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Plan now for wildlife-centric landscaping

Rocky Mountain junipers are perhaps the most valuable wildlife tree in the area. It's characterized by dense cover and ample food in the form of "berries." Keith Corliss/The Pioneer

About noon this past Monday a magical event occurred. It went largely unnoticed and uncelebrated by most, but it had a hemisphere-wide impact on us in the North. At 1747 (GMT) the sun reached its most southerly declination, an annual happening known as the winter solstice. Indeed we have bottomed out for the year and now stare six months of growing day length squarely in the face. I love it. It will take a month or so for the temperatures to round the corner but with more minutes of daylight, winter now becomes easier to take.

It may be a tad early to begin talking about spring planting, but with seed and nursery catalogs about to be delivered, why not? This is a perfect time of year to take note of your landscape and how various wildlife species interact with it.

Landscaping for wildlife can take several approaches, depending on personal taste as well as the extent of one's property. Rural homesteads are a completely different animal. For them, there's help in the form of a free publication offered by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department called "Conservation Landscaping." It's a good source for northern plant selection and technical advice.

In urban areas there is probably less interest in wildlife landscaping. When asked if customers seek to plant for wildlife, Adam Volz, manager of Sheyenne Gardens in Harwood said simply, "Not really." But for those who press for it, Volz recommends focusing on winter. "In the summer there is plenty of food out there, so we look at things with fleshy fruits or seeds."

The following are some of my personal favorites for urban landscapes and include a mixture of coniferous and deciduous species. Keep in mind there are really only two considerations for any landowner hoping to benefit wildlife: Food and cover, with cover being most important, especially in winter.

When we speak of cover we take aim mainly at evergreens. Two groups give us the double benefit of hardiness and dense cover in this area: The spruces and junipers. In spruces, you just can't beat the good old Black Hills spruce. It's a soft, dense-needled, white spruce variety with the added bonus of cones, which is a food source for squirrels and a number of birds.

I like the upright junipers. Many are available in the nursery trade, but stick to varieties of our native Rocky Mountain juniper which are extremely drought tolerant. I tend to like generic forms which will readily produce the "berries" so important to birds.

For deciduous shrubs there are many choices. I favor those which are native (or at least hardy), dense, are fruit or seed producing, and with good fall color.

Mountain ash is a spectacular small tree with excellent fall color and oodles of fleshy fruit enjoyed by cedar waxwings and other fruit-eating birds. Shop for those advertised as being fire blight resistant.

The Viburnum group offers a passel of choices for the urban landscape. Most are fruit producers and come in a wide size range so can be tailored to virtually any situation. My personal favorite is the native nannyberry, a small tree not often found in the trade.

The first American robins in spring are often seen in crabapples. This popular landscape tree comes in myriad shapes and sizes and most all produce abundant fruit after flowering spectacularly in spring. Like the mountain ash, look for fire blight resistant varieties.

I've got to mention a couple of less appreciated plants. First is the buckeye, a slow-growing nut producer favored by squirrels in the fall. But for two weeks in spring, its bold flowering panicles are an irresistible magnet for hummingbirds and warblers.

Lastly, my ace-in-the-hole: The American elderberry. By far this produces the most eagerly consumed fruit in my yard. Its dark berries ripen just as fall migration is occurring so birds of all sorts often fight for position to consume this plant's bounty. Be ready, however, for a rather unkempt weak-wooded bush with a tendency to sucker.

Admittedly we've got months of winter left. But with the days getting longer, we've turned a tiny corner on the season. Monday was the start of the "new year" for me. That means thinking about next spring's plantings. Those plantings can easily include consideration for nature as well as personal aesthetics.