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June 18, 2010

Gardening to Welcome Wildlife

Transform your yard into a place where you can relax to the sights and sounds of your wild neighbors


  • A "come-what-may" garden, edged with fallen branches, entices birds with insect food and cover. Debra Firmani


  • Meadow plants like this native like bee balm, require full of sun. Debra Firmani


  • Shifting to native fruit-bearing plants can attract wildlife like this Eastern box turtle. Janet Snyder/The HSUS

Want to make your yard a place where you can relax to the sights and sounds of birds and other wildlife? Welcome the creatures you wish to see with native plantings that provide food, cover, and places raise their young.

Whether you’re just getting started or trying to make your yard even more wildlife-friendly, planning your plantings always helps.

Acquiring native plants responsibly
Choosing plants
Smothering sod safely

Bridging the gap between big trees and grass
Creating shade
Making way for more sunlight
Making the transition to native plants
A final word
Resources

Acquiring native plants responsibly

Look first to wild spots in your area for ideas of what trees, shrubs, and other plants form the natural bird habitat in your area and how they are grouped. Don’t look to these areas as a source of the plants themselves, though—the cumulative effect of plant collecting takes a toll on natural habitats. Here are a few buying tips.

  • Purchase native plant species that are easily propagated, as they are less likely to have been removed from the wild
  • Find plant suppliers that sell “nursery propagated” plants. The terms “nursery grown” and “field grown” can be used when a seller takes plants from the wild and only briefly raises them in a nursery or commercial field.
  • Choose plants that were propagated from wild populations within 50 miles of your area, as they will be best adapted to the soil and weather conditions in your area

A local native plant society or botanical garden will be able to suggest appropriate plant species for your area. They will also be able to recommend several responsible local sources of nursery propagated native plants.

Choosing plants for your light, shade, and soil conditions

In addition to choosing native plants that will support your local wildlife, make sure the plants you choose are species that will flourish in the light, shade, and soil conditions where you intend to plant them.

  • Woodland plants need filtered light (partial shade of a tree canopy or an arbor with a vine), rich soil, and good drainage
  • Meadow-type plants and flowers need full sun for most of the day and soil with lots of humus
  • Trees and shrubs grow best with a layer of compost added (leave a little space around the trunk). It's usually not necessary to alter the content of the soil itself.
  • Soil testing can be done by your local cooperative extension office. Or, do a test yourself: Take 2 cups of soil from the top 6-8 inches of the garden area and place it in a glass jar. Fill the jar with water, cap it, shake it, and wait 24 hours. The organic material will be floating on the surface, below that will be clay, then silt, and then sand on the bottom. The respective depths of the layers will show you the proportions of these materials in your soil. Woodland plants prefer larger proportions of silt and organic material and smaller amounts of clay and sand.
  • Testing soil for pH (acidity) can be done with a kit from your local garden store. The pH scores run from 0-14, with 7 being neutral, lower numbers being acidic, and higher numbers being alkaline.
  • Drainage testing is also simple. Dig a hole, fill it with water, and wait 6 hours. If the hole is still filled with water, choose that area for plants that thrive in wet soil.

Smothering sod safely

If you have more grass than you use or need, take a bite out of the time, effort, and expense of mowing by smothering some of that sod. Then, plant something more interesting and useful, like a native wildflower meadow, native grasses, or woodland ground cover. Here’s an eco-friendly method to get grass to go away without using harmful chemicals or working up a sweat.

  • Spread a one-inch layer of newspaper or cardboard over the unwanted grass and thoroughly wet it down
  • Layer 2-4 inches of mulch or compost material over the paper layer and thoroughly wet that layer
  • Allow the grass to die and decompose (about 2-3 months). You can then plant right in the remaining mulch.

Use only newspapers printed with black soy ink. Some color or glossy inserts may contain potentially harmful substances.

Another eco-friendly option is stripping the sod, flipping it over, and letting it decompose over about a month. By not removing the sod from the site you save topsoil and the microbes within it and help build organic matter.

Bridging the gap between big trees and grass

Beneath big lawn trees, there is usually only bare soil and patchy grass or—if the trees are far apart—large expanses of grass that provide nothing for wildlife. To help wildlife feel safe staying in your yard, you’ll need to bridge the gap between the trees and grass.

  • Plant small trees and shrubs in areas with the fewest roots of the larger trees, creating cover and nesting places. Smaller shrubs (sold in 1-gallon containers) can be planted closer to the large trees, clumping them in same-species groups to make their fruit more visible to birds.
  • Add 2-3 inches of mulch or compost around the new plantings and water them
  • Add compost to soil where you plan to plant native herbaceous plants, wildflowers, bulbs, and ferns, creating another layer of food and cover

Creating shade

When planting trees to create shade, it’s going to take time, so be sure to plant tree species that will eventually give you the kind of shade you have in mind.

  • For dense shade, plant trees that have overlapping leaves. For light or dappled sun and shade, plant trees that have small leaves. Conifers add shade and year-round shelter for birds.
  • When planting shrubs beneath young trees, choose species that can handle sunlight, as they won’t have shade at first. As the trees mature, the shrubs will decline in thickness, just as they would in a natural habitat. When space opens up, you can add shade-loving shrubs.
  • Another approach is to add an arbor to support sun-loving vines, allowing you to add shade-loving plantings below, while also giving you flowers in summer and colorful foliage in fall above

Making way for more sunlight

If you already have more shade than you want, make simple sketches of the shade patterns at different points in the day during the growing season so you can plan how you want to alter the light.

  • Before making any cuts, be mindful of any nests that are present and avoid trimming branches in those areas
  • Trim on a sunny day after trees are fully leafed out, so you can see the effect of your cuts
  • Make modest cuts and work slowly, assessing changes as you go

Making the transition

Shifting over to native plants to create wildlife-friendly habitat doesn’t have to happen all at once. Take your time and let the process evolve over several seasons.

  • Think in terms of simply replacing non-natives with natives as the former begin to either do poorly or become oversized for the location they are in
  • Redesign just a portion of a large garden each spring, rather than the whole thing
  • Add an edge of natives to an existing garden and work your way back over time

A final word

Whatever native plantings you are able to add will bring new life, beauty, and interest to your corner of the world. They’ll also make life’s essentials a little easier to find for your local birds and other wildlife. Even migratory birds may briefly visit for food and rest, making your yard a life-saving stopover on their journey to nesting or wintering grounds.

Resources

» Burrell, C. Colston. Woodland Gardens. Brooklyn, New York: Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 1995.
» Nardi, James B. Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007.
» Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Trees. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
» Tallamy, Douglas W. Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens.  Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2007.

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