Coleto Creek Wildscapes

By Anna Beckendorf, certified Texas Master Naturalist

gardening lizardhabitat toadhabitat garden

I began the wildlife gardens first, ironically, because the RV spot where we reside in the park had nothing on the ground but sand, invasive lawn grass, and fire ants to offer as a greeting home from a long day’s work. I began the gardens without any vision beyond making the yard more comfortable and welcoming. I had no budget, but I had lots of ideas and access to acres and acres of Park and Reservoir property from which to bring any free materials I could muscle into my little 1994 Isuzu truck.

About that same time, I was reading about toads, butterflies, lizards, and birds I might spot on the Coleto Creek Nature Trail, in order to prepare for being a Nature Guide at the park. As I became more knowledgeable about the animals, the habitat they are found in, and the biological life-cycle they live, it occurred to me that if we had a reliable way to see the animals we were telling people about on the Nature Walks, the walks would be more fun. So the gardens quickly took off, once I started trying to make reliable toad habitat. I made the Toad Abode, which is essentially a combination of all Toad’s necessary life needs:

  • Shelter (old logs, leaf litter, rocks to hide in)
  • Food (insects inside rotten logs, decaying leaves, and living plants and grasses to eat)
  • Water (small pools of water populated with water plants, a floating piece of wood, and rocks that give a spot  for toads to climb in and out)
  • Space to reproduce (leaves and dirt left in the pool provide a likely spot for toads to leave their eggs)

I found that the toads took immediate possession of their new home! It was so immediate it amazed me and inspired me to continue building habitat for the animals. I soon had the busiest wildlife camp, a mini-wildlife sanctuary in the middle of a very busy park. I made brush piles out of driftwood in the shape of a teepee, in an effort to keep campers from complaining about my spot being “messy” or “snaky.” I arranged logs in the sun for the lizards to sunbathe on and hide in. I started planting native plants because I had learned that they were food (nectar) for butterflies, hosts for the caterpillars, cover for the toads, lizards, and frogs, and insects would come to them.

Native plants also provided the exact thing fire ants hate – BIODIVERSITY, thereby starting the single most effective control method for these dreaded pests! I couldn’t help but notice it. But then, Dan started doing some research on it—I guess he got curious because I kept saying it. He looked up how to get rid of fire ants organically and found that the Texas Bug Book by Howard Garrett & C. Malcolm Beck.

Garrett & Beck give three steps for a fire ant control program, and the third step says, “Reestablish biodiversity. Fire ants love monoculture fields of Bermuda grass or other low-mown grass. They don’t like diverse stands of native grasses, wildflowers, forbs, and shrubs. They also don’t like other native critters, so stop killing them.”

Fire ants find places where they have no competition: sandy, poor soil, near concrete or rocks or in a lawn where there is NO BIODIVERSITY, a lawn of St. Augustine or Bermuda grass, where other insects and animals cannot find what they need to live. In other words, remove lawn, add compost, enrich the soil, plant a variety of native plants, and you will have an anti-fire-ant zone. This zone also just so happens to be what native wildlife want.

So, the dual purpose of the native plants kicked me off to a very good start in the direction of designing a butterfly garden, which could hold a large number of native plants and varieties of native grasses.

All these things go hand-in-hand with so much of what we talked about on the Nature Walks that we decided that beginning and ending the walks in the wildlife gardens was the natural thing to do. The gardens are a living example of ecosystem concepts; they give us a pretty reliable chance to show people lizards, toads, and butterflies; and they offer fun and entertainment to youngsters. They are the perfect “visual aid” and also serve the practical purpose of being a meeting place for the walks. They are educating the public, even when there is no guide there. You will hear children talking about the Wildscape Gardens. I heard one just today saying to another kid, “No wonder they call this the Wildscape Garden!” Children often come to gaze at the Lizard Teepee and they compliment the garden and ask questions when I am outside gardening. That gives me the perfect opportunity to tell them about our Ranger-Guided Nature Walks. It makes some of the best advertising the walks could have. I think it has truly helped get the campers interested in taking the walks.

I am also beginning to give free wildlife coaching classes. People meet at the Butterfly Garden, and if they are interested, I tell them how to do backyard gardening for attracting butterflies, frogs, toads, and wildlife in general; why this kind of gardening is beneficial to wildlife; why native plants are beneficial; and the negative impact of invasive plants. When I am working on a project in the garden, anyone who wants to learn how they can get started doing this in their own yard will be able to ask questions.

The gardens were started a year and half ago and now they have over 80 native species of plants represented. We are finding out that these gardens are a demonstration to the community and serve a number of educational purposes.