Gardening for Local Wildlife with Native Plants – Habitat Gardening

Gardening for Local Wildlife with Native Plants – Habitat Gardening

January 8, 2024

Across North America, populations of birds, butterflies, bees, and small mammals are in decline due to habitat loss, pesticide use, invasive species, and climate change. However, we can help revive struggling wildlife right in our backyards by gardening with native plants. Native plants provide vital food and shelter for local wildlife since they coevolved together over thousands of years. By choosing a diversity of native flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees, we can create an enticing habitat oasis for birds, pollinators, and other creatures.

When planning a habitat garden, research which plants are native to your ecoregion and mimic combinations found in local natural areas. Group plantings together in drifts and swaths rather than solitary specimens for greater visual impact. Include plants that bloom in succession for year-round nectar and berry production. Leave intact plants’ dried seed heads and stems over winter to feed birds and provide shelter for hibernating insects. Maintain variety by layering the garden vertically with trees, shrubs, smaller plants, and ground covers. Lastly, avoid pesticides and insecticides which can poison the wildlife you aim to support.

Beyond food and physical refuge, a habitat garden thrives on biodiversity. By increasing the diversity of native plant species, you attract more insects like moths and beetles. These, in turn, feed an array of birds, bats, reptiles, and small mammals up the food chain. A diverse native plant habitat can hum with life, entertaining young children for hours of exploration. Gardening for wildlife also connects us to nature’s beauty and brings joy in watching new winged visitors alight in branches and blossoms. With conscientious gardening choices, we can make a difference for local biodiversity right in our backyards.

The Crisis Facing North American Wildlife

Many species of birds, insects, and mammals once common across the continent have plummeted in number in recent decades. The North American Bird Conservation Initiative estimates a cumulative loss of around 3 billion birds since 1970, encompassing hundreds of species from grassland meadowlarks to the boreal forest’s gray-cheeked thrush. Butterfly populations have concurrently crashed, with species richness declining over 20% in Ohio alone according to a 2019 study. Scientists estimate over 1 million mammal species worldwide face extinction in the coming decades.

While the statistics paint a dire portrait, humanity still has time to reverse these trends. bolster biodiversity, and revive wildlife populations by creating new habitat corridors. Most endangered species hang on in small, fragmented habitats unable to support viable breeding populations long-term. By expanding wilderness areas and interconnecting green spaces, we build highways allowing animals to roam safely for mating and seasonal food supplies. Nutrient-rich native plant gardens offer critical fueling stations along the way.

Habitat loss poses the number one threat driving most wildlife species towards extinction. Paving over prairies for housing developments or clearing oak woodlands for agriculture destroys vital shelter and food sources animals depend on. Pesticides further sterilize the land, eliminating weed patches and insect populations birds and small mammals rely on. An American lawn stretches 40 million acres yet provides almost no habitat value for local fauna. While conservationists work to preserve wildlands, gardening with native plants offers an untapped opportunity. Yards and city greenspaces could stitch together significant wildlife corridors if landscaped for habitat instead of looks alone.

Why Choose Native Plants?

While any garden offers greenery over concrete, landscapes filled with exotic imported plants fail to nourish most wildlife. Native flora and fauna evolved together over thousands of years, developing intricate codependent relationships. For example, many butterfly and moth caterpillars only eat specific native plant leaves toxic to other insects. Monarchs feed exclusively on milkweed, serving up a chemical buffet of protective poisons and nutrients to sustain metamorphosis. Adult butterflies, in turn, pollinate native wildflowers they’re specially equipped to fertilize.

These relationships develop over time through natural selection. When we introduce foreign plants and animals, we sabotage complex local networks wild creatures depend on. An Asian exotic may look lovely to our eyes yet provide no nectar value to native bees and hummingbirds tuned to different flower shapes and scents. Native oak trees support over 500 insect species compared to just a handful of Norwegian maples. Replacing habitat with non-native landscaping breaks critical links in the food web.

By mimicking regional plant communities with native species mixes, we hand local wildlife the keys to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Birds feast on native berries and seeds from sumac, serviceberry, and elderberry. Migrating rufous hummingbirds tank up on nectar from columbines and trumpet honeysuckle. Sparrows pluck spider mites and aphids from sunflower stalks while orb weaver spiders spin golden web garlands. A diverse native plant habitat teems with life, endlessly fascinating for curious children to explore.

Designing a Backyard Wildlife Habitat Garden

When embarking on a wildlife garden transformation, know that small changes reap significant rewards. Something as simple as planting native milkweed nurtures multiple monarch generations and watching their magical metamorphosis firsthand leaves kids spellbound. Follow these guidelines to design an immersive backyard habitat:

Site Evaluation

  • Observe sunlight and shade patterns across your yard during spring, summer, and fall. Note windy and sheltered corners. Identify naturally wet spots or dry crannies that never seem quenched. Create a basic site map marking conditions.
  • Send soil samples to your local county extension agency for analysis. Test drainage by digging holes 18 inches deep, filling with water, and measuring percolation. Understanding your dirt creates a foundation for selecting appropriate native plants.
  • Inventory existing non-native vegetation. Prioritize removal of aggressive invaders like Japanese knotweed and porcelain berries that won’t relinquish territory easily to new plantings. Time-intensive elimination efforts accordingly.

Develop Plant Palette

  • Research native plant ecoregions in your county or state to discover original species mixes. Visit preserved parks and natural areas nearby to see habitats firsthand. Notice combinations growing together naturally.
  • Select plants provide multiple seasonal benefits for wildlife. Seek evergreen shrubs for winter shelter, spring ephemerals for early pollen supplies, summer perennials for nesting materials, and fall seed producers.
  • Diversify visually too. Vary color, leaf texture, bloom periods, and form. Add vertical interest with vines, grasses, flowering perennials, low shrubs, and canopy trees. Mimic nature’s infinite variety.

Create Hardscape Features

  • Water attracts all forest creatures. Add a frog pond, birdbath fountain, or seasonal creek bed lined with smooth creek stones. Ensure good drainage with buried PVC piping and a recirculating pump.
  • Rock piles made from cobbles and boulders offer refuge for snakes and lizards from predators and extreme weather. They also double as topography, allowing planting on multiple levels.
  • Brush piles serve as winter shelters for rabbits, resident or migrating songbirds, and insects seeking undisturbed crevices. Use pruned branches from trees and expired plant stems.
  • Nesting boxes give cavity-dwelling birds like bluebirds a platform. Face openings away from prevailing winds with sloped waterproof roofs. Maintain boxes and annually clean out old nests after summer broods fledge the coop.


Garden Installation

  • Group key plant species together in drifts and colonies based on site conditions rather than dot as specimens around the garden. Dense masses harbor more wildlife.
  • Prepare beds 12 inches deep or more to improve soil structure and drainage. Till 50/50 premium organic mulch and compost to uncompacted native soil to get plants off to a strong start.
  • Arrange shorter plants and ground covers around shrubs and tree bases to emulate patterns in nature. Intermingle species to prevent barren lower branches.
  • Water recently planted areas consistently allow a deep moisture saturation zone to develop underground. Water-established plants during drought but allow natives to grow accustomed to natural precipitation patterns too.

Attracting Target Wildlife Groups

Gardens designed around target species like pollinators, hummingbirds, or insect-eating songbirds increase the odds of luring specialized groups by supplying essential habitat components. Construct galleries showcasing particular wildlife as follows:

Pollinator Gardens

Select a diversity of local native wildflowers to supply bees, butterflies, flies, and hummingbirds. Mimic meadows by massing wild geranium, goldenrod, asters, mint, and sedum. Allow plants to bloom sequentially so nectar flows spring into fall. Grasses and evergreen shrubs shelter insects over winter. Avoid pesticides that kill beneficials.

Hummingbird Gardens

Scarlet bee balm, columbine, and coral honeysuckle vines trumpet courtship colors for dazzling Ruby-throated and Rufous migrants. Tuck tubular blooms near favored perches like branches and wires so hovering hunters spot meals easily. Position feeders to supplement peak migration or during storms when finding flowers grows difficult.

Butterfly Gardens

Group bright perennials by color like orange butterfly weeds and marigolds or purple asters and coneflowers. Caterpillars feed exclusively on native leaves like milkweed so include larval food plants not just nectar flowers. Flat rocks in sunny spots offer basking areas to warm wings on cool days. Overwintering boxes provide refuge.

Insectivore Bird Gardens

Black-capped chickadees feast on insects hidden inside coneflowers, sunflowers, and other composites. Warblers and flycatchers hunt caterpillars crawling on oak and maple leaves. Peppers, peonies, and native cherries host tiny leaf hoppers sapsuckers thrive on. Shrubs safeguard spiders spinning bounties of mosquitos and flies benefiting nesting parents stocking up on protein-packed prey.

Meadow Habitats

Interested swaths of low-growing native grasses and wildflowers. Sweeping fields of feather reed grass, purple love grass, and blue grama shelter mice, snakes, and quail. Scatter showy milkweed, black-eyed Susan, and blazing star flowers enable drifting clouds of painted lady butterflies on summer breezes. Limit mowing preserve winter seed heads balancing raptor meals.

Water Gardens

Elevate water features atop graduated boulders and stones to create shallows and deeper pools. Marshy edges planted with blue flag iris, cardinal flower, and water lilies nourish tadpoles and dragonflies. Half-submerged branches offer aquatic turtles a sunbathing lounge while curving stone pathways invite human visitors. Recirculating pumps oxygenate and deter mosquitos.

Backyard Ponds

Excavate informal ponds 2-3 feet deep with shallow ledges for safety. Pressurized filters keep the water clear and moving. Native water lilies help shade and oxygenate ponds preventing algal overgrowth. Include marginal plants like pickerel rush and turtlehead blooming above the waterline to conceal container edges. Shelving rocks give amphibians ingress and egress.

Bird and Butterfly Nesting Areas

Leave existing dead hollow trees, brush piles, and leaf litter undisturbed for crucial wildlife incubation spots. Plant evergreens like juniper and pine nearby to shelter nests from extreme weather. Allow previous years’ dried native flower and grass stems to stand offering organic building materials. Position birdhouses on posts near feeding areas.

Ongoing Habitat Maintenance

Monitor new plantings and wildlife activity regularly. Keep notes from year to year for reference. Tweak garden components annually seeking improvement. Diversify plant palette, amend soils, divide overgrown perennials, and reorder layouts preventing stagnation. Minimize chemical use allowing native plants and beneficials to thrive symbiotically. Remove aggressive weeds and invasive plants completely shading out natives or producing no habitat value. Generally practice organic upkeep mimicking nature’s resilience through biodiversity.

Overwintering Invertebrates

Lady bugs, praying mantis egg cases, fritillary butterflies, and many pollinators overwinter under plant debris, so allow stands of hollow dried plant stems and leaves to remain through winter. Pesticides damage essential insect eggs and larvae, so never use chemicals. Insect diversity springs from fall remnants meeting regeneration needs.

Sustainable Water Features

Installing fountains, ponds, and waterfalls sounds idyllic but requires careful planning to minimize environmental impact. Ensure water recirculates through closed filtration systems rather than vanishing as runoff or evaporation. Use biological or solar-powered pumps. Never empty completely allowing wildlife time to find new homes. Excavate minimal vegetation and soils. Choose local stone facing. Introduce native marginal water plants purifying naturally.

Rain Gardens

Deluge zones occur where downspouts pour driveways and patios. Redirect outfalls by cutting drainage channels shaped like shallow swales meandering through gardens. Line gently sloping beds with gravel, sand, and compost to facilitate absorption, not erosion. Extra moisture nourishes native ferns, asters, iris, cardinal flowers, and beebalm helping rainfall percolate soil steadily.

Winter Protection

Habitat gardening is a year-round endeavor protecting wildlife during all seasons. Insulate new understory plantings and potted plants by mounding shredded leaves and pine needle mulch atop root zones to prevent freeze and thaw damage. Wrap tree trunks of younger saplings allowing insulation space and preventing sunscald. Provide winter bird foods like suet, nuts, and dried fruits consistently once migration ends.

Gardening for Life

Beyond supplying physical refuge and nutrition, wildlife gardening forges a deeper human connection to nature’s wholeness. Hearing the dawn chorus greeting sunrise or spying on a doe and her spotted fawns munching apples from the fallen tree we left for them bonds us closer to creation’s intricate weave. When we transform lawns into life-giving habitats, we foster compassion for fellow creatures great and small. Nature’s resilience relies on biodiversity across continents and our willingness to co-create space for all species within our human-dominated world.

In 2018, one stirring news story showed a picture of a hungry polar bear, ribs protruding from patchy fur, roaming an Arctic landscape barren of seals and ice flows. While climate change accelerates such tragedies around the globe, we counter by becoming stewards protecting wilderness closer at hand and piecing together fragments wherever possible so other species survive. Yard by yard, acre by acre, region by region, we can make a measurable impact. Something as simple as planting native milkweed migrating monarchs may determine whether these iconic creatures vanish forever. Our habitat gardening efforts ripple outwards nourishing scores of more species.

When assessing gardening priorities, aesthetic preferences not supporting local wildlife seem superficial given extinction rates accelerating annually. Yet habitat gardening proves mutually beneficial for people and animals. We gain beauty – the timeless beauty found in nature’s infinite expressions, the beauty of diversity, and watching new birds discover sanctuary. Gardening bonds families across generations through shared wonder observing life unfold season by season. Habitat gardens ground us to what ultimately matters and where we fit within creation’s flow. They remind us of our role as caretakers of this living Earth.





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    About the Author


    Cameron is a plant journalist who loves everything green and eco-friendly. He writes for various publications about the benefits of native plants, such as enhancing biodiversity, reducing water use, and supporting pollinators. He also runs a special column about Native Plants of the Month on Cameron believes that everyone can make a positive difference one seed at a time.





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