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Aside from a skittish herd of preschoolers prowling the undergrowth, the two streetside gardens along the Montana Natural History Center's west wall resemble many neighborhood plantings.

But on Friday, a sign will go up explaining how these two are different. And the design involved in a Community Wildlife Habitat Initiative garden could be a game-changer for many Missoula green thumbs.

“This is gardening for wildlife that work well in urban environments – and gardening that discourages wildlife that doesn’t work well,” said Darcy McKinley Lester, an AmeriCorps volunteer working with the National Wildlife Federation to promote such gardens. “By that, I mean deer and bears.”

On Friday, Mayor John Engen will certify the work that the preschoolers have been doing all week, cataloging what kinds of critters have been attracted to the two gardens. Their observations should confirm the gardens do their intended mission: attract nice wildlife to nice places. And they have plenty to share.

“A lot of animals can live here,” said Hattie Taylor, 5. “I saw a chickadee come to the bird feeders we made.”

“I saw a bird pecking at the ground,” added Susanna Scranton, 5. “I think it was a blue jay.”

“And we saw a deer,” said Willa Sipe, 6. “It wasn’t eating anything.”

The gardens avoid things like geraniums and dogwood. They bloom with varieties of primrose and goldenaster. The bird feeders are often pine cones painted in peanut butter and stuck with favorite seeds – but hung high where bears and raccoons can't reach.

The preschool’s sidewalk separates the two gardens. While the division isn’t obvious, MNHC interim director Lisa Bickell explained two different missions.

“The north side is more for pollinators, and to demonstrate that native species can work well in gardens and not look like a big weed lot,” Bickell said. “It’s got lots of things that bloom at different times, so we have something flowering all spring, summer and late summer.”

Those include the expected, like honeybees; the fascinating, like hummingbirds; and the unusual, like moths and bats that come out at night.

“This side has fewer blooming flowers, but more structure,” Bickell said of the south portion. “It’s got different layers for birds to use – a high canopy for them to survey the area before moving in, access to water from the irrigation ditch and lots of cover. We’ve got a chickadee house in that tree – its hole is too small for common house sparrows, but right for chickadees.”

Both sections were construction zones just a couple of years ago when the Montana Natural History Center was remodeling its Hickory Street headquarters. As the dust settled, center leaders saw an opportunity to memorialize two significant members – Hank and Nancy Harrington – who died in a canoeing accident in 2008.

The National Wildlife Federation’s “Garden for Wildlife” program was a perfect fit. The nationwide effort advises gardeners on the kinds of plants that attract good critters, require little water and look attractive.

“We already have several hundred gardens certified in Missoula,” said Sarah Bates of Missoula’s NWF office. “We’re working toward getting the whole community certified, which requires a mix of people’s yards, school areas and common areas like this.”

The Montana Natural History Center has a mural on one of its inside walls illustrating the kind of garden a hummingbird would love. Its plantings outside perform exactly that. And the staff has a stack of guides and brochures handy to answer any queries about types of plants, aspects, soils and techniques involved.

“We’re hoping people will walk by, see this and ask questions,” Bickell said. “Then they can come inside and learn more.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.