Landscaping to Attract Wildlife to the Garden
Lots of books and websites detail how to create a wildlife garden, or habitat garden, but few explain how to integrate a wildlife garden into your landscaping beds around your house and yard. You don’t have to have a separate bird garden, or butterfly garden if you want to enjoy these beautiful garden visitors, nor do you have to sacrifice beauty.
With a combination of gardening techniques and plant selection, you can have a landscape that is attractive from the street, and welcome butterflies, birds, hummingbirds, dragonflies and other wildlife to your garden.
Wildlife-Friendly Landscape Techniques
In order to lure wildlife to your landscape, you might need to adjust some of your landscape maintenance techniques. The amount of adjustment depends upon your current practices. Some people are skeptical that they can have a nice landscape without using masses of chemicals, but it is possible. Some of you will recognize that you already garden with a mix of the following “old” and “new” techniques. In this case, “old” does not necessarily mean “bad,” and “new” does not necessarily mean “good,” in a blanket-approval sort of way.
The goal of this information is to help you learn how to plant a landscape to attract wildlife, and the “old” techniques are not conducive to that. So, don’t feel bad if you have been doing things the “old” way. Chances are, you haven’t seen too many butterflies or hummingbirds around, either. That’s about to change!
Here’s what to do:
Old way: Routinely spray everything with a broad-spectrum insecticide a few times during the growing season.
New way: Monitor your landscape for problems and try non-chemical control methods before using any chemicals. If the insect problem is dire, (i.e. you are about to lose all or a substantial amount of flowers/vegetables/leaves/ other plant parts), spot-treat with the least toxic, insecticide that will be effective.
Old way: Remove all caterpillars from plants at first sight.
New way: Identify the caterpillars, and remove only those that turn into pests. (The tomato hornworm is a HUGE caterpillar this is also a voracious plant-eating pest.) If you see one of these:
Immediately pick it off the plant, drop it in a bucket of soapy water and say goodbye. The reason you want to leave caterpillars alone, especially if you can positively identify them, is that they are the larvae, or immature stage of butterflies and moths, the very wildlife you are trying to attract!
Old way: Water your plants and lawn on a set schedule, regardless of weather or need.
New way: Water when your plants need it. Most lawns will survive and stay healthy with far less water than they frequently receive. Your plants will develop stronger, deeper root systems if you water less frequently. However, the main reason, in terms of attracting wildlife, is that watering less frequently, and at the right time will cut down on spread of disease through the garden, which will decrease the amount of fungicides needed, which lessens the chance that you will unintentionally kill the wildlife you want to welcome to your yard.
Old way: Remove all debris, dead flower-heads, leaves, dead tree trunks, sweet gum balls and other seeds immediately after they fall.
New way: Strategically leave some debris for the animals. We’re not recommending that you leave an entire, huge, dead tree in your front yard. That could be a safety hazard, and it isn’t attractive. However, if you have a dead tree in the back yard that isn’t too conspicuous, leave it for birds to nest in. A rotting log hidden in your landscape bed is a place for ants and other insects to live, insects which provide food for other wildlife. Birds will eat the seeds from trees, flowers and shrubs. Those are natural food sources, so leave them, and watch them eat lunch outside your kitchen window. Birds will use dead twigs, seedheads from ornamental grasses, and other odds and ends to build nests.
Old way: Water with blue power synthetic fertilizer every two weeks, whether the plants need it or not.
New way: Use compost to feed your plants. Work it into the soil a few weeks before planting. Synthetic fertilizer applied too often will just run off into water sources, which causes problems for wildlife elsewhere.
Old way: Foundation plantings around the house filled with boxwoods and yews.
New way: Foundation plantings and landscape beds filled with a variety of trees, shrubs, herbs and flowers-some of which will be tasty to wildlife, and others that are not. (You don’t want everything to be eaten. Then you have no landscape.)
Changing your landscape maintenance habits works hand-in-hand with the second important part of landscaping for wildlife: plant selection.
Designing and Planting the Landscape Beds
The second piece of the puzzle is to select the right plants. Because you want beauty, function and plants that animals like to eat, this requires a bit of planning. You can achieve all three, though.
1. Start by evaluating your landscape areas.
Are you going to build upon what you already have? Will you be adding entirely new beds? What do you need to remove? What can you leave in place? What do you need: how many trees, shrubs, perennials, etc. ? What are the growing conditions: sunny, shady, wet, dry, near a vent or downspout?
Make a list of the types of plants you are looking for. You will want a mix of flowering plants to provide nectar, small trees and shrubs to provide shelter, and plants that produce berries and seeds for food. Then, make a drawing with approximately where you will put things. This drawing does not have to be fancy. It is simply to help you approximate space and plant needs.
2. Next, locate a nursery or garden center in your area that sells native plants.
You probably won’t want an entire bed filled with only natives, but that is entirely your preference. You can plant all natives and still have a gorgeous garden. A big reason to tuck some natives into your overall landscape design is that native wildlife will naturally be drawn to your landscape if you include native plants.
3. Then, purchase your plants, prepare your landscape beds and set out your plants.
Setting out all of the plants before you plant them will help you see if you are missing anything. Plant the plants, and water them in.
4. Last, add other items that will attract wildlife.
A water fountain will provide drinking water and bathing water for birds. Consider adding a bird bath, but remember that you will have to clean it out a few times a week. Set out a dish of pretty stones with water just barely covering them. This provides a place for smaller insects and butterflies to get water.
Landscape Plants for Wildlife
There are a few plants that are “old standbys” for habitat gardens. These are plants that reliably attract birds and butterflies, have a broad range of growth, are relatively easy to find, easy to care for and attractive.
Butterflies and hummingbirds need nectar plants. The best plants for nectar (and are not invasive) are:
If you want to attract butterflies to the garden, feeding the larvae is a good way to watch the butterfly from beginning to end. Larval (caterpillar) food plants are called “host plants.” Some of the best host plants are:
You will need fairly large quantities of these host plants, especially the perennials. A few caterpillars can munch a fennel plant to the ground in one day!
Plants to Attract Birds
There is a myth that birds and butterflies can’t peacefully co-exist, that the birds will eat all of the butterfly larvae. If you provide the birds with plenty of other food, you’ll have better luck. Here are some plants for attracting birds:
Prepare for Visitors
Photo courtesy of Clean Air Gardening.
If you follow these steps, and plant these plants, you will have birds, butterflies, other insects and wildlife visit you. Remember, you are providing them with food and shelter, so they will eat and remove pieces of your plants. That’s fine! Always incorporate some plants that are not favorites of wildlife and add a bird feeder, and you will retain a lush look, while enjoying visitors to your garden.
Attracting Butterflies to the Garden by Colorado State University Extension
Attract Hummingbirds To Your Garden by Oregon State University Extension
How to Create a Wildlife-Friendly Garden by National Wildlife Federation
How to Make Butterfly Gardens by University of Kentucy Entomology
The Life Cycles of Butterflies by Judy Burris and Wayne Richards
Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Winged Wonders to Your Backyard by Kris Wetherbee
Katie Elzer-Peters is a freelance writer living in Wilmington, NC. Her writing and PR business, The Garden of Words, L.L.C. serves clients all over the world. In her free time, Katie bicycles, surfs, reads books, and, of course, gardens.