Creating a wildlife-friendly backyard

As Susan and I are hosting family and friends, we are reposting a couple of our favorite or most popular posts this week. We have edited the posts for the season or to update some material. Enjoy and hope you’re having a great summer!

It’s that time of the summer when we’re spending a lot of time in our backyards tending gardens that by now might have become out of control. Sometimes we spray and clip in a vain attempt to keep nature at bay and to make everything look tidy.

I read an interesting article in The Independent (UK) , “Why Untidy Gardens Make the Best Habitat for Wildlife.” My in-laws live in England and “garden” more or less means the same as “backyard” to Americans, though most English yards have a flower border. British readers, please correct me if I’m wrong!

Anyway, the article points out that town and city gardens provide a vital refuge for birds, insects, and other animals, including amphibians. Small gardens are as good as large gardens, urban gardens as important as suburban ones, and non-native plants are not always harmful to birds and insects.

Both city and suburban backyards can provide what Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson calls “bridges” between protected areas, providing refuges for wildlife. These bridges serve as a vital corridor, for example, for amphibians, migrating songbirds, and other animals.

My city backyard, in a densely populated small city, falls into the category of “untidy.” I have a lax attitude as to what I allow to grow in it, including a Norway maple, which no one in my family likes. They claim it’s taking over the tiny backyard, which is true. Yet the tree also draws lots of birds. I have vines growing up walls that provide places for birds to hide in, and I have a birdbath. I don’t use pesticides or herbicides.

Mourning Dove in Mary Jo's Backyard

What I’ve noticed is that every year I am getting more and more animal visitors, and a greater variety, too. This year in addition to sparrows and mourning doves, I’ve seen cardinals, robins, and other songbirds. In the fall, I have bird visitors that eat the grapes on my grape vine, swooping down almost the same week each year.

You don’t have to do much to make your backyard a wildlife habitat. Just don’t be too neat—don’t hurry to clear up everything when the garden stops flowering. Some of this “debris” is important for wildlife to hide in or to eat.

Of course, I realize that some animals are pests and steps have to be taken to keep them out. When we’re in New Hampshire, we need to use special bear-resistant garbage cans. Some parts of the country have real problems with deer.

But I think we should try to give a helping hand to those animals and insects that need these wildlife bridges—amphibians, birds, honey bees, and so on.

Here are some more tips for fall planting from the Independent article:

  • plant large shrubs—shrubs and trees produce more vegetation where wildlife can live and eat
  • allow at least some flowers to turn to seed and let the lawn grow tall.
  • create a pond for insects and frogs, or buy or make a toad abode
  • don’t illuminate your garden/backyard at night with bright lights. This will disturb many nocturnal creatures
  • create a compost heap—they are miniature nature reserves in themselves.

See also the National Wildlife Foundation‘s site about gardening for wildlife and about what you need to do to get your yard recognized as a Certified Wildlife Habitat.

Other tips:

  • Put out a bird bath. I enjoy watching birds splash in it every morning.
  • Put out bird feeders. Yes, the squirrels eat the seed, but mostly birds eat it. I buy a big bag of wild bird seed at the supermarket.

Update: After this post ran (10/09), we got lots of interesting comments, so we asked people to send in pictures of their wild backyards. These photos are still up (see gallery). We’d love to receive pictures of your wild backyard and are looking for guest posts about how to create a wild backyard.