Creating a Wildlife- and Eco-friendly Backyard

Each spring at Frogs Are Green, we try to encourage people to create backyards (or gardens, if you’re English) that are friendly to wildlife and the environment, water-wise, and easy to maintain without using herbicides and pesticides.

Imitate Nature

It is possible to create a wildlife friendly garden without using pesticides and herbicides, but you’ll need to mimic nature a bit and do some detective work to find out what types of plants and flowers flourish in your area. Sometimes you don’t even need to plant these natives—they may migrate to your backyard, and if you like them, you can find a place for them. This happened with me—a native fern migrated over to my yard and it is quite beautiful. Over the years, the ferns have spread and make a nice ground cover. That doesn’t mean you need to restrict yourself to native plants. My New Guinea impatiens obviously are not native to New Jersey, but I definitely try to fit in a number of low-maintenance native plants.

In my first years of gardening, I had to water my backyard every day with a hose to keep it alive. Now with a backyard filled with lots of native plants, I only water the potted plants.

Survival of the Fittest

After several years, I’ve realized that I can’t plant hostas—they’re like candy to slugs. Rather than spend money and effort, and possibly introduce toxins to the soil, to get rid of the slugs, I now keep the hostas in pots, above the ground, and then periodically lift the pots to check for any slugs. (Yes, I tried the tuna can full of beer method to get rid of slugs, but they didn’t fall for that trick.)

Since I don’t have much sun in my urban backyard, I don’t plant sun-loving annuals anymore. These flowers didn’t flourish and so seemed to attract disease and bugs. Have you tried some flowers that didn’t quite make it, or if they did, required a lot of watering or pesticides to maintain them? You may have found that other plants just seem to do great year after year without much attention. In my garden, potted geraniums seem to do well, lasting all the way through until frost, even without a lot of sun or attention. Even though they’re not the most exotic flowers, I have lots of them in interesting colors.

Courtesy of Sierra Club (New York)


I put out seed for the birds, although around this time of year in late spring, I start to cut down on bird seed. I put out water for them in a bird bath as well, and I sometimes also notice bees dipping into the bird bath. Because I don’t use herbicides or pesticides, I am not unintentionally killing off good insects—bees, lady bugs, etc. or potentially harming other animals like songbirds.

Build a Frog Pond

We don’t have any amphibians in my city (that I know of), but if you have amphibians in your area, put out a toad abode to keep these local insect-eating amphibians happy.

It’s also possible to create a frog pond relatively easily without a huge expense or effort. My sister put in a frog pond by her house in Connecticut, and on one summer day, she counted eighteen frogs enjoying her pond, including one frog who jumped up and sat right beside her on the garden bench. Here’s how she did it:

She dug out a base that was 4 feet by 7 feet, about 2 feet deep. On each corner, she created a shelf, 1 foot deep, for aquatic plants.

She bought pond liner from a garden center, a piece larger than the pond (so it was 12 feet long by 9 feet wide) and put stones down to hold it in place. She also piled smaller stones in one corner that came just above the water as a ramp for the frogs to get in and out of the pond.

She also added water flowers with leaves and lily pads. These plants act as filters for the pond (and, of course, our froggy friends like to sit on them).

She put in a pump to circulate the water (with an outdoor extension cord buried in ground to house).

She notes that the pond should be cleaned out every year. Take out the water, but be careful if there are frogs eggs in the pond. Put the eggs in a clean bowl with pond water before putting back in the pond. Also, she did not add the frogs to the pond—they migrated to her pond from another small pond on her property. Don’t introduce non-native frogs to your pond as they could disrupt the local ecology and introduce disease to native frogs

Please send us your ideas for creating a natural backyard and if you have some pictures, send them along and we’ll add them to our backyard gallery (see the photo gallery in our sidebar to the right).

Here is more information about your having your backyard certified as a Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.


Creating a Nature-Friendly Garden or Backyard – Guest post, Marlene A. Condon

We’re so pleased that Marlene A. Condon offered to share her expertise about creating wildlife-friendly gardens and backyards. Marlene is a nature writer and photographer with a passion for creating wildlife habitat around homes.  A field editor for Birds & Blooms since the magazine’s debut in 1995, she has been published in numerous newspapers and magazines and is the author of The Nature-Friendly Garden: Creating a Backyard Haven for Wildlife, Plants, and People (Stackpole Books).

With fall upon us, the majority of gardeners are thinking about cleaning up the garden and putting it “to bed.”  But this year, leave the garden alone.  Numerous kinds of wildlife are getting ready for winter.  Your hands-off attitude in autumn will benefit them and they will repay you next year when you begin a new gardening season.

Japanese Maple with its leaves raked around it to provide hibernation cover for numerous kinds of wildlife, including tree frogs.

The falling leaves that pile up along your garden fence create a haven where Gray Treefrogs and Spring Peepers can hibernate.  Next spring, as temperatures rise and these two kinds of treefrogs awaken, they will climb up into your trees and shrubs to feed upon insects and spiders.  Peepers, which usually stay within two to three feet from the ground, might also be found on your herbaceous (non-woody) plants.  But no matter where they feed, these amphibians help to limit the populations of invertebrates to numbers that your plants can sustain without incurring serious harm.

Some species of spiders and insects are taking refuge within your dying and drying garden plants to try to survive the winter in an inactive adult state.  Other species will soon perish, leaving behind eggs, larvae, or pupae on or within plants to carry on the line—if they survive the searching eyes of numerous predators still active in cold weather.

Praying Mantid egg mass on Purple Ruffled Basil. Dried plant stalks contain the eggs of numerous critters essential to the functioning of the garden.

Watch your garden throughout the winter and you will see birds, such as Downy Woodpeckers and Carolina Chickadees, clinging to and poking your brown plants.  They are looking for the tiny insects and spiders, in whatever form, that provide our avian creatures with the fat and protein they require to survive the harshest time of the year.

American Goldfinches feeding in winter on Purple Ruffled Basil seeds.

If there are plants and food aplenty during the winter for them, birds that are permanent residents of the area may want to build nests next spring in your yard.  As winter comes to an end, you simply need to cut up the old plant stalks a bit and let them lie where they fall.  Many kinds of birds, such as Carolina Wrens, need such old stems, along with those dried leaves that sheltered the treefrogs, to construct their nests.

Carolina Wren chicks leaving nest made of plant debris.

The dried plant material that the birds don’t take will be recycled into the soil for the benefit of your growing plants.  As snails and slugs become active, they will be delighted to find their favorite food (decaying plant and animal matter) waiting for them to feed upon.  When these unusual organisms are provided with such a fine smorgasbord, they don’t bother your growing plants.  Instead, they help to fertilize them—which is exactly what their function in your garden is supposed to be.

Snails feeding on plant debris and sickly plant that need to be recycled.

In other words, when you allow natural processes to occur as they are meant to happen, you don’t bring about the problems that most gardeners assume they are destined to encounter.  As numerous kinds of wildlife go about their everyday activities in your yard, they limit populations of other kinds of wildlife, thus eliminating overpopulations that are usually the sources of people’s gardening difficulties.

By creating a nature-friendly garden, you save money, time, and effort by not needing chemical pesticides.  By avoiding the use of pesticides, you don’t interfere with “Mother Nature’s” system of checks and balances that exists to keep the environment functioning properly.

You also don’t inadvertently harm wildlife that is not injurious to your plants.  Any insects or spiders poisoned by pesticides are easy prey for all of the other kinds of animals that feed upon them which means those critters can be poisoned as well.  And plants sprayed with herbicides pose an extreme danger to our helpful insect-eating amphibians, such as salamanders and toads, which have very absorbent skin.

Therefore, to avoid garden problems, help wildlife to survive in your yard.  You’ll get to enjoy the lovely songs and beauty of birds, the sights and sounds of numerous kinds of wildlife, and a more relaxed and thus more satisfying manner of gardening.

Please  visit Marlene’s website to learn more about her information- and photo-packed book.

All photographs copyright Marlene A. Condon


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.