Converting a Traditional Yard to a Wildlife Habitat

by Claire Hagen Dole

Create a Wildlife HabitatThe huge old rhododendron, with its weed-trapping fibrous roots, had to go. It occupied a sunny backyard site that was perfect for a butterfly garden. After many hours of pruning, digging, and finally whacking the trunk with a sledgehammer to dislodge it, I gazed at the spot. What possibilities!

Within a few short years, a thriving wildlife habitat has evolved in its space. A small pond is home to Pacific tree frogs and a host of fascinating creatures like damselfly nymphs and freshwater shrimp. Behind the pond, burrowing insects work over a rotting log, its hollow edges bordered by iris and speedwell. The tangle of flowers and grasses in this wild garden gives shelter to birds and frogs seeking an insect meal.

Such a gratifying garden transition didn't stop there, of course. The butterfly garden began to expand sideways in the flower bed, which is bordered by a fence behind and concrete driveway in front. This seldom-used drivewaytwo narrow strips which lead into the basement garage of my 1929 houseseparates the butterfly flower bed from a fruit/vegetable/herb garden and small lawn.

Flush with the success of my wildlife garden, I looked across this concrete divide at raspberries and chives in bloom. That long ribbon of lawn between driveway strips had to go! In its place, low-growing herbs and strawberries now create a visual connection between gardens. Lavender, thyme and oregano buzz with bees all summer; skippers are abundant in fall. Bumblebees made a nest in the pile of decomposing turf, giving the undesired grass its greatest wildlife value in sixty-plus years of existence.

The new herb planting bridged a distance of mere feet between gardens, but it signifies an important addition to the wildlife garden: safe corridor for travel. I'm always pleased to hear throaty croaks from the brush pile by the alley, indicating that a frog has crossed the driveway safely.

What's next? Big changes in the front yard, with its parking strip re-do and gradual inclusion of more native plants, especially berry-producing shrubs.

Make a Plan

My seat-of-the-pants gardening style is probably typical of many gardeners with established plantings. A little long-range planning, though, can result in a wildlife habitat that is perfect for your site.

Wildlife experts recommend spending a year observing your yard, gathering resource information and creating a scale drawing to try out design ideas. My front-yard project actually followed the one-year rule, but for logistical reasons that had to do with approaching winter. When I finally broke ground last fall, I'd refined my design and located a great native plant source.

What observations should you be making on your property? List your major trees and shrubs; evaluate their location and benefit to wildlife (remember that evergreens provide winter shelter for birds, as well as cones/berries). Keep a record of wildlife sightings during the year, both in your neighborhood and in nearby parks, where native plant communities may be found.

Evaluate microclimates and soil (this needn't include a soil test; most likely you know the conditions of your yard). Then listen to Ken Druse, author of The Natural Habitat Garden: Don't fight the site.

This sentiment is echoed by Sara Stein in Planting Noah's Garden, when she advises not to correct soil deficiencies. She writes, The right choice of vegetation will do well under existing conditions and in time improve them. The key is to emphasize use of native plants and to put them in the right spot for healthy growth.

A problem spot in the garden is often an opportunity for wild gardening. A poorly drained, soggy corner could be the ideal spot for a bog garden. And that sparse, weedy patch of lawn might do better as a colorful wildflower meadow, its flowers perfectly adapted to nutrient-poor soil.

If you're hesitant to remove lawn, start with an island of wildflowers, including some tall composites like aster, goldenrod and coneflowerall highly attractive to beneficial insects. Native clump-forming grasses will feed and shelter skippers, wood nymphs, satyrs and ringlets.

Gather resources (see book list); connect with local native-plant and wildlife groups. Take guided nature walks to learn about local flora and fauna. Spend winter months poring over plant/seed catalogs, especially those of regional native-plant nurseries.

And create a scale drawing of your lot, however rough and sketchy. Map existing plantings, traffic patterns, wind, sunlight, views. It can be useful to include features of neighboring properties: trees, view or annoyance such as traffic noise (which might be alleviated by constructing a berm of plants). Get some crayons and have fun experimenting on tissue-paper overlays with plant groupings, paths, and activity areas. Take before pictures; make photocopy enlargements and draw on them.

Basic Needs of Wildlife

Even a small yard can provide the wildlife basics of food, water, shelter and space.

Butterflies, birds, mice, snakes and countless other animals are drawn to the space where habitats overlap: a clearing in the woods, a hedgerow through fields. This edge is where everything happensfeeding, mating, sheltering young. It's wildlife theatre at its best.

You can maximize the edge effect by creating irregular borders and curving paths that complement or mimic natural terrain. You may want to remove some existing paths to provide more cover for wildlife. My narrow back yard, split by its driveway, doesn't offer much design leeway. I did inject a curve, however, where lawn and blueberry patch meet. I also removed a strip of lawn to deepen the flower bed, which is densely planted with perennials and shrubs.

Stone pathways and patios, with spaces between pavers for creeping thyme or small flowers like alyssum, multiply edges by a hundredfold. Peek under the ground cover and observe a beetle's paradise! As you know if you've tried to weed between bricks or tightly-set pavers, it's helpful to leave wider spaces for easier weeding.

The sunlit clearing along this edge is an important space for butterflies. Patrolling males will spend hours at vegetation's edge, darting into the clearing to chase away intruders or to initiate mating with a passing female. A mating pair may spiral upwards in a courtship dance. Even more spectacular is the mating display of many male hummingbirds, who repeatedly dive from heights of fifty feet or more.

Whether in a bird bath or in a mud puddle, water is an integral part of the wildlife garden. Moving water is even bettertrickling over a rock or forming a fine mist that is irresistible to hummingbirds. Male swallowtails and blues are particularly attracted to mineral-rich wet sand or dirt. If neighborhood cats are a problem, get the butterflies off the ground by putting wet sand in a birdbath.

It should be obvious to the wildlife gardener that pesticides and herbicides have no place in the garden. New converts to wildlife gardening may need patience while a balance between pests and predators develops. According to Charlotte Seidenberg (The Wildlife Garden), predators and parasites don't show up until the pest is numerous enough to attract them. Over time, there will be cycles of pest and predator abundance. It may be difficult to achieve a balance in an isolated urban garden.

You can tip the balance by including native plants that attract beneficial insects. Seidenberg writes, The patch of my garden that, to me, epitomizes the concept of the wildlife garden, is the one planted with indigenous members of the composite, mint, lobelia, and dayflower families. On sunny days from spring to late fall it is absolutely teeming with life. If I stand quietly by blooming goldenrod and wild ageratum, I see nature's miniature version of The Young and the Restless, with dramas more intense and infinitely more complex and interesting!

Plant Choices

A diversity of plants generates a diversity of wildlife. Vary plant heights, from ground cover to understory to tree canopy. Focus on native plants to foster native birds and insects rather than opportunists like starlings. Larval host plants are the key to attracting and keeping butterflies in the neighborhood; check a local guidebook for host-plant choices.

Plant large trees along the property line, where they will form the forest canopy. If there are wildlife-friendly trees across the fence, consider extending the grove in your yard. Imagine the shade that will be cast by full-grown trees; leave gaps for sunny clearings and to create a flyway that will bring wandering butterflies to your yard searching for nectar and host plants.

In Gardening for Wildlife, Craig Tufts and Peter Loewer suggest underplanting existing shade trees with smaller trees such as evergreens, maple, birch, serviceberry, dogwood and redbud. Space them so that their canopies will overlap slightly at maturity.

Should you remove a mature tree to make room for a native species or a different garden layout? Seidenberg cautions that it will take many years for a young tree to equal the wildlife value of a large tree, even if a less appropriate species. Mature trees attract bark-boring insects, woodpeckers and sapsuckers. Sapsuckers, in turn, have their own following: Mourning Cloaks and anglewings seeking sap, and hummingbirds looking for other insects drawn to the sap.

On the other hand, don't be sentimental about removing a tree or shrub that absolutely has to go! If removal of the stump is prohibitively difficult, leave it to rot gradually (unless it's prone to sucker growth, like a fruit tree or a lilac bush). Put a bird bath or potted plant on the stump, even a sundial. Eventually the stump will sprout ferns and interesting fungi.

A dying tree can be turned into that most valuable habitat, a snag. Prune for safety; if desired, girdle the trunk to hasten the process (cut away a horizontal strip of bark around the trunk).

Can't decide whether to remove a tree? Leave it standing during the yard re-do, then evaluate it against a less cluttered background. It will either stand out like a sore thumb, or it will suggest a new planting scheme.

If you've been clipping shrubs into tight circles and squares, retire those shears! Pruning into unnatural shapes removes blossoms and berries, and the resulting dense growth makes access difficult for birds. Gradually allow the shrub to regain its natural appearance, pruning selectively for shape.

A tightly-managed hedge might be converted to a hedgerow, depending on species. However, the greatest wildlife value is offered by a hedgerow of varied plantings, emphasizing those that produce berries and are somewhat brambly for shelter.

It's important to remember that a plant like non-native holly can invade a wide area when its seeds are dispersed by birds. Consider replacing with natives like serviceberry and ceanothus.

During summer months, deadhead flowers to prolong blooming and nectar production for butterflies. When blooms begin to decline, stop deadheading and leave seed heads for birds to forage in winter.

Other Enhancements

Sun-warmed rocks, along a pathway or built into a rock wall, make great basking spots for cold-blooded butterflies. A rock wall, left unmortared, provides many nooks and crannies for insects and amphibians. A pile of rocks over a shallow hole in the ground makes a perfect toad house.

Brush piles and woodpiles are home to many insects, amphibians and small mammals. If you're bothered by appearance, grow a hummingbird-pleasing vine like trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) over the pile. Or grow hops (Humulus lupulus), a larval plant for anglewings, Red Admirals, Gray Hairstreaks, Mourning Cloaks and Spring Azures. And don't forget a patch of nettles behind the brushpilea magnet for anglewings and Red Admirals.

Lawn, Begone!

With all the great ideas you've assembled for your wildlife habitat, you may be wishing for more space. Unless you've already espoused xeriscaping (landscaping with drought-tolerant plants), you probably have more lawn than you need for the occasional croquet game.

Picture this: a summer weekend lazing in the hammock, surrounded by chirping birds and fluttering swallowtails, while your children play in the meadow and watch tadpoles in the pond. Now, ready to dig up that turf?

Stevie Daniels (The Wild Lawn Handbook) lists three options for lawn removal: smothering, removing mechanically, and chemical (a glyphosate-based herbicide such as Roundupnot recommended by Daniels or by other wildlife gardeners).

Smother the turf with newspaper (about 20 sheets thick) that is covered with a layer of bark or mulch. With this method, you can dig planting holes for new perennials, shrubs and trees. Loosen compacted soil around the planting hole, but use your soil rather than a planting mix for best long-term growth. Another option is to build a raised bed over the grass.

If you live in a new subdivision, it's likely that your lawn was installed over ground scraped bare of topsoil. Smother the lawn with newspaper and mulch, amended with organic matter or clean topsoil. Don't bring in fill dirt whose background is unknown; it may contain undesirable weed seeds, even toxic chemicals. Go gently on fertilizer use; overfertilizing kills beneficial microorganisms and drives away earthworms.

Turf removal calls for a sodcutter or a shovel and a strong back. The sodcutter, available for rental, removes strips that can be rolled up and composted. The strips can be piled to make a landscaping berm, then covered with soil or bark.

My method of digging edged squares of turf is admittedly labor-intensive, but I wanted to remove taprooted weeds like dandelions (which are numerous in back, where they provide nectar and finch-approved seeds). After digging squares, I shake out as much dirt as possible, then pile them upside-down, uncovered. The resulting compost (six months to a year) is rich and crumbly.

Craig Tufts (The Backyard Naturalist) also uses the strong-back method, but he turns squares upside-down in place, sprinkles with granular lime, then adds 2-3" of soil, 1" of compost and 3" of bark mulch.

Here's another benefit of lawn reductionno more raking of leaves! In fact, you'll want to let them decompose in place, to add a soft layer of mulch where skippers and moths will pupate over the winter. Leaves can be shredded (look for insects first!) by running a lawn mower over them.

Meandering

What's the payoff for all the research and hard work? In The Backyard Naturalist, Tufts sums up the end result: Yard patrol is one of my gardening joys. Armed with binoculars for spying on the avian and lepidopteran denizens of my quarter acre, I spend hours meandering: checking out the shadbush crop, looking for the monarch eggs on milkweeds, verifying that first mourning warbler back in the scrubby tangle that marks the property line.

Doesn't that sound like more fun than pushing a power mower?

Publications:

Alcock, John. In a Desert Garden. W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Daniels, Stevie. The Wild Lawn Handbook. Macmillan, 1995.

Druse, Ken. The Natural Habitat Garden. Clarkson Potter, 1994.

Ernst, Ruth Shaw. The Naturalist's Garden. Globe Pequot Press, 1993.

Harper, Peter. The Natural Garden Book. Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Knopf, Jim et al. Natural Gardening. The Nature Company/Time Life Books, 1995.

Nature's Gardens. Better Homes and Gardens, 1995.

Schneck, Marcus. Your Backyard Wildlife Garden. Rodale Press, 1992.

Seidenberg, Charlotte. The Wildlife Garden. University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

Stein, Sara. Noah's Garden. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993.

______. Planting Noah's Garden. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

Stevenson, Violet. The Wild Garden. Penguin Books, 1985.

Tufts, Craig. The Backyard Naturalist. National Wildlife Federation, 1993.

Tufts, Craig and Peter Loewer. Gardening for Wildlife. Rodale Press, 1995.

Wild Garden. New magazine devoted to native plants and wildlife gardening. $19.95 for first four issues (first issue includes resource guide), or $23.95 for next six. P.O. Box 70570, Eugene, OR 97401.

Wild Ones Handbook. Natural landscaping resource booklet published by The Wild Ones, P.O. Box 23576, Milwaukee, WI 53223-0576. $7.

Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program:

National Wildlife Federation, 8925 Leesburg Pike, Vienna, VA 22184-0001. (703) 790-4434; www.nwf.org/habitats. $12.95 for yard certification kit; includes The Backyard Naturalist. (410) 516-6583 to charge order.

Article by Claire Hagen Dole, Publisher/editor of Butterfly Gardeners' Quarterly. #15, Spring 1998.