Creature Comforts

An Austin garden nurtures wildlife, both great and small.

By Linda Lehmusvirta


Orange Boy watches wildlife from the fron porch.Anne Bellomy’s Austin, Texas, garden isn’t just a two-hit wonder, spring and fall. Since digging up her lawn to create a wildlife habitat featuring drought-tolerant plants that provide interest in every season, she’s turned a lifeless yard into a lively garden. By day, birds chatter, anoles silently skitter, and butterflies suck up nectar. At night, moths hover over moonlit flowers. “Every time I walk in the garden, I find surprises. I think that’s what I enjoy the most. The garden and the creatures are not the same from day to day,” Bellomy says.

It isn’t a whopping spread. No, it’s a typical early-1950s quarter-acre lot in a cozy neighborhood. When she bought her house in 2003, the front yard mimicked the rest of the block. Pecan trees framed curb-to-foundation St. Augustine grass and a few window-hugging shrubs. “It didn’t look bad. It was boring,” she says. Wildlife consisted of “a lot of mosquitoes,” she remembers. 

Overall, it lacked the energy that excited her growing up in Panama, where her dad met her Panamanian mother when on location with the Panama Canal Company. “The country’s very vibrant and alive; the houses are brightly colored. There was a lot of nature, jungle actually, which attracted and supported a lot of wildlife. As a result, I like bright colors and I like life,” she says.

Pollinator-friendly plants replace the lawnUnlike rainy Central America, Austin cycles through devastating arid years, which means restrictions on outdoor irrigation. Water-guzzling plants don’t make the cut. Although she adopted the basic xeriscaping principle—choosing plants with low-water needs—Bellomy extended its focus. “Xeriscaping taught gardeners about gardening with limited water resources. But the concept didn’t go far enough. It was mainly to minimize the use of water and didn’t fully address creation of habitat,” she says. 

And despite xeriscaping’s advice to consider wildlife when making plant choices, many gardeners scooped up plants simply for their xeric attributes. Some, like exotic nandina (Nandina domestica), wound up on invasive-plant lists. Native plant garden designer Cathy Nordstrom of Sans Souci Gardens notes, “There is a reason the founders of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center took the notion of gardening with an eye toward environmental responsibility to its next level.” 

That means fostering wildlife with native plants, which resonated with Bellomy. She took classes at the Wildflower Center, as well as the Texas Master Naturalist and Austin Habitat Steward programs. “They taught me about interdependence and ecology: geology, weather, soil, birds, insects, plants, reptiles, mammals, archeology, and even anthropology. That gave me a holistic view,” she says.