A bright green National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat Sign leans against brick wall. This property provides the four basic habitat elements needed for wildlife to thrive: food, water, cover, and places to raise young.

Display your Certified Wildlife Habitat Sign

Displaying a sign lets people know that something important and intentional is happening, and invites questions!

Building Community! Julia, a vigorous, gray-haired woman wearing a lavender shirt, pink pants, and a blue bag speaks to her friend Rex, a man in a red and white striped shirt and white shorts, while standing in front of the Wildergarden sign. There are many plants of all sizes, and they almost completely obscure the white garage in the background.

Talk to friends and neighbors

This is a great way to build community! Here, Julia is discussing plants with childhood friend Rex Blunck.

A bountiful pile of apples, bananas, peanuts, corn kernels, blackberries, and strawberries is strewn across the leaf debris for wildlife to enjoy.

Wildlife Thanksgiving

On the fourth Thursday of November we celebrate Wildlife Thanksgiving by placing grain, fruits and legumes on the ground, intended for our nocturnal wildlife (raccoons and opossums).

A large, white utility truck with a tall aerial extended so that a worker in a white hardhat can trim tree limbs away from utility lines.

Utility line clearing

We frequently face utility line clearing. The trimming companies have agreed to use manual trimmers (no chain saws), to avoid disturbing nests, and to stack all tree debris on our elevated wood storage palettes.

How to proactively work to prevent conflict

Historically, pioneers prided themselves on taming the wilderness; carving out a place for humanity in the vast expanse of nature. We are turning that on its head, pioneering the process of reclaiming urbanized space back for nature! Unsurprisingly, there are challenges associated with restoring the wilderness to a residential neighborhood. While some of these concerns are related to the land itself and the plants and animals who take up residence, those are comparatively easy to address. The humans are much more complicated!

The exciting news is that the socio-political climate now is far more oriented towards sustainability than when Wildergarden first started in 1990. In fact, the Marion County Office of Sustainability manages a city-wide initiative called Thrive Indianapolis, which was created in response to Mayor Hogsett’s 2017 pledge to achieve carbon neutrality in Indianapolis by 2050.  This plan provides guidance on being part of the solution, including these gems:

  • “Plant a rain garden with native plantings to absorb storm water and replenish our aquifers.” (p. 20 of the Plan)
  • “The value that trees bring to a neighborhood is immense – from improving air quality to reducing temperatures and energy use to delivering mental health benefits. Our tree canopy contributes to our resilience to extreme heat.” (p. 29 of the Plan)

As pioneers, we have first-hand experience with many of the possible conflicts and can provide some possible ways to avoid them while building  support among your neighbors.


A Word about Local Ordinances: Learning the Hard Way

Land ownership, including a yard, confers duties and privileges. Land is not personal property. It is an estate carved out of the land surrounding it, which is owned by others. One’s land use cannot be a nuisance to other land owners. Because urban habitat restoration is a new land use, it is imperative to document that proper methods are being used, and that outcomes have public value. Whose minds are making positive changes in support of nature and what attitudes still need to change? 

  1. The yard owner/home owner 
  2. Neighbors 
  3. Local government officials 

Trees are, legally-speaking, part of the real estate on which they grow. It should be nearly impossible to reasonably argue against growing trees, even on urban soil. However, some people consider fruits, nuts, leaves,  branches and dried wildflower stems to be a nuisance when they fall to the ground and are not immediately removed. 

Code Violations

When Wildergarden first started, it was cited multiple times for alleged local code violations, including “wood on the ground”, and “weeds/plants taller than 12 inches.” Each time, we were able to have the citations dismissed through direct open and honest communication with officials. Ultimately, we arrived at an agreement that allowed us to continue. Even though it all worked out in the end, it was a difficult process to endure and there was much uncertainty along the way.

This is still a common occurrence for homeowners starting the nature restoration process. What do we suggest? It is an unpleasantry you must deal with through communication. There are government programs, and nonprofits like Wildergarden, that provide helpful information about land restoration (but not about the legal process.) Many Indiana cities now have green policies that help protect Nature restoration. However, at the county-level jurisdiction there remain weed and trash ordinances that may yield a complaint. 

Avoiding Code Citations

When first transitioning, the biology looks disrupted, and this can be perceived as messy. As this occurs before the beneficial ecological effects become documentable, it is a vulnerable time for potential criticism. Land undergoing nature restoration needs a grace period during which to establish the new habitat. It is a time when you, as the steward of the land, must educate neighbors, who are the source of most ordinance violation complaints. If you are to help move your community to a space where it is serious about mitigating local climate change and supporting struggling birds, wildlife and rivers, it’s important that you try to help people to “like” you. 

When people see you involved in planting, spreading leaves, or observing plants and wildlife in your yard, they can clearly appreciate your work ethic, but they won’t understand why you are doing what you are doing unless you speak to them. Many gardeners like solitude, and may dread having to answer to others at a time when criticism and misunderstanding are all too common. Eventually, your results of forest habitat in plain view will speak for themselves. It’s simply the miracle of allowing native trees and plants to grow again on historically forested soil. But first, make some friends! You never know who is going to be your best advocate to the rest of the neighborhood, and they just might decide that they want to become a steward of their own parcel of land!

Where to begin? Reach out to your neighbors!

We have found benefits in sharing our journey with others. It helps prevent criticism and misunderstanding of the reason for our activities. Here are some of the high points of our experience: 

  1. When getting started, send an initial informational letter to neighbors. 
  2. Post wildlife habitat certification signs. Ours is from the National Wildlife Federation. 
  3. Have a box on your property with flyers about your garden for people to read. 
  4. Have a field day. Set up an information table, guest book and let people see your garden up close. 
  5. Write or be interviewed for media articles. Local newspapers and magazines often respond if you send them a press release. 
  6. Invite local leaders, like your city council representative, to visit. My councillor invited me to transplant some of his northern sea oats to Wildergarden—which we did! 
  7. Ask local environmental groups to send a volunteer to visit. The first visitor identified the Carolina wren call. 
  8. Request a friendly consultation from a local government natural resources agency—such as the county Soil and Water Conservation District, Indy Parks Land Stewardship, or the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. 
  9. Offer plants and seeds to others.
  10. Tell a neighbor what your daily, weekly, and seasonal chores are. (If you tell certain neighbors they will pass this work ethic information along to others.) 
  11. Keep gutters, curbs and traffic signs clear of foliage or plant debris. 
  12. Keep your home (building) in good repair and appearance. 
  13. Tell neighbors about your volunteer environmental work in the community, such as Indiana Master Naturalist or Master Gardener. 
  14. Tell your next door neighbor about your previous gardening activities. 
  15. Tell others about humorous incidents while gardening. 


Tapping into natural curiosity

Board member Anne Murphy had a certified backyard habitat at her previous house.  It was in both the front and backyard, and she posted the official sign on her chain link gate.   While working in the yard, she would often be interrupted by neighbors.  Most of these neighbors were kids from the neighborhood.  Anne viewed these impromptu visits as educational opportunities, and she would ask the child or children to join in with the seeding, planting, and watering, and then explain why the backyard habitat was beneficial to the environment.  She had one older child who said that he was interested in science.  This brought about the observation and discussion of the wildlife that lived there.  Books were even given out. 

By involving the neighbors, this natural way of gardening became more acceptable in the neighborhood.  Some of the children would ask to take home native seeds and plants to their own yards.  In this way, Anne’s habitat extended to other yards.  She hoped to use this opportunity to also propagate knowledge and interest in gardening and the environment.

Celebrate Wildlife Thanksgiving

On the fourth Thursday of November, we celebrate Wildlife Thanksgiving by placing grain, fruits and legumes on the ground, intended for our nocturnal wildlife (raccoons and opossums). It is our vision to turn this into a community-wide practice of serving a special feast to wildlife at the same time people are gathering to share a festive meal together!

For people in over-55 facilities, and others who do not have the freedom to create their own wild spaces, this would be a particularly accessible way to experience the joy of embracing nature, while also celebrating with like-minded friends, family, and neighbors.

A man in a bright blue winter coat stands near his son on the Wildergarden patio in winter when all the trees have lost their leaves and all the plants have died back for the winter, so you have a clear view of the street in the background.

One neighbor and his son have an open invitation to visit Wildergarden. Here they are looking around in February.