5 Steps to To Turn Your Garden into a Certified Wildlife Habitat
Would you like to turn your garden into a certified wildlife habitat? Even small city gardens can provide critical habitat and resources for local pollinators and wildlife. Gardening expert Kelli Klein shares how to earn certification and support your local ecosystem in 5 simple steps.
Why turn your yard into a certified wildlife habitat? Even if you live in a city (perhaps especially in a city), local wildlife can benefit from the support of your garden and the habitat it provides.
Bees, butterflies, and a host of other insects will thrive in your wildlife habitat, which is doubly beneficial if you grow food crops. The beneficial predators your habitat attracts can help you by providing natural pest control. Creating a balanced ecosystem gives space to small animals like birds, bunnies, squirrels, amphibians, waterfowl, and countless other species a safe place to raise their young.
By committing to sustainable practices, you’ll know that your wildlife habitat is a return to nature. You can help support conservation efforts by including water-wise native plants and smart watering habits.
Removing all or at least a portion of your lawn and replacing it with low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plants can help save a tremendous amount of water and cut down on your time mowing and fertilizing your lawn. If you’re ready to learn more about creating a safe haven in your garden with myriad benefits to you and the ecosystem, check out the tips below!
The National Wildlife Federation
The National Wildlife Federation provides many resources for achieving certification and offers services to help design your landscape. A certification indicates your ongoing commitment to maintaining this habitat. Your garden must contain 50-70% native plants, include multi-season blooms, and be free of neonicotinoids. Not only will you be certified with the NWF, but they will also certify your property with your local federation (for me, this is the Colorado Wildlife Federation).
There are five main requirements to become a certified wildlife habitat, which include providing food, water, cover, and places to raise young for your local wildlife, all while utilizing sustainable practices throughout your garden. You may already meet most of these requirements and don’t even know it!
A great place to start with this is to look into native plants in your area. The reason is that most animals native to your region have evolved alongside these plants as food sources and can readily identify them as such. Look for plants that produce berries, seeds, nectar, fruits, sap, and pollen. To become a certified wildlife habitat, you’ll need to provide at least three different food sources from the list mentioned above.
In addition to providing food for the birds with seeds and berries, you can support butterflies by selecting species that act as host plants for their larval stage, flowers that provide nectar, or both! If you’re worried about attracting birds to your yard because of the potential damage they may cause (especially if you’re growing edible crops), consider using floating row covers or bird netting to keep them away from your bounty. And remember, they also provide a valuable service by eating insect pests while in your garden!
Feeders, like those for hummingbirds and squirrels, can supplement natural food sources. Goldfinches are voracious seed eaters, and if you’ve grown sunflowers, you can leave the spent stalks standing over winter as a natural bird feeder for these non-migratory birds. The flowers can perform double duty by acting as a beautiful garden accent throughout the summer.
All animals need water to survive, including butterflies and bees! Some animals need water for bathing and breeding as well. A water source does not need to be as involved as excavating a portion of your yard to insert an epic pond. It can be as simple as installing a birdbath or small fountain. Other options for water sources include a seasonal pool or a shallow dish or tray placed on the ground.
Consider yourself lucky if you have a lake, river, stream, ocean, or natural spring alongside your property. You’ve already met this requirement without doing any work! These natural bodies of water will attract many waterfowl, migratory birds, amphibians, and other wildlife.
Water Sources for Pollinators
Don’t forget about your native bees and butterflies when considering water sources. Bees prefer to drink from shallow water sources. They can fall in and drown if the water is too deep (like most bird baths).
A great way to create a bee watering station is to fill a shallow dish or tray with pebbles, marbles, or small rocks and then fill it with water until the rocks are covered in water about halfway but not fully submerged. The bees will land on the rocks and dip their proboscis over the edge to drink safely without risk of drowning.
Butterflies don’t tend to drink straight from a pure water source, but rather, they take part in a behavior referred to as puddling. They gather along the edges of mud puddles and drink from this mineral-rich wellspring, taking up water and minerals from the mud.
You can recreate this by filling a tray with compost and sand, topping it with rocks as a landing pad, and then moistening the soil. It does not need to be in standing water but decently moist.
They will land on the rocks, similar to the bees, and reach over the edge to remove moisture and minerals from the wet compost. This will likely dry out and need to be remoistened every few days. You’ll also want to change out the compost fully every month.
Why Cover Matters
Providing cover is vital to give animals a place to take shelter from storms and inclement weather. Have you ever wondered where butterflies go during heavy rain? Most insects prefer to hide in leaf litter. The phrase “leave the leaves” is becoming very popular. Beneficial insects like ladybugs overwinter in fallen leaf litter.
Butterflies can overwinter in the leaves as a chrysalis, waiting for the warmth of spring to emerge. Their chrysalis may be attached to twigs or stems that have died back. Solitary bees love to make winter homes in hollow stems of plants pruned back in the fall. You might want to tidy up most of your yard, but consider leaving a leaf pile in a section for overwintering insects.
Cover also provides places for prey animals to hide and predators to stalk their prey. This might sound scary, but it’s a part of nature, and you definitely will benefit from this in your garden. For example, in my zone 5b garden in Colorado, an example of a predator is the blue mud dauber, which I witnessed landing on a flower in front of my face with its preferred prey in its mouth, a black widow!
Leaving large portions of leaves and dirt undisturbed provides the perfect habitat for blue mud daubers (which nest underground). They look threatening but are not interested in pestering people at all. Their main goal is to eat spiders; their favorite prey is the black widow spider. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate their presence as natural pest control in my gardens.
Types of Cover
In addition to leaf litter, other examples of cover include a wooded area, bramble patch, ground cover, rock pile, brush or log pile, burrow, meadow or prairie, dense shrubs, or a thicket. Trees like evergreens provide shelter for small birds and mammals.
The juniper tree in my garden is the talk of the town amongst the finches and bunnies. Trees generally provide great shade during the summer for animals and a place to rest and shelter during the winter. Fruit trees serve multiple purposes, like providing food, cover, and places to raise young, which brings us to our next step!
Places to Raise Young
To ensure that wildlife sticks around your habitat and completes the life cycle, you’ll want to provide them with places like mature trees to raise their young. Wetlands, burrows, caves, and the aforementioned host plants for butterflies are great places for wildlife to nurture their offspring as well.
If you don’t have a natural structure like a tree, cave, or burrow on your property, then you can add some man-made structures. A birdhouse is easy to install. Research the native birds in your area, and you’ll find what their preferred nesting sites look like to mimic that with a birdhouse. For example, house finches like to nest in cylindrical shapes, so I purchased a round birdhouse to encourage them to use it.
A bee hotel or bee box is another man-made structure providing solitary bees with a helpful habitat. These types of bee boxes do not attract honey bees or any type of bee that builds its hive.
Bat boxes are another addition that you should consider if you have bats in your area. The boxes provide them with an area to roost during the day. They’ll come out at night and gobble up mosquitos and other bugs as they float and flit high above your gardens.
While the term sustainable practices can seem vague or broad, it basically means maintaining your yard naturally to ensure the soil, air, and water remain clean. If we create habitat but don’t maintain it sustainably, it can still cause harm. You may plant a variety of pollen-rich flowers for bees and build a bee hotel, but if you’re still using neonicotinoids, you will contribute to the decimation of pollinator populations.
Briefly explained: neonicotinoids are a group of insecticides commonly used on commercial crops, lawns, gardens, golf courses, and even flea and tick treatments for pets. They remain in the soil for years, can make entire plants toxic to insects, and kill indiscriminately, including bees and butterflies.
Below, we’ll discuss the categories that fall under sustainable practices and options to achieve each in your garden.
Soil and Water Conservation
Some options for employing good soil and water conservation practices include:
- Creating a riparian buffer;
- Capturing rainwater from your roof;
- Xeriscaping (water-wise landscaping);
- Using a drip or soaker hose for irrigation;
- Limiting water use;
- Reducing erosion;
- Using mulch;
- Planting a rain garden.
Native plants are becoming increasingly popular because they are perfectly adapted to their environments, needing less irrigation and attention to thrive.
Controlling Exotic Species
This might sound like a challenging task. Still, straightforward ways to achieve this include integrated pest management, removing invasive plants that might draw them, installing native plants, and reducing lawn areas.
Animals can be invasive, too. I wanted to encourage my yard’s house finches, so I researched their nesting preferences (cylindrical shapes) and bought a round birdhouse for them to use. I hadn’t considered that I also have invasive house sparrows in my area, and they quickly took over the birdhouse.
A remedy for this was to purchase a birdhouse with a smaller entryway. Since the house sparrows are larger birds, they can’t fit into a smaller entry like the native house finches and chickadees.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
This is my favorite hands-off way to manage pests in the garden. Reaching for sprays and potions is almost a knee-jerk reaction when we see pests chomping on our tender plants and eating our hard work away.
However, allowing the pests to appear in a balanced ecosystem means that the predators are sure to follow shortly after. Plants with umbel flowers like yarrow will attract predatory wasps and ladybugs, making quick work of aphids and other smaller soft-bodied insects that might harm your plants.
A few years ago, my oak tree became infested with aphids (they feed on the leaves and poop out a sticky sap that makes a mess and attracts ants). You probably wouldn’t blame me if I reached for an insecticide to save my tree, prevent the garden mess, and stave off a possible ant infestation. But I decided to wait. I have a pretty good population of ladybugs each year, so I just waited for them. They did show up and in force! Ladybugs were hatching right before my eyes, all over the leaves and the sides of my house, and they were feasting!
Maintaining a balanced ecosystem and employing integrated pest management practices was rewarding. Integrated pest management puts prevention at the top of the list, followed by physical control (physically removing pests from plants), biological control (allowing predatory insects to move in), and finally, chemical control as a last resort (and using organic insecticides when possible).
Native species are ideally suited for your area, requiring less fuss than attempting to keep a non-native alive in your garden. You might experience this if you’ve ever attempted to grow a plant outside of its preferred climate.
It’s all but impossible to do! A quick internet search for native plants in your area will yield tons of results. You can also contact your local extension or stop in a local nursery and ask what native plants are available.
Organic practices involve eliminating chemical pesticides and fertilizers and composting. If you’ve reached the stage of integrated pest management where you feel a pesticide is necessary, use an organic measure.
Fortunately, many organic pesticides are widely available through online retailers or big box stores. Kaolin clay is gaining popularity since it is 100% natural and does not harm pollinators but targets only pests that feed on plant tissues.
Kaolin is a clay powder that can be reconstituted with water and sprayed on affected plants. It gums up the systems of bugs that then feed on the clay-laced foliage while leaving pollinators that don’t use the leaves unaffected. It is also safe for use on food plants since it is a natural clay that can be washed off of fruits just before consumption.
Composting might sound insurmountable and scary, but there are tons of online resources for building your composting bins and countless books on how to get started. There are many different ways to compost, such as vermicomposting, hot composting, cold composting, etc.
Certain cities also offer composting pickup, allowing people to keep countertop compost pails for their kitchen scraps. There are also enclosed countertop composting systems like Lomi, which can make composting your kitchen scraps even easier!
Turning a lawn or barren landscape into a certified wildlife habitat may seem like a monumental undertaking, but it certainly does not have to be. Don’t forget, you can start slowly and add throughout the season or over multiple seasons. Start with a small patch and build on it year after year. The key is to start! Hang a birdhouse, plant one native plant, throw sunflower seeds into an empty spot outside, and see what happens. You’ll be surprised at how quickly wildlife moves into these spaces. If you grow it, they will come!