Family’s Property Is Wildlife Wonderland

By Marci Laehr-Tenuta
CALEDONIA, WI–The Penzkowski family in Caledonia really enjoys their yard, and they aren’t the only ones.

The family has created a 3-acre wildlife haven in their outdoor space that attracts everything from butterflies and hummingbirds to Woodchucks and Coyotes.

“There’s always something buzzing around out here,” said Tom Penzkowski, a master gardener who has landscaped the yard with his wife Diane over the past 13 years. “We’ve tried to landscape to be friendly to animals.”

Each year the couple has expanded their gardens. In all, they have 400 to 500 perennials in beds in the front and back yards of their house. They also plant up to 20 flats of annuals each summer.

A large round garden in the front of their home sits in the middle of a circular driveway. Under a large pine tree in the center, the garden has evergreen bushes and an abundance of gorgeous perennials. There is another large garden plot in the front lawn, along with garden beds surrounding the front of the home. The backyard is incredible, with garden beds bursting with flowers at every turn.

“When we moved in there was nothing,” Tom said. “We started by just putting in gardens.”

Then they found a list of different plants that attract wildlife. Tom and Diane began to make conscious choices about the plants they were adding, because they wanted to invite the hummingbirds, butterflies and birds into their yard.

It’s worked. At last count the Penzkowskis had seen at least 8 to 10 different types of butterflies flitting around their property. Beyond their proper backyard, the family used to have thick brush and trees down a bank to the creek. However, when the creek started to erode their yard, Tom had heavy stones brought in to line the bank. Much of the brush and trees had to be cleared to get the equipment hauling the stones down to the creek. It opened up the yard to the natural area behind it so well, that they kept it that way.

The Penzkowskis have added wood steps down to the creek, a place to sit and watch the wildlife, several gardens and an intricate set of wood-chipped pathways through the trees and brush. Now the family is able to watch the ducks, Muskrat, owl, Woodchucks, minks, weasels, deer, Raccoons, turtles and other wildlife that come to the creek. His daughter, Samantha, 7, also likes to fish in the creek, which has sunfish and bluegill in it.

Tom tries to clean out some of the brush along the bank, but doesn’t burn it. He’s made a huge brush pile that has become home to dozens of birds and rabbits. “We even see the occasional snake,” he said. “We try to keep it as natural as we can.”

For example, he hates grapevine, but because it is a food source for so many animals, he leaves it alone. Thistle weeds can also be found in the brush along the creek. Tom doesn’t take it down because it is a host plant for some butterflies. In fact, the family does just about everything they can to make their property inviting to wildlife, even if it isn’t conventional.

Milkweed, which most gardeners would pull up, is left in the Penzkowski garden. “It’s the host plant for Monarchs,” Tom said. “It’s the plant they need to have their young.” Although they didn’t plant the milkweed, the couple let a few of them grow in the garden. “When these were flowering, the monarchs were all over them,” Tom said of the milkweed.

Spent coneflowers are another garden feature that, while not necessarily attractive, the Penzkowskis have stopped cutting down. Tom said most people will chop them down after they have finished blooming because the flowers start to look straggly. However, the birds love to pick the flowers of seeds, so he and his wife leave them until the finches and wrens have cleaned the former blooms of seeds.

“We’ll leave them until they’ve picked them clean,” he said. “The bees and butterflies love them, then the finches take over.”

Feeding and sheltering birds is one of Tom’s passions. In nearly every tree he has hung a birdhouse, or two, or three. He makes them out of old wood, hollowed out gourds, recycled materials like license plates, and even old terra cotta pots. There are at least 40 to 50 of them throughout the gardens.

“I build them in the winter when theirs nothing left to do,” he said. In particular, Tom loves to attract the wrens, which is who he tries to make the birdhouses for. “For such little birds they sure can sing,” he said.

To attract hummingbirds they’ve planted three different trumpet vines, along with bright red canna lilies. The hummingbirds also like the butterfly bushes, of which there are many, in all different colors, throughout the garden.

Water is also an important part of creating a wildlife-friendly garden, Tom said. Although they have the creek running behind their home, they also have a fountain in both the front and back yard and birdbaths. In the winter Tom also puts a heater in one of the birdbaths. “Water just draws everything,” he said.

There are bird feeders in their yard too. Tom has some of them tucked in the middle of the garden to that the birds have some security as they are eating.

Overall, the Penzkowskis have met and probably exceeded the requirements for creating a WindStar Wildlife Institute Certified Wildlife Habitat, which are: provide food, cover, water and places to raise a family.

Tom wants people to know that they don’t need a large piece of property with a creek to make a wildlife habitat garden. “You could have a 100-square-foot garden,” he said. “You would be amazed how much (wildlife) you’ll get if you put in the right perennials and add a bird bath.” –Journal Times