How to design a backyard wildlife habitat

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A thriving backyard wildlife habitat provides four essentials, and they’re basically the same ones we humans have—food, water, shelter, and safe places to raise young. Creating such an environment is all about planning and planting, and it needn’t be complicated. If designing a 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 that you won’t get overwhelmed. Begin in one or two areas and each year expand a bit. As your plantings grow so will the variety and number of wildlife that comes to enjoy the fruits of your labor. You can throw all their needs together in a hodgepodge sort of way and wildlife won’t care. But you’ll probably appreciate it all the more if you give your habitat a planned look. Here’s how to go about doing that.

Draw

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 according to their mature size. Also, consider the shade that will be cast by plants and shrubs, your house and other structures, and trees as they age.

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 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 that will tolerate shade. One 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.

Assess

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. More importantly, though, any tree provides at least some benefit to wildlife. Depending on their placement they also offer your yard, and possibly your house, some areas of shade. Plus, they add “curb appeal” and visual beauty that you may later regret giving up. Mature trees usually add value to 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—cavity-nesting birds will appreciate them.

Reduce turf

Strive to reduce your lawn area to 40 percent or less.1 Consider replacing water-greedy fescue, bluegrass or other cool-season grasses with buffalograss, which 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 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 different species prefer different layers. For example, many birds like to perch at the top of tall trees, but American 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)



Plan for year-round cover, food

Provide food and cover year-round by including plants that stay green, such as conifers and junipers. Add one or two fruit trees. Deciduous trees and shrubs lose their leaves in the fall, but their berries and nuts will provide food into the winter.

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.

  • Appeal to butterflies and birds (and humans, too) by planting flowers in drifts of a single type of plant to add bursts of color and soften edges between species.
  • If you’re buying potted plants, lay them out while they’re still in their pots so you can arrange and re-arrange to your satisfaction.
  • Unify. Let beds flow into one another.
  • If possible, use quart-size or larger plants so your planting area will have a more mature look right from the start (and the plants also have a better chance of survival.)
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
  • Brush and rock piles
  • 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? Consider re-purposing 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 wildlife garden. (CountryMouse13 / Flickr; cc by 2.0)

Do you 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 bird feeder. Apply the tips listed above, but on a tiny scale.

Prepare before planting

Before planting anything, remove all unwanted elements, such as debris and unused structures. If you’re doing any deep digging, have your utility lines marked beforehand. If you’re adding a pond, bury the water and electric lines.

Do your work in progressive steps: Subdivide the project by taking a section of a bed or small part of your yard and complete that before moving on. Start at the back of the area and work forward. First add the hard features, like boulders, fences, and walls. Then pathways. Ready the bed by pulling weeds and adding soil amendments, if needed. Now, it’s time to plant your trees and shrubs. Top off all your hard work with birdbaths, feeders, and accessories, such as benches and yard ornaments.

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 hardier and more pest and disease resistant. Moreover, most don’t need to be watered once they become established, provided 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 a carefree look that hasn’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 the beauty of these plants—especially when butterflies and birds so obviously like them.

If you prefer the cultivated, showy look that makes hybrids so beautiful—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. Furthermore, some now have been genetically altered to contain insecticides. Check a plant’s tag before buying.

How about this idea: Plant 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 natives. Above all, don’t eliminate them altogether—they’re preferred by wildlife. Be sure to check out other pages on this site that feature lists of plants suitable for an urban setting and urban wildlife.

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. 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 and guided tours.

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 as a last resort—include some of those, too; they’re a safety net for tough times when everything else is gone (usually in late winter.)

New housing development?

If you’ve moved to a barren new housing development, with few trees and plants, you won’t see a lot of activity initially. That’s all the more reason you should put time and effort into your own yard. Think of it as an oasis in an urban desert. It’ll take patience, but more and more wildlife will visit as your yard 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.) You’ll be doing a very beneficial thing when you pour your resources, both financial and physical, into a habitat for wildlife, because they need it so badly.

Says Winnie-the-Pooh, in The Tao of Pooh, “Lots of people talk to animals,” . . . “Not very many listen, though,” 2 Well, you have listened! Take pride and enjoy your yard—the wildlife sure will!

*Top photo: King County, Washington / PD
1 About 54 million Americans use 800 million gallons of gasoline each year to mow their lawns. Using one mower for an hour is equivalent to a hundred-mile automobile ride in a late-model car. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, all together, mowers contribute as much as 5 percent of the air pollution in the United States.
2 1982, Dutton Books

More reading:

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

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