyful and worthwhile work in and of itself.”

PAM_GEYER_04_KLPam joined the community wildlife movement decades ago, after she bought her first house on the river corridor in the late 1970s. “I began first with intensive birding and gardening,” she says. “My love of birding and wildlife became wedded to my love of soil and gardening.” In 1989, Pam moved to a different house that she purchased in the same neighborhood. “The last thing I brought over from my previous house was my compost, in the back of my pickup truck. The first thing I bought after I moved in here was bird feeders.”

Pam toiled to transform her new backyard of dirt, rocks and rubble into a wildlife sanctuary, planting a hardscape, then cover crops, layered planter beds and compost heaps. “I started with some winter wheat or winter rye, something that you just put in and turn under so that you’re starting a self-composting soil enrichment.”

PAM_GEYER_10_KLCompost, of course, not only feeds your garden, it attracts skunks, raccoons and other critters. “They’re not always the most pleasant neighbors,” Pam says with a laugh. “I started with a pollinator garden and now I see it’s not just pollinators. All of us exist in this biosphere, and if you build a healthy place, others will join you. The more you compost, the more skunks and raccoons you get. If you’re feeding wildlife, all wildlife will come.”

In her riparian area, the wildlife includes coyotes, raccoons and skunks and, at one time, beavers. “There were beavers when I first moved here,” Pam says. “Back then, this was just a wild area, and the river moved the way it wanted to. But now it’s a river park. It’s not a natural river anymore. The entire river, especially from Osage to the crossing down here, was completely denuded a few years ago and induced meander was put in. Then Wild Earth Guardians planted tens of thousands of willows and some cottonwoods and after they re-seeded it, it’s coming back.”

The wildlife migration corridor running through Pam’s garden stretches from the Rocky Mountains in Canada down to the Santa Fe River, the Rio Grande and then the Gulf of Mexico and Central America. “All wildlife moves along corridors of migration,” Pam explains. “Some move underground and hibernate like bears and others follow the seasons, like birds. Typically wildlife moves along corridors that provide habitat, food, water and shelters. Wildlife comes down the Rocky Mountains because you can always find riparian areas with food, trees and water. So this is a flyway, or a corridor, for shifting, migrating populations and it has been for I can’t tell you how many years, but it pre-dates the Anasazi.”

Spanish Colonial farmers in the 17th century began planting fields in the corridor, watering them to nurture them, “so they were also providing habitat,” Pam says. “But with the building of cities, roads, roofs, asphalts and pavement, the Santa Fe River became basically a water-controlled storm ditch and the riparian habitat wasn’t there except in parks and backyards. Now, we’re starting to recreate this river corridor.”  

Standing in Pam Geyer’s garden, listening to the chirps of happy birds and breathing in the scent of well-nurtured plants, trees and flowers, it’s clear that this part of the Santa Fe River migratory corridor is in good hands, providing a haven for wildlife winging their way around the world.

Growing a Wildlife Garden

To build a wildlife garden, Pamela Geyer advises, start with what intrigues you. Start small. Read up on the basics—the flora and fauna, the birds and wildlife of your region. Talk to locals to find out what they plant, and what kind of wildlife visits their garden. Native Santa Fe plantings include Spanish broom, an excellent, and fragrant early summer pollinator. Datura is an excellent summer pollinator with gorgeous flowers that open at dusk.

Plant at different levels to reach all kinds of birds. At ground level, you’ll attract quail, curve-billed thrashers and spotted towhees. Mid-level will draw wrens, bush tits, hummingbirds and tanagers. Canopy birds include orioles, woodpeckers, warblers and bluebirds, not to mention the hunters—coopers and sharp-shinned hawks.

Remember that the microclimates of Canyon Road, Eldorado, Bishops Lodge, La Tierra, the Santa Fe River corridor and other neighborhoods are all quite different. When building a wildlife garden, look at the microclimate of your specific area to see what wildlife live there or pass through, and what kind of habitat enhancement they need to flourish. Then build towards that goal…

“Enjoy!” says Pam. “Remember, this is forever a work-in-progress, and one thing leads to another. Build your soil. Keep an open mind. Practice a tender heart.”

Story by Lynn Cline. Photos by Kitty Leaken.

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