Turn Your Backyard into a Wildlife Habitat

It’s that time of year (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) when we’re raking up leaves, cleaning up our backyards, and preparing for winter. But as we prepare for the first frost, we’re spending more time inside than outside and our backyards may be a bit of a mess.

I read an interesting article in The Independent (UK) the other day, “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 called “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 backyard 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 two birdbaths. I don’t use pesticides or herbicides.

What I’ve noticed is that this time of year I get lots of animal visitors. I have a robin couple living in the yard (not common the rest of the year). An amazing bird that I can’t even find in the bird book stopped by the other day. Birds come this time of year to 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 attracting wildlife and getting your yard recognized as a Certified Wildlife Habitat.

This time of year we gardeners get a bit depressed as winter approaches. What are we going to do with ourselves until the first seed catalogs arrive in the mail in late winter? This fall I am looking at ways I can make my backyard more amenable to wildlife. I just received my Gardeners Supply catalog that has all kinds of birdbaths, birdfeeders, birdhouses, and other products to create an animal-friendly garden/yard.

Please add your suggestions for ways to attract backyard wildlife.

courtesy of Loudoun (VA) Wildlife ConservatoryCreating a frog pond, courtesy of Loudoun (VA) Wildlife Conservatory

*I got this from Earthtalk: Expert Answers to Everyday Questions about the Environment (Plume, 2009), an excellent book, by the way.

24 thoughts on “Turn Your Backyard into a Wildlife Habitat

  1. My yard has been a certified habitat for several years. I haven’t seen any frogs, despite the fact that I live on brook. However, my new flower bed — filled with perennials, chemical-free, and enriched with coffee grounds and compost — is a haven for pollinators, gold finches, and praying mantis. It’s wonderful!

  2. Thanks for the tips. My wife is a neat freak so I’m usually out there when the leaves start falling to rake and bag right away. The problem of leaving too much untidiness around I find the pest problems grow….especially if you leave things piled up against the house. We get more bugs (earwings, centipedes and ants) getting into the house along with mice (which always gets bad at this time of year as the weather turns colder). The kids may love it, but the Mrs….well, not so much.

    I have two composters and do separate and deposit our vegetable waste from our regular garbage into them; have a ready supply of rich nutrients for the garden all year round. But will look at ways at the back of the property to provide shelter for natures critters and help perpetuate my mini-eco-system in my garden.

    As a LEED AP, I promote sustainability with our clients and always look for ‘green’ options for landscaping (including green roofs) which can increase possibilities for creative habitat creations.

  3. Howard,
    I’d love to hear more about the types of habitats possible on “green” roofs.
    Thanks so much for your comments.

  4. I get squirrels, sparrows, mourning doves and pigeons :), even a neighborhood cat. Our yard is a little untidy as well, but all the animals find refuge from the rain in the messiness.

  5. Thanks, I loved the tips as well, maybe the frogs and toads will like some empty Foster’s oil cans – might try that. In my case, I have a couple of large Oaks on my property. What I do, is spread the leaves in sunnier areas of my lawn, or beyond the shaded areas of those trees. Living in Florida, weeds are always a problem. The grass that I want to grow lies mostly under those trees. I would reason that the organics found in those leaves as well as the ground cover provided might help that favorable grass grow. Within a few months most of those leaves either decay or blow elsewhere. Cant say for sure, but feel that there has been some minor improvement. I’ll also try to berm the leaves to try and capture runoff from rainfall. Just hate to lose those organics through disposal. I have’nt found a practical means yet, on how to keep all bugs away short of using some pesticide for fire ant and carpenter ants, but I apply in limited amounts as possible mostly along perimeters. As much as I hate to do so, some herbicide is needed to knock down broadleaves. I do get lots of birds and other critters, but leave most of the other bugs to them even if bugs do chew up parts of my yard.

  6. I so appreciate the timely tips. We North Americans have been programmed to create super tidy, human dominated yards. I love the way you’ve provided examples of different ways to behave in our properties. We’ve got to leave things more “messy”! Walking through woods or an open meadow environment provides a great example of the beauty and functionality of “messy.” Here’s my backyard and workplace – yet another example of a more constructively laid back approach to property maintenance aesthetics…
    http://www.wildflowerfarm.com . I must also add to the conversation a plug for my super fav book Bringing Nature Home, by Doug Tallamy. It’s about how the choices of plants and maintenance we make as gardeners profoundly impacts the diversity of life in our yards, towns and the planet. Thanks again for your very imaginative approach!

  7. Hi Miriam–

    I enjoyed looking at your site, which I’ve bookmarked to look at more closely, and I’d love to read Bringing Nature Home–will put that one on my list. Thanks for your comment–much appreciated!

    Mary Jo

  8. Hi Mike–

    I do realize that some people have insect pests I don’t have to do with–like carpenter ants and fire ants. And I have a tiny urban backyard, so it is perhaps not realistic for me to suggest other people don’t use pesticides etc. Before next spring, I would like to do some research about organic gardening as I don’t know much about it. The fact that you have birds and other critters in your yard means that you’re doing something right! Thanks so much for your comment.

    Mary Jo

    Mary Jo

  9. Hi Deb–

    Well, on this side of town I don’t have many pigeons (thank goodness), but I do have those animals, too, and some neat birds. Wish I knew more about the birds that stop by here in the fall!

    Mary Jo

  10. Hi Howard–

    Yes, I can see how having the leaves by the house might promote pests. That’s great that you compost your vegetable waste (I need to start doing that). A little eco-system in the back of the yard might be great. I also have to be careful not to have piles of stuff near our building because mice might hide in it. Luckily no earwigs where I live, but I remember them well (when I lived on a farm in NH). That’s great that you are promoting green landscaping.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Mary Jo

  11. HI Cindy–

    Your yard sounds wonderful. Any tips you can send along for maintaining a chemical-free garden would be appreciated. I’m going to try and write more about this before next spring.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Mary Jo

  12. Hi Ernie–

    That’s wonderful about your yard, and such a great idea to make college campuses certified wildlife habitats. I’d love to see more colleges doing that. I’ll take a look at the youtube video and website. Thanks so much for your comment.

    Mary Jo

  13. Hi Ernie–

    I really enjoyed your video . I’ve included it in my next post (with your name and a link)–I hope that’s okay.


    Mary Jo

  14. Hi Miriam–

    I took a closer look at your site–wonderful. I included a link in my next post and mentioned the book as well.


    Mary Jo

  15. Pingback: Frogs Love Autumn Leaves « Frogs Are Green- A blog to raise awareness about the threats frogs face in the world's changing environment...

  16. Thank you for the sound critique. Me and my neighbor were just setting up to do some research about this. I am very glad to see such great info being shared freely out there.

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  19. Nice article. We all must participate to save the wildlife. I have a small pond in my garden maintained by ponpro2000. There are different type of fish and ducks. It looks awesome in the evening.

  20. At 80 years old I have moved out of a Retirement village to a large neglected property in the outer Eastern Melbourne suburb of Lilydale (Victoria Australia) and within days of setting up little shallow (Kids folding sandpit shells) attracted the first of four different species of frogs including the tiniest Sloanes froglet (Crinia sloanei) to breed during wet nights in Spring. I try to only use rainwater from several roof runoffs and boil and strain it for personal consumption. I have rampant weeds and wildlife, birds, butterflies and the despised rats and mice but have planted many native, fruit and exotic trees, plants and herbs. To me this is the garden of Eden and the frogs prefer the Aphis, Thrips and tiny flies on the weeds Thistles as well as the precious herbs. Rosemary Horton.

  21. Thank you Rosemary for caring and sharing. I’m sure our readers will love your efforts.

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