Acrobatic goldfinches are darting about. Jewel-red cardinals are plucking sunflower hearts from the feeders. Leopard frogs are all eyes in the pond, and a solitary butterfly, a common buckeye that is not so common in these parts, is lingering on the path.
"Isn't this neat?" Sutton asks, as if it were all new to her.
For almost 30 years, as a naturalist, educator, and writer at the Cape May Bird Observatory and Cape May Point State Park, and now in retirement, Sutton has been promoting wildlife gardening in the region and country through lectures and workshops, magazine articles and books, birding trips and garden tours.
Here's the goal: to create gardens that are richly layered, diverse habitats able to provide food (nectar, nuts, seeds, berries), water, and places to nest and hide, for birds, butterflies, bees, insects, frogs, and other critters, in every season.
"I'm driven," Sutton admits.
Gretchen Whitman, director of the Nature Center of Cape May, estimates that, over the years, Sutton has influenced the gardening habits of thousands of people and, thus, had a major impact on the region's environment.
"She's like a pied piper of the backyard habitat movement and she's been advocating it since before it became really fashionable," Whitman says, adding that Sutton isn't just talking it up with gardeners in Nature Center workshops.
"Her mission is to talk to landscapers and garden centers, to educate the people who are selling the plants and designing the gardens, that it's not difficult to make different choices for your yard," she says.
Sutton notes, sadly, that some garden centers still sell, and landscapers still use, invasives like purple loosestrife and Norway maple trees, when alternatives - natives that support wildlife - are available. And most homeowners are of like mind; they still subscribe to the monoculture lawn, exotic ornamentals, and "herbicides out the wazoo.
"This is why we go over the top, why we're so passionate," Sutton says. "There's so little else out there for wildlife."
Bill Van Vliet and his wife Vinnie, retirees from Greenwich, Cumberland County, took five of Sutton's workshops this year before attempting their first butterfly/hummingbird garden. "My wife knew a little about flowers but I knew zero about this," Van Vliet says.
He now talks comfortably about the delightfully complex ecosystem in his 30-by-40-foot garden, especially how his passionflower attracted variegated fritillaries, which laid eggs and turned into caterpillars and then butterflies.
Van Vliet photographed it all, along with monarchs in the milkweed and hummingbirds in the cannas. "It's just tremendous," he says.
Sutton, who grew up in Ambler as the daughter of artists, and husband Clay, an environmental consultant who grew up in Cape May County, have kept tabs on their backyard, too. They began gardening there in 1977 on a half-acre that is now one-third house and lawn, one-third woods, one-third garden.
So the garden's not huge. Yet the Suttons have tallied 75 butterfly species, the second-highest total in New Jersey, and 212 species of birds, including a varied thrush from the Pacific Northwest. On a single day in 2005, they counted 119 white-throated sparrows at the feeders; 83 leopard frogs plopped in the two ponds one day during the horrifically dry summer of 2010.
"You don't need a lot of property," insists Sutton, who was a bookish kid without the slightest interest in or knowledge of nature until she met Clay. They married in 1975.
Early in their relationship, they went camping in Florida, where, at some point, Clay, then an environmental planner for Cape May County, handed Sutton his binoculars.
"I flipped out. Clay literally opened my eyes to the natural world," recalls Sutton, a literature major in college who went on to get a master's in environmental education from what is now Rowan University. After that, she landed a dream job as a naturalist at Cape May Point State Park, considered a birder's nirvana.
Binoculars now are almost a body part for Sutton. Conversations are routinely interrupted by the sudden appearance of some wonderful creature she wants to examine more closely.
"Wow! Wow!" she exclaims during our visit, aiming her binoculars skyward. "An immature bald eagle is circling over our yard!"
Sutton's garden is in its second iteration. The first was "loved by wildlife and by us," but not well thought out. When a new septic field required its demolition in 2004, she relished the opportunity to redo.
Today, with a lovely woodland as background, Sutton's garden features a 104-foot path winding through a series of "rooms" that are convenient to care for and easily photographed. They're mostly filled with perennials or self-sowers, and cuttings or "babies" from the hundreds of plants she has given other gardeners over the years.
"They came back home," Sutton says.
This being fall, the coral honeysuckle and bee balm, the blue boneset, anise hyssop, and salvia are pretty much crispy and spent. But there will be no fall cleanup; that comes in spring. Sutton points out that "most of our native butterflies winter over as eggs, caterpillars, or chrysalises in all the standing vegetation in the garden."
So put away those pruners, and listen up.
"I am not a tidy gardener," Sutton says with pride.
Learning to Grow Wild
Wildlife gardening will be naturalist Pat Sutton's topic at the following workshops:
Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., "How to Create a Wildflower Meadow" and "How to Create a Wildlife Pond"; N.J. Audubon's Nature Center of Cape May, 1600 Delaware Ave.; limit 30; preregistration required, 609-898-8848; cost: $35 N.J. Audubon members, $45 nonmembers.
Monday, 6-7:30 p.m., "Native Vines & Grasses (and the birds, butterflies, moths and other creatures that depend on them or benefit from them)"; Cape May Court House Library, 30 Mechanic St; free. Information: 609-463-6350.
Nov. 19, 1 p.m., "Backyard Habitat for Birds (& Butterflies & Dragonflies & More)", Roork's Farm Supply store, 163 Rte. 77, Elmer, N.J.; free. Information: 856-358-3100.
Nov. 26, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., "How to Deal With Invasive Species"; N.J. Audubon's Nature Center of Cape May; limit 30; preregistration required; cost: $35 N.J. Audubon members, $45 nonmembers.
Dec. 10, 10:30 a.m. to noon, "Common Backyard Birds Attracted to a Backyard Habitat," N.J. Audubon's Nature Center of Cape May; limit 30; preregistration required; cost: $15 N.J. Audubon members, $20 nonmembers.
For information about wildlife gardening, go to nativeplantwildlifegarden.com or patandclaysutton.com.
See Pat Sutton discuss elements of a wildlife garden at www.philly.com/sutton
Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or email@example.com.