Creating a backyard wildlife habitat is environmentally smart

Habitat is defined by four essential elements: food, water, shelter or cover, and space. The foundation of the habitat is the vegetation type that exists on the site.

by Doreen Pollack — 

There are many reasons for creating a wildlife habitat: personal enjoyment; protection of animals (especially those that are endangered); improved curb appeal; and building community with neighbors. One of the biggest benefits, however, is the positive impact it has on the environment. First and foremost, a wildlife habitat is eco-friendly.

Many people spend their hard-earned money eradicating creatures and critters from their yards. Unfortunately, that money goes to purchasing toxic chemicals harmful to birds, fish and insects, as well as our pets, other animals and children. The existence and cohabitation of all species is necessary for achieving biodiversity, which is critically important for nature to thrive. When you create a backyard (or front yard) habitat, you eliminate the need to control it artificially.

Remember that wildlife species were here first, and we humans are the newcomers. As urban sprawl continues to eliminate open land, desert, prairies and fields, the wildlife gets pushed out.

So what can you do to bring nature back into balance and encourage wildlife to become part of your outdoor environment? It’s easy — go natural. By adding native plants, bushes and trees to an existing landscape and providing the four essential elements necessary to creating a habitat, you will encourage the birds, bees, butterflies, insects and other creatures to return to your yard.

How to create a habitat

Habitat is defined by four essential elements: food, water, shelter or cover, and space. The foundation of the habitat is the vegetation type that exists on the site. Food sources may include plant material (including roots, pollen and nectar), insects or other animals. If preferred food sources are not available, but other habitat elements are optimal, some species will look for new sources such as pet food, vegetable gardens, fruit trees or landscape plants. Be sure to plant native species that will provide food and keep the critters away from your prized gardens.

One benefit of using native plants specifically for your area is that less watering, fertilizing and mowing will be required, thereby giving you more time for relaxing, listening and watching. Many native plants can survive on the annual rainfall and usually don’t need fertilizer if you allow some of the leaves on the ground to decompose. The fallen leaves also create shelter for small creatures and insects. Keep the basic needs near each other: food, water, cover and space for raising their young. Generally, animals don’t feel comfortable crossing open spaces. Place feeding areas close to shrubs and wildflowers, and plant vegetation around pools and ponds. Remember that small plants grow — so it’s important to leave enough room for them to mature.

Shelter can be provided by vegetation, large rocks, logs, prickly pear cactus, dead yucca leaves, etc. Personal taste will determine which is most desirable. A mixture of evergreen and deciduous trees will provide birds with a combination of perches and cover during the winter months. Trees and shrubs whose foliage falls to the ground provide shelter for rabbits and quail.

Deciding what to plant

Create a plan before you go shopping. First, consider what you already have: shady and sunny areas; adequate or poor drainage; a rocky area; or slight or steep slopes. Then take advantage of native plants adapted to those areas. Assess the challenges in your landscape. Do you have an area that needs more shade? Want to eliminate all or some of your lawn? Don’t forget to include places for humans in your native habitat — perhaps a bench near the pond or large rocks to provide the perfect spot for relaxing and watching the wildlife around you.

In each corner of the yard, cluster several plants together and mix in some different shrubs. Plant small trees next to tall trees, and shrubs below small trees. Finish with a groundcover of wildflowers and grasses, and finally, leave some leaf litter on the ground. This creates a storied effect where the plants support each other by providing protection and a diverse ecosystem.

A backyard composed mainly of native plants becomes a haven for native wildlife. These plants provide food, cover and reproductive sites that will require minimal care by homeowners. The Cooperative Extension Office at major universities is a good source to find the native plants in your area.

Attracting the wildlife you want

Plant a butterfly garden of wildflowers, grasses and shrubs near a shallow pool. If baby birds and birdsong lift your spirits, plant several potentially large trees. Install nest boxes and feeders in existing trees. Consider installing bat boxes or a bee block.

Some animals can be attracted fairly easily, birds being a good example. Keep a feeder in a safe place. Fill it with high-quality seed, suet or fresh sugar water and you will have many visitors. Plant nectar-producing flowers for hummingbirds and butterflies. These include penstemon, Indian paintbrush, honeysuckle, lantana and columbine. If you do feed birds, be consistent and keep the feeders clean and filled. The Audubon Society Web site has lots of information on feeding and landscaping to benefit birds.

With the proper balance of creatures in your wild landscape, you will create a natural order that prevents infestations. Ladybugs eat aphids; lizards and birds eat insects; and praying mantis and daddy long-legs eat other insects. No longer will you need to spray pesticides. In fact, stop using them immediately to encourage the insects to return and find their natural balance.

In the wild garden, human habitat merges with the native landscape, restoring balance to the ecological community. We embrace ourselves as one of the species, not as separate individuals or families. By inviting nature into your landscape, you create a refuge for the wildlife that once walked the land.

Re-creating this balance will encourage a more natural solution to the problems you once encountered in the garden. You will need fewer outside resources like fertilizer, pesticides and water; you will spend less time raking and trimming, and less money, overall. Let nature provide what is necessary to create a bio-diverse ecology in your yard. Both you and Mother Earth will benefit.


Doreen Pollack is the Garden Goddess and owner of Down 2 Earth Gardens, providing garden consultations, workshops and coaching. or 623-217-6038.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 28, Number 2, Apr/May 2009.

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