How to design a backyard wildlife habitat

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A successful backyard wildlife habitat provides four basics – food, water, cover, nesting places – in a diverse landscape. Creating such an environment is all about planning and planting, and it needn’t be complicated.

If designing the habitat is a bit more than you want to take on, consider hiring a landscape designer. Most people, though, try it themselves with satisfying results. Start small, so you won’t find yourself overwhelmed by your project. Many people start in one or two areas and each year expand them a bit. Here’s how to approach your project.

Draw
Begin by drawing the dimensions of your yard (or the area you’re converting to wildlife use). The easiest way is to use graph paper so you can draw somewhat to scale. Add all permanent structures, including your house, shed, patio, pool, deck, utility boxes, easements and anything else that won’t change. Add the location of all existing plants, trees, pathways and play areas you intend to leave unchanged. Note any structures or views you want to hide (such as a neighbor’s old shed). This drawing will become your “master.” Use copies of it for fleshing out your landscape ideas; you may need several before deciding on a final layout.

Now, sketch where you want trees, flowerbeds, water features, birdbaths, etc. You might want to use colors on your plan. For example, you could use a blue marker to color areas where water stands in the yard after watering or rainfall. Another color could indicate a rocky or sandy area. Green might indicate the shade thrown by trees and structures. You’ll later make plant selections based on these factors.

An alternative to the above is to draw a master copy and use a series of transparencies to lay over it. On one, you might show all upper-story trees. On another, understory trees and shrubs. Another might show the location of birdhouses, bird feeders and birdbaths. Use any number of transparencies; laid one atop another they present a complete picture of your yard. You can easily alter them by using erasable markers. A clipboard is a good way to hold them in place.

Assess
Consider each existing plant and tree species in your yard, asking yourself:

1. Does it provide at least one of the four basics? If it doesn’t, are you willing to part with it?
2. Is it located in a suitable spot within your planned habitat? If not, can it be moved?

Be especially thoughtful about removing trees, particularly mature ones. Any tree provides at least some benefit to wildlife. Depending on their placement they also provide your yard, and possibly your house, with areas of shade. They also add “curb appeal” and visual beauty to most yardscapes that you may later regret giving up.

Before removing a tree to provide more sunlight in a particular area, first consider whether thinning out the branches would suffice. If it doesn’t pose a danger, leave “snags,” (dead tree) standing. Dozens of birds species use snags for nesting or shelter.

Reduce
Try to reduce your lawn area to 40 percent or less. (Why?*) Also, consider buffalograss as a replacement for water-greedy fescue, bluegrass or other cool-season grasses. It requires little to no care once established.

Define edges
Edges are the areas where two different habitats meet, such as the border between a wooded area and a grassy area. Edges support the greatest number of species. To keep areas you intend to naturalize from looking unplanned or haphazard, define them with such elements as pathways, edging, irregularly placed boulders, fencing, or by placing formal plants in the foreground.

Add layers
In nature, plants grow in layers. Tall trees form the canopy. Beneath them grow smaller trees and tall shrubs. The bottom layers are made up of shorter shrubs and shade-tolerant plants. Creating layers is important because each layer is preferred by certain species. For example, many bird species like to perch at the top of tall trees, while goldfinches and hummingbirds like shrubby layers.

Add seasonality
Provide food and cover year-round by including plant species that stay green, such as conifers and junipers. Deciduous trees and shrubs lose their leaves, but produce berries and nuts for fall and winter food. Consider adding one or more fruit trees, too.

Design with style
Don’t overcrowd planting areas. The smaller the size of the area, the fewer the number of different species you should use. This will keep the area from looking messy.

  • Plant flowers in drifts of a single species to add bursts of color and soften edges between species.
  • Lay out plants while they’re still in their pots. This allows you to arrange and re-arrange until you’re satisfied.
  • Unify. Avoid creating a hodgepodge of several small beds. Let beds flow into one another.
  • If possible, use quart-sized or larger plants so your planting area will have a more mature look right from the start.

Add enhancements
These elements will make your yard even more inviting to wildlife:

  • Stands of tall, native grasses
  • Pile of rocks and a brush pile
  • A small pond or water feature
  • Bird feeders
  • Birdbaths
  • Birdhouses

Go native
It isn’t strictly necessary to use native plants, but there are big benefits. Native plants have evolved over thousands of years to be at home in your soil, your climate and with the wildlife of your area. They’ll be hardier, as well as pest and disease resistant. Moreover, most won’t need to be watered once they become established (so long as you plant species suited to the soil and moisture conditions of your yard.)

Some folks plant their yards exclusively with native plants, finding beauty in the carefree look of plants that haven’t been “tampered” with by horticulturists. A bed of native flowers may look unkempt at first, but even the most skeptical folks soon start to see beauty in the carefree look of these plants – especially when butterflies and birds start coming to visit.

You, however, may want the more cultivated look, that most garden center hybrids offer – symmetry, thickness and more color choices. If that’s the case, why not consider planting some of each? Just place hybrids in front of native plants to project the orderly, lush look you desire, while still providing beneficial plants for wildlife.

Other options are to screen off a native area behind a wildlife-friendly hedge or place native plantings on a side of your house that you don’t overlook. Above all, don’t eliminate these plants – they’re the most important part of a wildlife habitat. The plants suggested on this site are suitable for an urban setting. Check before buying any unfamiliar species to ensure it will look and behave as you expect.

Research
You’ll probably go through several plans before you decide on a final layout. Once you do, it’s time to decide on specific plants. Diversity is a key factor, simply because this offers benefits to a broader range of species. For example, Monarch butterflies will feed on, say, goldenrods, but hummingbirds love Beebalm. Raccoons, opossums and birds need trees for resting, nesting and hiding, rabbits need tall grasses, and honeybees want nectar flowers. You get the idea – whether the habitat you’re creating is limited to flowerpots on your patio or covers an entire yard, diversity matters.

There are many sources of information available to you, including: a local native plant society, garden clubs, the county agricultural extension agency, your state’s wildlife commission, the local library, bookstores and the internet. Visit natural areas, like state parks and preserves to see wildlife plants firsthand. Many of these places offer field guides for native plants or guided tours.

Study photos of mature plants and trees to see how they’ll look “all grown up.” Space plants on your layout according to their mature size. Take into consideration the shade a tree will cast as it matures. Similarly, consider the shade cast by other plants and shrubs, as well as your house and other structures. Do you want some shrubs and trees to hide certain elements in your yard? Now’s the time to plan for it.

Select plant varieties that bloom and fruit at differing times of the year. Choose species that keep their berries or seeds into early fall, late fall and winter. Some plants produce berries that are only eaten by wildlife as a last resort. Include some of those, too; they’re a safety net for tough times when everything has been eaten up (usually in late winter.)

Prepare before planting
Before planting anything, remove all unwanted elements, such as debris and unwanted structures. If you’ll be doing any major digging, have your utility lines marked beforehand. Do all work that requires heavy equipment before adding plants. If you’re adding a pond with a pump, lay the electric line. Start at the back of your yard and work forward. Subdivide the work by taking a section of a bed or small part of your yard at a time. Complete that before moving to the next.

Do your work in progressive steps: First the hard features, like boulders, fences, walls. Then pathways. Pull weeds. Add soil amendments, if needed. Add trees and shrubs. Then birdbaths, feeders and accessories, such as benches and yard ornaments. Finally, plant perennials.

New housing development?
You need to know that if you live in a barren new housing development, with few large trees for several blocks, you won’t see much activity in the habitat you create. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put your time and effort into this — it’s all the more reason why you should do it. Consider your yard an oasis in an urban desert. The wildlife who stop by for a drink of fresh water or the berries on your young plants will appreciate it. But they can’t stay, because your yard alone isn’t enough to support a wildlife population. Over time, as your neighbors’ trees and plants grow taller and fuller, you’ll begin to see more activity. If you can enlist your neighbors in a plan to make the entire neighborhood a habitat that includes beneficial trees, shrubs and flowers, you’ll see results much sooner.

*Here’s one reason: About 54 million Americans use 800 million gallons of gasoline each year mowing their lawns. Using one mower for an hour is equivalent to a 100-mile automobile ride in a newer car. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, all together, mowers contribute as much as 5 percent of the air pollution in the U.S.

Top photo: Landscape design by King County, Washington / PD

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