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Introduction to Gardening for Wildlife

Nest in backyard habitat garden

Recently, I sat quietly on my back porch sipping a cup of tea, delighted by the amount of wildlife that frequents my backyard.

A hermit thrush pecked through the leaf litter mulch searching for seeds and insects. A pair of mourning doves cooed softly as they perched in my old juniper and a flash of blue crossed my eyes as a scrub jay darted though my aspen trees. Gold finches crunched away at the sunflower seeds in my feeder while field mice frantically combed the ground below before diving back into their dens. In the air, I caught a whiff of the skunk that visited the neighborhood the night before while I could hear a raven “caw” in the distance.

Bird feeders are a great way to supply birds with food, particularly in the winter months when other resources are scarce. Be sure to stay consistent with refilling your feeder as birds become dependent on the regularity. Also, it is good practice to clean the feeder periodically to lessen the chance of spreading disease between birds.

Whether your home is surrounded by native vegetation or you live in a more urbanized area, we gardeners are fortunate to have wildlife in our yards. Even amongst the sounds of police sirens, traffic and barking dogs, I am always astonished by the variety of birds, insects, and small mammals that I encounter even in my wee garden. To discover the diversity of wildlife in your garden, try sitting in silence, studying the sky, the earth and plants around you. In a short time, the world should come alive with non-human life.

Wildlife viewing in your garden takes on a new kind of pleasure when you happen upon small wonders like this praying mantis on garlic chive flowers.

Unfortunately, the future of many wildlife species is in jeopardy. As urban development continues to eliminate natural areas in our cities, habitat is fragmented or destroyed making it harder and harder for wildlife to access the resources they need to survive. One compelling and empowering solution to this problem is for us gardeners to reestablish and/or maintain wildlife habitat intentionally in our yards. Even if you live in the heart of a metropolitan area, you will be amazed by how much wildlife will visit your garden by employing some simple practices.

I like to say: “If you plant it, they will come!” Imagine for a moment, if we created habitat in every garden across America how much wildlife we could conserve (and enjoy)!

Habitat gardening differs greatly from traditional garden practices. If you have natural areas on your property, use a low disturbance approach in the maintenance of these areas (i.e. removal of noxious weeds, fire prevention, etc.) as they support wildlife in the most natural way. Since the goal is to attract and sustain wildlife, habitat gardening begins with a naturalistic landscape design. Your cultivated garden should emulate nature’s complexity by incorporating many species of plants, boulders, and differences in soil grades. The idea is to move away from the familiar lifeless looking landscapes made up of a few lonely plants growing in empty beds alongside excessive turf areas.

Here is a picture from our old garden in Tucson, Arizona. Plants like staghorn cholla cactus provide nesting sites for many species of birds in your garden.

The plants that make up your backyard habitat should collectively provide three basic elements animals need: food, cover and places to raise young.

Food can be supplied in direct and indirect ways. You can directly provide food by growing plants that provide leaves, nectar, seeds, fruit or berries for animals to eat. Visit your local garden center for native and adapted species for good recommendations or see our links below to recent posts on wildlife friendly plants that may be suitable for your region.

In general, here are some guidelines to follow when thinking about the characteristics of plants that have wildlife value:

  • Songbirds, such as goldfinches, need plants that produce abundant seeds and fruits. Remember to leave ripe seed heads in the fall on perennials and wildflowers such as those on sunflowers and black eyed Susan!
  • Small mammals prefer the fruit, seeds, and foliage on plants like serviceberry.
Tomato horn worms devour plants in the Solanacae or nightshade family that includes plants like tomatoes, eggplant and datura. In a habitat garden allowing wildlife to feed on your plants is part of the practice.
  • Hummingbirds like trumpet shaped flowers in hues of red and orange that provide lots of nectar. Examples include crocosmia, scarlet gilia and columbine. Individual hummingbirds have been known to return to the same garden year-after-year during their migrations.
  • Butterflies and bees like flat-topped or cluster flowers especially in blues, purples and pinks such as those on milkweed, borage, blanket flower, aster and yarrow. To make it easier for pollinators to locate your plants, it is good to group plants of the same species in clusters instead of growing individual plants alone. It is also important to plant species with varying heights and bloom times to ensure nectar/pollen over a longer period of time.

You can indirectly provide food by attracting animals to your garden that other animals prey upon.

For example, allow leaf lifter to accumulate as mulch under trees and shrubs. Not only does this mean less work for you, it is also beneficial to your plants by holding soil moisture and preventing weed growth.  Some plant-based mulches (especially compost) also builds soil by adding organic matter that increases soil microbial activity and provides a home to an array of insects that aid in the decomposition process. Don’t be alarmed by the number of insects this will attract! Their numbers will be kept in check by the birds, lizards and other wildlife that pick though the mulch to feed on them.   

Leaving leaf litter as mulch in the fall is a good practice to help provide shelter and food for wildlife in the winter. In my garden, I “manage” the leaf litter by allowing it to build up in the periphery and removing/replacing it in the focal areas with compost mulch.

Cover can be created by leaving brush and rock piles or by allowing trees and shrubs to grow together into dense thickets.

These tangles of leaves and branches will become places of refuge for hiding, nesting, perching and raising young. If trimming is needed, use naturalistic pruning methods that involve the removal of selective branches while maintaining the plant’s natural form.

Even this small aspen tree log stack has wildlife value. I have found insects, frogs and field mice nesting among them. Grey squirrels and songbirds also perch on them while eating seeds from the feeder above.

Water in some form and quantity is essential to wildlife survival.

Quail, for instance, must either drink water daily or obtain it from their food by eating insects or succulent fruits. Chemical-free water features and bird baths are a great way to provide wildlife water, especially if you remove the stand and place the saucer on the ground so that ground dwelling animals can access it. The water should be changed at least every other day and the saucer given a good scrub when needed. This keeps the water fresh, pathogen and mosquito free. To provide honey bees and butterflies water create shallow areas and/or seeps in your water feature.

By employing habitat gardening practices in your landscape you will be on your way to turning your backyard into a wildlife sanctuary. Keep in mind that habitat gardening involves attracting both the animals people adore, such as bees, hummingbirds and butterflies, as well as the animals people commonly try to deter from their yards. This may include spiders, skunks, mice, snakes, and rabbits.

As earth stewards, we should welcome these animals into our gardens for they too, are vital to a healthy ecosystem.

Cat-face spiderlings (Araneus gemmoides) on my honeysuckle. Like most spiders, cat-face spiders are not poisonous and should be welcomed in a habitat garden as they are beneficial for keeping insect populations in balance. These little ones will spread through my garden by a process called ballooning in which they let out silken threads and allow the wind to carry them through the air!

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