Former Livonia city naturalist Tim Nowick and former Farmington Hills city naturalist Joe Derek stand at Derek’s home Jan. 3, where his backyard has been turned into a National Wildlife Federation certified wildlife habitat.

Former Livonia city naturalist Tim Nowick and former Farmington Hills city naturalist Joe Derek stand at Derek’s home Jan. 3, where his backyard has been turned into a National Wildlife Federation certified wildlife habitat.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


Former Farmington Hills naturalist dedicates his backyard to wildlife

By: Sherri Kolade | Farmington Press | Published January 8, 2019

 A portion of Derek’s backyard includes a deck and a gazebo. In the summer, the potted plants are used to attract hummingbirds and butterflies.

A portion of Derek’s backyard includes a deck and a gazebo. In the summer, the potted plants are used to attract hummingbirds and butterflies.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

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FARMINGTON HILLS — On a blustery, bright winter afternoon at Farmington Hills resident Joe Derek’s property Jan. 3, the butterflies, hummingbirds and moths were nowhere to be seen.

But give them a few months and they will be busy lapping up the luxuries they are afforded in the 1.9-acre backyard and garden that Joe, 70, has worked for decades to transform into a sanctuary for things that flutter, crawl and romp.

Joe said his backyard’s unique look started with a mowing strike.

“I didn’t want to mow for three hours like some of the neighbors do,” he said, adding that he decided not to mow the area at the front of his home.

“When we moved here ... other than one or two trees (it) was all lawn. The one day I mowed a figure eight with a lawn tractor and I wondered what would grow in the two parts of the eight. Well, weeds did — native plants,” he said. “More butterflies showed up and more other things showed up, and some guy down the road turned me in to the city, and they came out and said, ‘You got to mow.’”

He told them that he was gardening for wildlife, and eventually, after getting the media involved, he was allowed to have his backyard habitat, and he learned of a National Wildlife Federation program that certifies backyard habitats.

“We got certified,” he said, adding that presently there are a few hundred thousand backyards with this distinction. “We were among the first 7,000 back then in the country. That is when the trend of the environment started catching on.”

Pipevine swallowtails, luna moths, many species of birds — let’s not forget the deer — koi fish, and many other animals and insects can be seen in his backyard during warmer months and even winter months.

You don’t need a big backyard to do the same.

Joe, the city’s naturalist from 1994 to 2011, raises pipevine swallowtail butterflies and luna moths, among other species, at his home on 10 Mile Road. Joe has been a naturalist from childhood.

“I spent a few summers reading books on birds, bugs, snakes,” he said. “I read and read books.”

When he retired in 2011, he didn’t stop doing what he was born to do: grow and flourish the natural world, including produce.

He and his wife grow corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, pickles and more in their backyard.

Their home, inside and out, is a testament to their passion. From the antlers on the wall to the photos of local deer that his wife, Judy, put on pillows, their passion for nature has seeped into every facet of the couple’s life.

Judy, married to Joe for over three decades, caught the nature bug by “osmosis,” she said recently in her home near their friendly, inquisitive German wirehaired pointing griffon, Snoopy.

Judy said that their ranch home — which sits high at the end of a long drive —  has a gazebo in its backyard that “feels like a treehouse” when she sits in it. The elevated gazebo sits on wood posts, part of their deck. She added that in her living room, she can look out of the many windows and see deer and wildlife activity, which can be healing for her, as she is recovering from a recent ailment.

Their inside is just as interesting as their outside. An aquarium in the basement houses a 40-year-old Raphael spotted catfish.

“It was an adult when I bought it, I think in 1977 — it’s 40-something years old,” Joe said. “They can live that long, but most people don’t take care of them enough. Change the filter and keep the water clean. I’m kind of proud of this fish. I never gave it a name. I never thought of giving it a name. I have a few hundred fish; there are too many to name.”

Their backyard includes a fenced area — a dog park for Snoopy — that looks like a traditional backyard. Off to the side of their house is another area that slopes toward a koi pond, small garden barrels, a path that leads to a historical barn — the Lambert Sellers barn — along with other treasures: an old Orchard Lake sign and a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Joe and Judy moved to the city in 1987 and have turned their yard into a National Wildlife Federation certified wildlife habitat, which means it provides food, water and cover for wildlife, as well as places for wildlife to raise their young. The details for creating such a habitat can be found at www.nwf.org.

The garden growing near their back steps includes many red, yellow and orange flowers to attract butterflies and hummingbirds during warmer months.

Underneath the lantana grow parsley and fennel to serve as food for caterpillars. Sometimes one can buy a plant and get the butterflies-to-be with it.

Joe said people can plant fennel, parsley or dill to attract black swallowtails to lay their eggs.

Plants good for attracting hummingbirds, but not so much butterflies, include salvia, impatiens, fuchsia and cuphea.

Store-bought hummingbird feeders work with regular sugar-water changes, Joe said.

At his home, branches in dry aquariums sport eggs and tiny green crawling caterpillars, and in a larger dry aquarium, adult moths flash their striking green wings.

“We’re always raising things and turning them loose,” he said.

He said that 30-some years ago, the preservation of nature was not always a top priority for people.

“Today, nature is a big deal for people,” Joe said. “It kind of was trendy 30-40 years ago, but now people find out how important it is. … With Farmington Hills, they take pride in their natural areas and people who garden for nature.”

He said that people call about the animals they’ve seen in the area and ask him how to make the city more inhabitable for them.

Before Joe was hired on by the city as a naturalist in 1994, he and others approached the city to preserve the space today known as Woodland Hills Nature Park, 26655 Farmington Road,  property that was then slated to become a ballfield.

He and others formed a citizen group to save the property, keep it in its natural state and put in trails.

“We might have been a little ahead of our time,” he said. “And it’s got some of the tallest trees around,” he added of the 90-acre property.

“It started from there,” Joe said. The citizen group and the city formed a partnership to save more undeveloped land.

“We were making nature cool — there are a lot of people that really enjoy that stuff,” he said.

Friend and former Livonia naturalist Tim Nowicki appreciates nature too and said at Joe’s home that day that they have similar philosophies.

“We both think that people should be outdoors and (that preserving) the outdoors is very important,” Nowicki said.

Joe noted that Nowicki knows way more about birds than he does.

“We pass information back and forth and became friends,” Joe said.

Nowicki, who has feeders at his house and plants designed to attract butterflies and birds, said that nursing homes have discovered that if they put out a bird feeder, their residents have a much calmer attitude when they are watching the activity outside.

“Doctors are actually prescribing people to go outside for a walk instead of taking pills,” he said.

Nowicki said that decades ago, he would take his then-young children to Heritage Park.

“We would catch monarch butterflies,” he said, adding that his son caught them, Nowicki tagged them and his daughter recorded the information about them. “We had a system going involving them, getting them outside and learning about the natural world through personal experience.”

Later that year, one of those tagged butterflies was found in the mountains of Mexico.

“Maintaining natural areas in your backyard to start with and going to natural areas … (like parks) helps to instill an appreciation for young folks so, hopefully, they will take that away in (their) adult life,” Nowicki said.

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