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Nothing draws wildlife like a yard planted to suit their needs. Whether you’re going to develop a backyard woodland, prairie, wetland or savanna the basics are the same: add plants that provide food, shelter and nesting places. Don’t go shopping, though, before you have a plan and know the answers to the following:
Will the plant, tree or flower provide something useful for wildlife?
Sun and shade
On a sunny day, evaluate what parts of your property stay in the sun, in the shade or get some of both. Full sun is six to eight hours of sun. Part shade is two to six hours of sun. Full shade is less than two hours of sun.
Soil moisture and type
Some plants like it dryish or can even tolerate drought conditions, once they’re established. Others need various levels of moisture, from slightly wet to boggy. There are species that are fairly tolerant and others that are exacting about their soil and moisture requirements.
Do you know whether the soil in your yard is loamy, sandy, clay or rocky? Poor soil can be amended to improve quality, but by buying plants known to tolerate your type of soil, you can save yourself the expense of compost, manure, peat moss and other such products. (It needs to be said, though, that it’s almost always a good idea to add amendments to soil.) Some soil is so poor (pH less than 5 or above 7) it must be amended or your plant choices will be very limited. If you aren’t sure, send a small soil sample to your state or local cooperative extension office. For a nominal fee, they’ll test it and make recommendations for any amendments it needs.
Some plants are very fragile and a playful dog or children can easily leave them in tatters. Plan to put delicate species where they’ll be protected.
Include a variety of plants that flower or fruit at different times, so there’s at least some food available nearly year-round.
The USDA categorizes plants into hardiness zones of 10-degree increments. In the U.S., zones range from 1 (Canada), the coldest, to 11 (Mexico) the warmest. Each zone is based on the lowest temperature that can be expected each year and serves as a guide for selecting suitable plants. They’re only a guide, however, as “microclimates” exist that allow seemingly unsuitable plants to survive. (Microclimates are formed by hills, valleys, pavement and other influences that affect airflow, extremes of heat and cold, sunlight, etc.)
Do some research before buying any plant to avoid disappointment and a waste of money. Your local county extension service can be invaluable in this regard. You’ll find a Hardiness Zone printed on a plant’s identification tag, like “Zones 5 – 8.” Sometimes tags don’t express a range; instead, they say something like “to Zone 5.” This means the plant is hardy in zone 5 and all the warmer zones below it. Online you might find zones broken down into more precise 5-degree temperature differences, such as the USDA Plant Hardiness Map.
Don’t remove perfectly useful non-native plants from your yard. But, when adding or replacing plants, try to incorporate natives. They’re easy to maintain: They’re hardy, require less water and fertilizer, and are more pest-resistant. In most cases, they’re also more appealing to wildlife.
When buying, look for true native species. Native plant ‘cultivars” have been manipulated by horticulturists to provide them with certain characteristics, such as different colors or smaller size. These changes often occurred at the expense of qualities that were desirable to wildlife, such as sweetness of the fruit. You can easily recognize a cultivar because it will have an extra word or two in its name. All plants have two Latin names signifying their genus and species, such as Maclura pomifera. A cultivar will have a third name, always expressed within single quotation marks, such as Maclura pomifera ‘White Shield’ or Asimina triloba ‘Overleese.’
Planting on a budget
Comparison shop to get your best prices. Discount stores, hardware stores and others now often carry a large stock of plants at lower prices, sometimes even native varieties. Farmers’ markets often have individuals who offer plants you can’t find anywhere else locally and at friendly prices. When necessary, consider substituting similar, but lower-priced, varieties. Look for sales. Shop online. Join an online garden group that shares plants or cuttings. Look for local groups that do the same thing. Perform the work yourself, if possible, to save tons of money.