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The Flower Show

How to Create a Habitat Garden

October 12, 2023

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Habitat gardens are important ways that we can contribute as gardeners to help support our surrounding environment. By boosting native plant species, increasing biodiversity, and planting for four seasons of interest, these gardens can offer many benefits to wildlife including food and shelter. Choosing plants that will provide ecological services year-round is essential to creating the perfect habitat garden. 

To support the creation of habitat gardens, PHS has designed multiple Pop Up Gardens in urban settings. PHS’s flagship Pop Up Garden is located on South Street, with another garden located in Manayunk in Philadelphia. PHS Design and Procurement Manager, Leah Blanton, discusses what considerations had to be made to create durable, biodiverse gardens in an urban environment. 

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Choosing plants wisely can have lasting benefits in your garden.

Choose Plants with Intention 

Support Wildlife 

Increased urban development continues to displace wildlife, including pollinators and birds, forcing them to relocate to suitable habitats. Pollinators and birds are crucial parts of the food chain, making them important to all environments, even urban ones. Planting a variety of species that extend the growing season and provide food and shelter for insects and wildlife will provide important habitat where it may be lost or degraded. This means reintroducing native plants that our local wildlife rely on.  

Leah says: “I designed the Pop Up Garden in Manayunk as an all-native garden specifically to support wildlife, provide aesthetic beauty year- round, and add the long-term ecological value of trees, shrubs, and perennials into a space that was previously used as a parking lot. Using several native species of Oak and Magnolia, I’ve created a dense structure for wildlife to use for cover and shelter. I’ve also included many berry-producing native trees, shrubs and vines as a source of food for birds, like Sumac, Sassafras, Chokeberry and Virginia Creeper.” 

Even after the season ends, it’s important to keep wildlife in the forefront of your design. Simple approaches can be taken to support wildlife like swapping mulch with leaf duff and not cutting back perennials until early spring. These practices promote the overwintering of pollinators by providing them with shelter during the colder months.   

Pick Gold Medal Plants  

Gold Medal Plants are chosen by PHS every year in collaboration with professional gardeners, horticulturists, nursery owners, and growers. Ease of cultivation, multiple seasons of interest, commercial availability, appropriateness for the region, and value to wildlife are all taken into consideration when choosing the Gold Medal Plants.  

Gold Medal Plants featured at the PHS Pop UP Garden at Manayunk include: 

  • Quercus alba 
  • Aronia melanocarpa ‘Viking’ 
  • Rudbeckia maxima 
  • Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ 
  • Clethra alnifolia ‘Ruby Spice’ 
  • Heuchera villosa ‘Autumn Bride’ 
  • Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ (2023 perennial plant of the year
  • Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen’ 
  • Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Standing Ovation’ 
  • Dryopteris x australis  
  • Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ 
  • Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’ 
  • Magnolia grandiflora ‘Edith Bogue’ 

Gold Medal Plants featured at the PHS Pop UP Garden at South Street include: 

  • Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’ 
  • Heuchera villosa ‘Autumn Bride’ 
  • Chionanthus virginicus 
  • Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ 
  • Lindera glauca var. salicifolia 

Avoid Chemicals by Buying Local 

Buying plants from local nurseries can help to avoid the use of harmful chemicals like neo-nicotinoids during the growing process. Neonicotinoids can harm pollinating insects that feed on the nectar of treated plants. Sourcing plants carefully can reduce the impact of these chemicals. For the Manayunk Pop Up Garden, native plants were selected from local nurseries like New Moon Nursery, and Tree Authority, a BIPOC, locally owned and operated nursery.   

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Planting a variety of plant species can support a healthy ecosystem.

Think of Your Garden as Part of the Ecosystem 

Creating a habitat garden in an urban setting requires special consideration of surrounding ecosystems, and eco-regions. Understanding regional ecosystems and choosing plants that are native to your region are more ways to positively influence local wildlife. 

The planting design at the Manayunk Pop Up Gardens was inspired by forest succession, with each section resembling a different eco-region, including eastern woodland, Oak savannah, woodland edge, and swamp. 

These eco-region inspired plantings are important to show guests how plant communities function together with specialized niches, as they would in nature. These communities of plants are more resilient to environmental stresses -- the more diverse the plant community, the more diverse the wildlife species will be that rely upon it. 

Leah says, “We’ve observed wildlife almost instantly take advantage of the layered native plantings, including birds like song sparrows, gold finch and hummingbirds, interesting pollinators like Sphinx moth on bee balm, Swallowtails on Phlox ‘Jeana’ and great black wasps on button snakeroot, and reptiles like blue-tailed skinks have been seen repeatedly in the garden.” 

When considering how your garden will function within the larger ecosystem, it’s important to think of what positive and negative elements the garden will be contributing to the environment. Choosing plants that require fertilizers, or using insecticides and other chemicals can be extremely harmful to the environment. 

To mitigate any harmful effects, Leah and her team focused on using only plants that require very few inputs. Natural options like undyed mulch, pine straw and leaf duff are some of the best ways to benefit soil organisms and organic fertilizer can be used for annual displays but isn’t needed for most perennials and grasses. Rain barrels were also installed to help mitigate stormwater runoff.  

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Nature can be a source of inspiration.

Celebrate Gardening  

The Pop Up Gardens demonstrate Leah’s interest in creating resilient and sustainable urban landscapes. Her passion for native plants and her naturalistic aesthetic is reflected in the garden. Leah says:

“Nature is the biggest source of inspiration in my planting designs, so embracing a natural style of planting evokes many of the same sensory feelings of being in a natural landscape. Layering plants to achieve full coverage, interest, and beauty year-round is not only important for ecological function, but also for aesthetic value. I like to allow plants to grow into their natural forms and select species that have wonderful features throughout the year, rather than just focusing on the flower it will provide during the growing season. Resisting the urge to tidy and clear our gardens of debris forces us to see beauty in new ways. It’s incumbent upon us as gardeners and landowners to model a different example of what is considered ‘beautiful’ to embrace design practices that better serve our environment.” 

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Attending a plant swap is a great way to learn more about gardening.

Embrace a Sharing Mindset 

The Manayunk garden is one of the key PHS sites for “plant swaps.” It has become a hub for sharing plant information and other educational programming. Throughout the garden, visitors will find many seasonal signs that highlight both individual plants and the designer’s intent. These signs also offer information on the different eco-regions that provided inspiration. 

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