Several summers ago, the National Wildlife Federation certified my backyard and gardens as a wildlife habitat. The program asks gardeners to make the space they have, whether it’s an apartment balcony or a 20-acre lot, hospitable to wildlife.
Gardening for wildlife is an simple way that homeowners can help the earth, and you don’t need to spend a fortune hiring a landscape architecture firm to do it. Gardening for wildlife has a real effect on the wildlife we share our neighborhood with. Since our suburban lot has become a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat, I’ve noticed that our back-yard and front-yard gardens attract many more butterflies and birds than our neighbors’ conventional suburban lots. Even if you don’t become certified as a wildlife habitat, taking some of the steps the National Wildlife Federation recommends on your property will help local wildlife immensely.
To create a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat, gardeners need to supply four elements: food, cover, places to raise young, and water. The National Wildlife Federation also expects that gardeners and property owners will follow environmentally-friendly landscaping practices.
All animals need to eat, and there are many ways to provide them with what they need. One of the easiest and best ways to do this is to incorporate native plants into your landscaping. In my suburban Illinois garden, this means planting prairie and savannah plants. Though I haven’t entirely eliminated the hostas, daylillies and roses from my gardens, my plant selections now lean more towards prairie alumroot, coneflowers (Echinacea), bee balm (Monarda), joe-pye weed, and little bluestem. When I wanted an ornamental tree for my front yard, I chose a redbud, a native species, instead of a magnolia or callery pear. I was fortunate in that my front yard already came planted with a linden (Tilia americana).
Wildlife needs places to hide from people, predators, and inclement weather. There are many ways to provide these places to hide, called cover. The first and simplest way to provide cover is to build a brush pile. You can build a brush pile with old branches or use your natural Christmas tree when it’s time to take it down. A second way to provide cover is to plant your perennials and shrubs more densely to minimize the open space between them. A third way to provide cover for wildlife is to make your lawn smaller by widening gardens such as foundation plantings. You can also replace sections of your lawn that don’t grow well with gardens filled with native plants that will thrive under the growing conditions in that spot.
Many of my gardens are quite wide, at least 10 to 12 feet. There is little “empty space” between my perennials. I cut down my perennials in the spring, not the fall, to provide winter interest and cover for wildlife during the cold months.
As supplemental sources of cover, my garden includes a roosting box that supplies shelter to birds in the winter and a bat house.
People can’t survive for very long without water, and neither can wildlife. If you have a stream, pond, or fountain, lucky you! If not, you’re like most suburban gardeners. If you don’t have a natural (or man-made) water source, you can meet the National Wildlife Federation’s water requirement with bird baths. This, however, is not the only way to supply water.
Instead of spending a lot of money on expensive bird baths, I leave low saucers out in my yard, such as those used underneath plants. These collect the water when it rains. To alleviate concerns about West Nile virus, I need to empty these saucers and refill them periodically.
A couple of years ago, I removed a patch of lawn that was the low spot in my yard and replaced it with a rain garden. This area, which was next to my driveway, flooded after every hard rain storm leaving a swampy mess. I replaced it with native plants that love moist soil. Now, instead of adding to the run-off that makes it into the sewer system, the water percolates slowly into the ground. And we have no more flooding problems.
My garden also incorporates cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum). The leaves of this plant collect water during each rainstorm. In the prairie, cup plant serves as a natural water source for wildlife.
Places to Raise Young
Wildlife need sheltered spots to raise their offspring or future generations will not survive. Much of what I planted that provides cover also serves as a place to raise young. But there are some additional steps I’ve taken to specifically provide places to raise young.
First, I’ve planted milkweed. Milkweed is the only source of food for caterpillars of monarch butterflies. Monarch butterflies cannot reproduce without milkweed. As we’ve replaced natural habitat (that included milkweed) with suburban lawns and agricultural areas, we’ve destroyed milkweeed plants. Gardeners can help reverse this trend and aid declining monarch butterfly populations by planting milkweed in their yards. Almost every year we find monarch caterpillars on our milkweed. We also find milkweed bugs, another species dependent on milkweed.
Second, I’ve added nesting boxes. These often attract bird families. It’s helpful to have several with each in a different location so that birds may choose the spot they like best. Some nesting boxes (birdhouses) are a cute garden ornament. If birdhouses are spaced far enough apart and food is plentiful, you may see more than one nesting pair.
Environmentally Friendly Landscape Management
The way you maintain your lawn and garden can have an effect on the local wildlife, your health, and the health of your neighbors. We hire a lawn service that uses non-toxic organic pesticides, and I garden organically without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. I don’t have a compost bin, but we use all of our fall leaves as mulch for the gardens and put none on the curb. When I have vegetable peelings such as corn husks, I use them as mulch in an unobtrusive spot in the garden. We leave our grass clippings on the lawn or use them as garden mulch.