Camano garden is a symphony between wildlife, native plants

CAMANO ISLAND — Kathryn Wells is the first to say her yard would never appear on the cover of Better Homes &Gardens.

It just isn’t that sort.

Even so, the five-acre property she and her husband, Ken Johnson, own on south Camano Island is a highlight of this year’s Backyard Wildlife Habitat Garden Tour.

The focus at the Wells-Johnson place is on wildlife, native plants and low maintenance.

The mindset is: Let the grass die; let the weeds (except the noxious kind) grow; slowly take out the lawn; expand the forest inward; house and provide water for bats, birds and frogs; grow a vegetable and fruit garden that also provides for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

And, yes, let the deer and rabbits nibble a bit.

The picture windows in the house are decorated with ribbons that flap in the wind. Birds don’t try to fly through the closed windows anymore, Wells said.

On a sunny morning after a late spring rain on Camano, Wells’ garden smelled wonderful.

Scents from a long-established flower garden mingled with the sweet pungent odor of wet leaves.

If they aren’t at their jobs or running errands, Wells and Johnson can be found out in their yard. There isn’t another place they would rather be.

Gardens on the tour range from small to large, simple to extravagant and forested to waterfront, tour volunteer Val Schroeder said.

“Besides being a lovely garden tour, this event gives people a chance to see how others live happily in harmony with nature just by providing food, water, shelter and places where young birds and animals can be raised,” said Schroeder, who, with more than 800 property owners on the island, was instrumental in getting the National Wildlife Federation to name Camano the 10th community in the nation to certify as a wildlife habitat.

Information on native plants, composting, mulching and more will be available on the tour.

Wells plans to post interpretive signs for the tour as well as call attention to the birdbaths, brush cover and other wildlife habitat basics on the property.

She also plans to warn people not to touch her patches of stinging nettles. They make great tea and add spice to casseroles, but even the deer don’t want to walk through nettles.

“But nettles are a host plants for butterflies,” Wells said.

In her yard, look for native blackberry vine, which serves as a ground cover.

The garden has numerous fern species, mature madrona trees, grand firs, Douglas firs, Western red cedar, hemlock, silver fir, Sitka spruce, Oregon white oak, big leaf maples, alder, willow, salal, huckleberry, salmonberry, thimbleberry, native rose, Indian plum, Oregon grape and non-native, but drought-tolerant birches.

Many small conifers are planted under the maples, simulating a regenerating native forest.

A graduate of Cornell University, Wells works as an outreach educator for the Snohomish Conservation District. She buys many of her native plants at the conservation district’s annual plant sale.

Her colorful and multi-textured front flower bed — with rhubarb, vine maple, red-flowering currant, day lilies, peonies, Russian sage, hydrangea, Japanese maples, lilac and lavender — might seem a bit unkempt to some gardeners. However, it provides shelter for birds and other creatures.

The fenced vegetable and berry garden is topped by a bat box. Bats and wasps do a good job taking care of insect pests, Wells said.

Growing in the garden are tomatoes, berries, lettuce, kale, onions, garlic, potatoes, broccoli, carrots, parsnips, squashes and nasturtiums for the humming birds. In the yard are apple and pear trees.

A few years ago, Wells and Johnson built a greenhouse from a kit. While it is empty in summer, it provides a great space for vegetable and flower starts in the winter and spring.

Wells is pleased to be on the tour, she said.

“I am eager to share ideas for creating and enhancing habitat,” Wells said. “I just try to help creatures have a home.”

Wells grew up in a suburb of Lincoln, Nebraska, in a new housing development built on farmland that previously had been carved out of the prairie.

“We didn’t have much wildlife,” she said. “I got excited when I saw a house sparrow. I treasured my wildlife encounters.”

As a girl, Wells posted a sign on her family’s sliding glass door so that the birds could know they were welcome in the trees in her yard: Silverleaf Maple Motel, Pine Tree Inn, Pin Oak Hotel and Crabapple Inn.

“I continue trying new things to invite and nurture the birds, amphibians, insects, snakes and mammals that visit or live around us.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; Twitter: @galefiege.

Garden tour

The eighth annual Camano Island Backyard Wildlife Habitat Garden Tour is 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 27. Pick up your free self-guided tour map at the Camano Multipurpose Center, 141 N. East Camano Drive. For more information about the tour, sponsored by Camano Wildlife Habitat Project of Friends of Camano Island Parks, go to or call 360-387-2236.

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