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How to Plant Your Own Wildlife Habitat Garden

For many gardeners, getting their green thumbs into the dirt is a season-specific hobby that produces baskets of ruby red tomatoes or vases of fresh-cut blooms for a few warm months. But if you’re looking for an outdoor landscaping project that brings joy year-round, consider modifying your space with a wildlife habitat garden. These special plots blend a love of gardening with a desire to help local wildlife, and with a little work, you might just feel more connected to the natural world around you. Here’s a primer on creating your own wildlife habitat garden.

What is a Wildlife Habitat Garden?

Backyard garden with plants around a pond.
Credit: cjmckendry/ iStock

Animals need three main things to survive: food, water, and shelter. But when local habitats are destroyed or polluted, animals and insects also need a little help from humans. That’s where wildlife habitat gardens come in — curated, human-made spaces that provide all of these resources where greenspaces have decreased or are disappearing. Habitat gardens take many forms based on where you live and your available space, but they can make a large impact on nearby insects and animals, giving them space to forage for food or raise their young. The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) cites habitat loss as the top threat to all animal species in the U.S. But by replenishing natural resources in even any available space — from urban balconies and suburban schools to businesses — you can join the organization’s efforts to create microhabitats that benefit regional wildlife along with migratory critters passing through or staying seasonally.

There’s no one-size plan for building a habitat garden, meaning wildlife-focused gardeners aren’t limited to large rural meadows or tiny urban plots. Wildlife-friendly plots are entirely tailorable to your available space, along with natural resources (such as ponds or fruit trees) already in your yard. The only rules? The NWF designates true habitat gardens as having access to four important wildlife needs: food, water, shelter, and nesting places. And a fifth criterion is specifically for humans: using eco-friendly and sustainable gardening practices during construction and in the seasons after.

Benefits of Habitat Landscaping

Young Red Squirrel in a summertime garden.
Credit: skhoward/ iStock

Wildlife gardening offers you a chance to give back to the local ecosystem within the confines of your backyard or balcony, and the little bit of work you put in can sow some incredible rewards. Declining pollinator populations can get a bit of a boost from native blooms and with more bees, moths, and butterflies hunting around for pollen, your own vegetable garden can benefit, too. Habitat gardens also provide shelter for small animals that prey on pests — such as frogs that eat crickets, slugs, and roaches — keeping unwanted visitors in check. And while wildlife landscaping promotes the use of native plant and tree species to help wildlife eat their best diet, choosing greenery specific to your area can reduce your reliance on fertilizers, pest deterrents, and excessive watering. With a little bit of upfront work, a switch to habitat-focused planting and care can decrease gardening tasks and maintenance for the long run. Along the way, you may find that wildlife gardening gives you a push towards adopting sustainable practices that benefit the environment, such as constructing a rain barrel for water conservation or learning to identify and remove invasive plant species.

Crafting Your Habitat Garden

Male house sparrow perched by the side of a bird bath drinking water.
Credit: Andi Edwards/ iStock

Two upsides to wildlife habitat gardening are that you can customize your space to reflect your personality and interests, and don’t necessarily need a large budget to get started. The first step is creating a garden plan based on the resources at your disposal and what’s missing. Official NWF wildlife gardens must have one water source, three food sources, two types of cover for animals to hide or rest, and two locations where wildlife can raise their young.

The checklist can seem daunting, but know you’re not required to plant or build every feature — you may luck out by already having many of these elements in your garden. Nearby water sources such as ponds, creeks, or rivers can cover the water requirement without any additional work. Existing plants, shrubs, and trees can provide fruit, berries, nuts, or pollen for animals and insects to forage, meanwhile offering ground (or sky) cover away from predators. Brushy bushes can provide safe places for birds and rabbits to build nests and dens for their broods, while piles of rocks or old logs offer shelter to lizards, frogs, and turtles. If you’re unsure how common animals in your area feed, nest, or rest, check with your state conservation department or reference this species map to learn more. You’ll discover more about local ecosystems while getting a better idea of the types of wildlife you might want to attract.

In some cases, your garden space may fall short, and that’s where human ingenuity kicks in. Water sources don’t have to be intricate — a simple bee bath can be made from a shallow dish and scavenged rocks, or an existing birdbath can attract flying fowl for a cool sip of water. Supplementing food sources can be as easy as hanging seed and suet feeders or having hummingbird feeders available during migratory seasons. Swapping invasive plants for native species can brighten your yard and provide high-quality pollen and nectar for bees and insects.

Providing safe spaces for wildlife to raise their young gives you a chance to personalize your habitat garden with custom-made birdhouses, butterfly homes, or mason bee hotels. Bat houses are another option with the added benefit of mosquito control. Even leaving tall grass areas of your yard unmowed can double as cover and bedding for young animals. Still stumped on habitat creation ideas? The NWF’s habitat checklist can provide some inspiration.

Maintaining and Certifying Your Space

Two barrels in a garden set up for rain collection.
Credit: tanyss/ iStock

The final habitat requirement for your fauna-friendly sanctuary is completely customizable: You must practice two sustainable habitats in your garden space. You may already be on your way with a compost heap or rain collection barrel, but you don’t have to stop there. Swapping daily watering for soaker hoses keeps plants hydrated more efficiently, while reducing your lawn space can cut back on watering and mowing (and the associated fuel cost). Ever popular organic gardening practices count, too — so swapping out nitrogen-heavy fertilizers for sustainable options like ones made from banana peels or using eco-friendly pesticides such as neem oil can reduce the impact of maintaining your microhabitat.

Wildlife habitat gardens take some ingenuity and work to put together, and while many gardeners take on the task just for fun, it doesn’t hurt to show off your finished space with pride. The NWF offers an accrediting program that formally declares gardens as certified wildlife habitats, complete with an official sign. Certification isn’t a requirement, but it can help spread the word about habitat loss and recovery; if you choose to sign up, your microhabitat can join the ranks of more than 150,000 registered wildlife gardens nationwide.

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