January 27, 2012
A Wildlife-Friendly Garden
Plant a garden that pleases you and helps your neighborhood wild animals
When gardening to benefit wildlife, most people think about planting flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies.
But woodchucks, foxes, chipmunks, frogs, box turtles, dragonflies, bees, and many other species can use our help, too.
When you grow native plants you can make your yard part of the natural habitat that nurtures these wild neighbors. Just let the size and location of your yard help you decide which animal species would be able to safely live in your yard.
If you live in an urban area with a limited amount of property, you may want to focus on attracting birds, butterflies, bees, chipmunks, squirrels, and other small animals. If you have many acres on a road with limited traffic, consider landscape options and plantings (or just plain tolerance) that caters to species such as deer, raccoons, skunks, woodchucks, prairie dogs, coyotes, and fox.
Here are a few points to consider when making your plan:
- Will the species that you want to attract be relatively safe venturing into the urban or suburban landscape?
- How will neighbors respond if the deer, rabbits, or woodchucks attracted to the vegetation you’ve planted wander into their yards? Try to find a friendly balance between both human and wild neighbors.
- Remember the rule is to do no harm. Never feed wild animals who your neighbors wouldn’t want in their yards. If you teach these animals to take handouts from people, they may show up where there aren’t welcome and cause a conflict that could end in their removal or death.
If you want to create a yard that attracts a diversity of wildlife, let these questions guide your landscaping design and plant choices:
- Are there safe spots in which animals can hide from predators and raise their young?
- Are there native food sources offered year round, such as seeds, cones, nuts, and berries?
- Is there a diversity of habitat—a layering of vegetation from ground cover and shrubbery to the canopy above?
- Is there a clean flowing water source from which these animals can drink and bathe?
A good place to start gardening for wildlife is to first study your yard from the viewpoint of an animal seeking shelter and food. Learn the habits and tastes of the species you hope to attract, and identify any potential conflicts early enough to head them off before unacceptable damage has been done to your garden.
Check with local nurseries, university cooperative extensions, and government wildlife offices for information on local animals and the plant species that sustain them. Search the Web using key words such as “native plants,” “natural landscaping,” and “landscaping for wildlife.” To find plants specific to your location, add to the search the name of the region, state, or city in which you live.
Make sure to plant a diverse mixture of vegetation with different bloom and seed times so wildlife will have foods year round. You’ll have wildlife viewing opportunities in all seasons, and the animals will be less likely to raid your garden on a full stomach—especially if you fence off the areas you want to remain undisturbed.
Evergreens maintain their foliage, or needles, year round and are ideal for your wildlife habitat. In addition to adding beauty to your landscape, they provide the following benefits for wildlife:
- Year-round cover from predators.
- Winter shelter and nesting sites for the breeding season.
- Sap, cones, seeds, needles, twigs, and buds—food for all seasons.
Native grasses provide food and shelter for wildlife year round. Here are some of their benefits:
- Cover for ground nesting birds and small animals who take refuge among the thick tufts to nest and hide from predators.
- Seeds and forage material throughout the year for deer, rabbits, woodchucks, field mice, and others.
- Grasses are available as food in early spring before other foods are ready, while grasslands offer rich hunting sites for predators such as fox, hawks, owls, coyotes, weasels, skunks, and others .
Most native trees and shrubs produce fruit, berries, seeds, leaves, twigs, buds, flowers, and other plant materials that feed wildlife. Check with your local gardening store, botanic gardens, or university cooperative extension for a list of native trees and shrubs that indicates which species of wildlife they benefit. There are many options, and each plant’s success depends on the growing region and placement in your yard.
Vines, flowers, ferns, groundcovers, vegetables, and herbs compose the understory of your landscape. Flowers are a nutritional mainstay for wildlife during the summer months, providing nectar for hummingbirds and a multitude of insects and edible plant material for animals large and small. Their buds and blooms are eaten by deer, rabbits, and many other animals, while tuberous plants feed small animals and insects. Vegetables and herbs also feed wildlife, and ferns provide cover.
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center's Native Plant Information Network website allows you to search for native plant information by plant traits or names, browse through a collection of 23,000 native plant images, and ask plant questions of a horticulturalist.
Create a sanctuary
Enjoy the company of your wild neighbors in your yard. Every day, more and more wildlife habitat is lost to the spread of development. But you can help wild animals in urban and suburban areas by offering them sanctuary in your own backyard (or front yard, roof-top garden, or deck), no matter how small. Learn how to make your green space an Urban Wildlife Sanctuary.