When Wildlife Gardens Look Like Gardens

Pat Sutton (L) with wildlife gardener Mildred Morgan. I bought one of these cool Monarch T-shirts while I was at the Cape May Bird Sanctuary.

Many of you wildlife gardeners will recognize the name Pat Sutton. She’s the Cape May, NJ-based naturalist who’s developed quite a following among people interested in gardening for wildlife, a group whose numbers she adds to with every class or tour she leads.

I attended Pat’s Tour of Private Monarch Butterfly Gardens last weekend, one of the many events sponsored by the NJ Audubon Society, and had no idea I’d be spending the day with the MOST convincing, compelling advocate of wildlife gardening I’d ever encountered. Folks, she got to me! Yes, this defender of well-adapted nonnative plants got her point – that if you’re passionate about wildlife, why not choose every plant in the garden to maximize its benefit to critters? Which usually means choosing native plants.

I could remind myself that nonnatives also help wildlife, and perform other eco-services, too, but the native-native-native drumbeat and the excitement over the tiniest sign of butterfly life I’d witnessed all day by Pat and her ardent followers had ME looking down my nose at some nonnatives I might otherwise have enjoyed seeing – plants that Pat referred to as “plastic” and “frou-frou.”

Thanks to Pat, I spent much of the rest of my Cape May visit judging gardens and landscapes by my increasingly wildlife-serving standards. (Post to come with plenty of snark included.)

Still, I’ll leave to experts like Pat the plant lists, the observation techniques, and the great hand-out of resources for the budding wildlife gardener, and stick to the wildlife-gardening angle that interests me as a blogger – how to make them look good. And I don’t mean by a naturalist’s standards but by MY standards and those of anyone who wants their garden to look orderly enough to be recognized as a well-tended place – as a garden, one that neighbors might even emulate.

For example, the garden of Mildred Morgan, shown here with Pat, was jam-packed with pollinator plants but had just enough hardscape and grassy paths to make it all look intentional and cared for.

Tour-goers admire Mildred Morgan’s garden.



A more dramatic example is Teresa Knipper’s garden just across the street from the beach. It was fully developed as a traditional garden with lawn, foundation plantings and borders, long before Teresa began adapting it to be more wildlife-friendly. So far, she’s retained the bones of the garden while simply widening the borders and adding more native plants, so the effect is fabulous to anyone’s eyes. Below, what passersby see from the sidewalk. Lots of teaching and inspiring taking place here, I bet.



Above, Teresa welcoming her guests, who found lots of little chrysalises or eggs and other signs of insect life.

Another wildlife garden that’s beautiful to anyone’s eyes is that of Evelyn Lovitz, shown above on the left talking to tour-goers.


Notice above and below Evelyn similarly uses a turf path through borders, here even larger borders, and they’re stuffed full of native and nonnative perennials and annuals that pollinators love.



Finally, this plant-packed back yard of oncologist Michele Uhl is made civilized and walk-through-able by the addition of a boardwalk. There’s also a pond in there somewhere.

Thank you, Pat, for your knowledge and enthusiasm.  You are a force of nature and I look forward to your next book.


  1. Yep, I went on Pat’s garden tour last year – and loved it. She is informative, gardens were lovely, the visitors nice, and…..lots of fun (if that’s your thing, I guess). I only wish Cape May was a little closer so I could dash over there for her other tours.

  2. Nice post, Susan. Great pics. One of these days I need to go on her neighborhood tour.

    One annual, with only one variety native to the desert southwest, but will grow well here, is a member of the aster family, tithonia, or Mexican sunflower. I didn’t see tithonia in the photos, but I’m sure the residents plant it.

    It is a huge favorite in my wildlife garden for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Nectar and pollen abound. A few days ago, I watched as a hummingbird and Monarch battled over one bloom on a plant that had fifty. Go figure. And, the monarchs will stay on them for hours.

    I start with seeds indoors, but it’s not necessary and add them to the garden throughout the summer. I have them in bloom from July and some late July plantings started blooming this week. I deadhead and fertilize lightly for rebloom.

    Here’s a video I made last year:

    You may have seen this:

    Thanks, again!

    • I simply can’t let this opportunity slip by. A white paper on this subject is way overdue. In case you Gents and Ladies aren’t aware, Tithonia has traditionally also been the Charmin of the plant word, with its velvety soft foliage, often planted next to outhouses in many cultures. In Uganda there was even a movement (sorry) to collect Tithonia leaves for rural schoolhouse facilities. While not the only plant wit that end use (sorry again), it has the potential to wipe out (sigh) all of its competitors, like mullein or Bigleaf Aster, though Asters have a crack at the title by virtue of their name.

  3. Marcia
    I lovvvve tithonia! And yes, I can see how the velvety leaves could be used as charmin. But It draws bees, hummingbirds, butterflies, and everything in between. A summer without tithonia is a summer without enjoying a parade of pollinators, plus so easy to grow. The only other annual that comes close is Zinnia which is also not native to my area, the Mid-Atlantic region. Loved your video.

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