How to design a backyard wildlife habitat


A successful backyard wildlife habitat provides four basics in a diverse landscape – food, water, cover and nesting places. 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. Start in one or two areas and each year expand them a bit. Here’s how to approach your project.

Begin by drawing the dimensions of your yard (or the area you’re converting to wildlife use). Use graph paper so you’ll be designing 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).
  • Sketch where you want to add trees, flowerbeds, water features, birdbaths, etc. Space plants on your layout according to their mature size. Also, consider the shade a tree will cast as it matures, as well as by other plants and shrubs, your house and other structures.

You might want to use colors on your plan. They offer a broader visual interpretation of the layout than black and white does. For example, use a blue marker to color areas where water stands after it rains; that could become a bog area for water-loving plants. Brown could represent a rocky or sandy area suitable for sedum, salvia, and other low-water plants. Gray might indicate the shade thrown by trees and structures, which would suggest the use of shade or part-shade plants. Consider, too, that shade might be heavier on one side of a plant — a tree, for example — than another, depending on its location in your yard relative to the sun. 

An enhancement to the above is to draw a black-and-white 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 indicate 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 quickly alter them by using erasable markers. A clipboard is a good way to hold them in place.

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

  • Does it provide at least one of the four basics? If not, are you willing to part with it?
  • 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. First, there’s the cost. Perhaps more importantly, though, 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. And, they add “curb appeal” and visual beauty to most landscapes that you may later regret giving up. Mature trees can add to the value of a property.

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

Reduce turf
Strive 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 wildlife 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.

A bed of perennial plants in front of a wood fence, with a flagstone pathway bordering the front.

Paths help define borders. A backdrop, such a fence, makes plants stand out. (Patrick Standish / Flickr cc by 2.0)

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 certain species prefer each layer. For example, many birds like to perch at the top of tall trees, but Goldfinches and hummingbirds like shrubby layers.

Black and white drawing showing steps from tallest plant, a tree, to shortest plant.

(Derived from “The Forest Garden,” by Graham Burnett / Wiki; cc by-sa 3.0)

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 garden, the fewer the number of species you should use. That will keep it from looking messy.

  • Plant flowers in drifts of a single species to add bursts of color and soften edges between species. That’s more appealing to butterflies and birds, as well as humans.
  • If you’re buying potted plants, lay them out while they’re still in their pots so that you can arrange and re-arrange to your satisfaction.
  • Unify. 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.
Small patio area surrounded by brick, stones, stepping stones, fencing, latticework, trees and flowering plants.

This small area displays many examples of borders and backdrops. (Re / Pexels; PD)

Add enhancements

These features 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

Think outside the box
Don’t have enough space in your backyard for everything you want to do? Repurpose your front yard from grass and shrubs into a wildlife habitat. 

A front yard planted with native plants and part of a blue-painted house in the background.

Front yard garden. (CountryMouse13 / Flickr; cc by 2.0)

Limited on yard space or live in an apartment? Create a wildlife habitat on your deck or porch using flowerpots, whiskey half-barrels, hanging planters, a railing-mounted birdbath and a birdfeeder. Apply the tips listed above, but on a tiny scale.

Prepare before planting
Before planting anything, remove all unwanted elements, such as debris and unwanted structures. If you’re doing any deep digging, have your utility lines marked beforehand. If you’re adding a pond, lay the water and electric lines. 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, you’re ready to add plants!

Go native
It isn’t strictly necessary to use native plants, but there are significant 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 more hardy, 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 gardeners 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 people soon learn to see beauty in the look of these plants – especially when butterflies and birds start coming to visit.

If you prefer the cultivated, showy look that most garden center hybrids offer – symmetry, thickness, and more color choices — then go for it. Just be aware that some (not all) of these hybridized plants have lost the genetic traits that attracted wildlife. Check a plant’s tag for wildlife information before purchasing. 

How about planting both natives and cultivars? Just place hybrids in front of native plants to project the orderly, lush look you desire. Other options are to screen off an area behind a wildlife-friendly hedge or on an unused side of your house for native plants. (Can you tell we really like native plants?!)

Above all, don’t eliminate native plants altogether – they’re an essential part of wildlife habitat. Be sure to check out other pages on this site that feature lists of plants suitable for an urban setting and urban wildlife. Check before buying any unknown plant species to ensure it will look and behave as you expect.

Diversity and research
You’ll probably go through several plans before you decide on a final layout. Once you do, it’s time to be selective about plants. Diversity is a key to success because it offers benefits to a broader range of species. For example, butterflies and honeybees need nectar flowers. Hummingbirds do, too, but they gravitate toward tube-shaped ones. Raccoons, opossums, and birds need well-considered trees for resting, nesting and hiding. Rabbits like tall grasses. 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, including a local native plant society, garden clubs, the county agricultural extension agency, your state’s wildlife commission, local library, bookstores and the internet. Visit natural areas, like state parks, to see wildlife plants firsthand. Many of these places offer field guides for native plants or guided tours.

Study photos of plants and trees to see how they’ll look when they’re mature. Do you want 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.)

New housing development?
If you’ve moved to a barren new housing development, with few trees and other wildlife plants, you won’t see a lot of activity initially. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put your time and effort into this — it’s all the more reason why you should.

Set out to make your yard an oasis in an urban desert. More and more wildlife will visit as it develops and you’ll see gratifying results. If you can enlist your neighbors in a plan to make the entire neighborhood a habitat, so much the better.

*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

More reading:

Nesting places for wildlife   
Choose a birdhouse with these best features in mind
The basics