Audubon at Home Sanctuary – Apartment Edition

Updated: Apr 24, 2018


By Maria Stewart


From March 2015 Turnip News, Master Gardeners Prince William


Do you think it’s too difficult to get your garden certified as an Audubon at Home Sanctuary? Or maybe, you think you don’t have enough room? Think again.


My husband and I live in a third story apartment with an eighteen square foot balcony. As of this writing, we are only two critters away from achieving the ten critters necessary to become certified. And we have not even been trying. Seriously. Here’s what happened.

It started two summers ago with a lonely lemon cucumber seedling from the Teaching Garden that Leslie Paulson assured me could be grown in a container (and she was right, it got huge). I set out a zinnia for the cucumber to help attract bees. Instead of bees, however, two days after setting out the zinnia, I noticed a buzzing blur above the flowers. I couldn’t believe it. It was a female rubythroated hummingbird, taking her time to sample all the blooms. Wow!


To stack my chances that this wouldn’t be a onetime visit, I added more zinnia and bee balm. I also added a hummingbird feeder, which we’re not technically allowed to have, but it’s a rule worth bending. Not only did the hummingbird come back, she claimed our balcony as her territory for the whole season.


After a couple of hard-fought tussles with interloping hummingbirds, we added a second screen to cover the unprotected side of the glass sliding door. Just some Velcro and a sheet of screening cut to size to remind the hummingbirds that they can’t fly through glass, no matter what the reflection seems to be telling them.


As we got caught up in the daily hummingbird drama (they fight a lot) and endless wonder (if you sit quietly, their curiosity will bring them within inches of your face!), we noticed other critters. Lady beetles, dragonflies, a fritillary butterfly, and even the bumble bee I had hoped for at the outset, all became regulars to our balcony. The bee came by every afternoon at about 3:00 to visit the cucumber. The balcony had become quite a hub.


The most we hoped for at the beginning of last summer was that our hummingbird would remember us and find her way back to our balcony. I did slightly more planning than the previous summer. I looked up what hummingbirds like and planted nasturtium, fuschia (Marcia and Jingle Bells), bee balm (powdery mildew resistant Jacob Kline), and zinnia elegans instead of the magellan I had impulsively bought for the cucumber. I thought the zinnia elegans, growing three to three and a half feet tall, would be a nice screen for the TV dish and be a showier beacon for the hummingbird.


The hummingbird came back! And so did the other critters.


Then, Jane Wyman contacted me to set up an Audubon at Home Ambassador training. I didn’t think our balcony was eligible, but much to my surprise, balconies are eligible. I was intrigued. I started thinking about all the visitors we had, and it added up to five (one resident hummingbird with many passersby and challengers, bumble bees, dragonflies, lady beetles, and a fritillary butterfly).


When Jane and Mary Cresswell, also training to be an Ambassador, came to my apartment, I was quick to caution them that my plants did not represent a carefully thought-out plan. I was feeling self-conscious with two Master Gardeners evaluating my balcony.


My worries were unfounded. We were all excited at the prospect of such a small space getting certified. We brain-stormed some really creative and practical ideas, such as focusing on herbs. Many are beneficial to critters needing help, and my husband and I would be able to enjoy them too. Incorporating natives would also be helpful. Maybe a coral honeysuckle to hide the TV dish? So many possibilities to not only help critters under pressure, but also improve the look of our little balcony.


Could it really happen though? Some of the critters on the list were automatically eliminated. The eastern boxwood turtle, for example, would not be visiting. Enticing one of those up three floors would be quite an accomplishment indeed. I would have to stick with things that fly. It was fun to think about, but I realized I might have to be happy with “almost.”

Well, not long after Jane and Mary’s visit, I noticed a flitting. Not the bumble bees, not the hummingbirds, but who? A spicebush swallowtail. A little tattered and torn, but flitting around as best as it could, having brunch. It’s on Audubon’s list and would be my number six. How neat that I was more than halfway to the ten critter requirement.


I didn’t think much about the list again until number seven. A male American goldfinch landed on the zinnia and dug away, tossing petals to get what he wanted. That would explain all the loose zinnia petals I had been seeing. Maybe this could really happen. And then…

And then, number eight. The poster-bug for critters under pressure from habitat loss, a Monarch butterfly! He refueled for about twenty minutes on all of our flowers.


Ok, I can take a hint. If I can get eight of ten critters from Audubon’s list without trying that hard, including the king of them all, the Monarch, surely I can manage another two with a little planning.


I have already started my list of herbs and plants based on Jane’s suggestions, so I will be ready for the spring, but I don’t even have to wait that long. Leslie Paulson recommended a frost free birdbath for the winter. She explained that if there are eastern bluebirds in my neighborhood, they will likely enjoy an unfrozen birdbath during the winter.

With all the great input and suggestions, I’m confident that critters number nine and ten are only a plant or maybe just a warm birdbath away.

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