Previous articles in this series have looked at the importance of insects to a healthy yard, as well as reasons to plant native plants. Now we’ll look at practical ways you can transform your yard to support wildlife, and even apply to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) to make your yard a Certified Wildlife Habitat.

What is the NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat program? This national program recognizes those with landscapes of all sizes—from many acres to a small balcony—who have added features to make the space wildlife-friendly. The program has five components: food, water, cover, a place to raise their young and maintaining your garden in a sustainable way.

Toni is a gardener in Ohio who has not only followed the process to become certified, but has even created a website  to guide other Ohioans through the process. She loves bird watching. Have a look at her You Tube video, “Feathered Friends,” to see a young hummingbird and other birds filmed in her yard. Are you interested in having fun while you make a positive impact for wildlife in your yard? Consider turning it (or a small portion of it)  into a NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat. Read on to learn how to approach each step, with some helpful hints from Toni along the way.

Step one: Make plans. Look at your yard and think of where you could begin to make changes, keeping in mind that you don’t have to transform your entire yard in a single year. Instead, imagine how it might look in three or even ten years, with wildlife-friendly plants and spaces throughout. Each year, make progress towards your goal. As Toni writes, “Start small so it’s easy to manage.”

Toni provides this useful handout called “Easily Start Your Dream Yard” for gardeners beginning to tackle the project of transforming their yards, offering design ideas and what you need to get started.

Step two: Provide food. There is such a thing as a free lunch, and it’s happening in your yard! The landscape you plan for your space can provide food sources for animals all through the food chain, in a surprising variety of ways. This NWF guide offers a variety of environmentally friendly ideas for helping to feed your wild neighbors. Insects, berries, flowers, pollen, sap, nuts and seeds offer dining options for wildlife, along with the more obvious sources such as suet and feeders for hummingbirds, butterflies, birds and native bees.

As you make further changes, keep in mind the importance of native plants. Depending on your location and the amount of space you have, this could be everything from trees and bushes that supply nuts and berries, to flowers such as purple coneflower that provide edible seeds. Toni offers Ohio guides to plants that attract everything from hummingbirds to Ohio butterflies and Ohio songbirds. When you’re ready to buy plants, Toni has also provided this list of Ohio native plant suppliers. NWF recommends your yard provides three sources of food for wildlife in order to become certified.

Step three: Share water. Finding water is a daily challenge for wildlife. Although they can travel in search of a drink, the journey is often a dangerous one, and water sources can dry up or freeze depending on the season. You can help, though, by providing anything from a simple birdbath to running water and misting rocks to attract butterflies. In our cold winters, providing heated birdbaths can be critical. NWF offers different types of water sources to explore here.

Some tips to keep in mind when offering water: keep it fifteen feet from cover (to discourage hunting cats and hawks) and limit it to a safe depth (one to two inches) for birds. Toni also recommends changing water often and cleaning bird baths regularly to avoid spreading disease. NWF recommends your yard provide one source of water for wildlife in order to become certified.

Step four: Provide cover. While broad, flat expanses of green lawn might appeal to your inner croquet-player, this type of landscape doesn’t offer anything for native wildlife. Wildlife needs places to hide from predators and to take shelter from the elements. The good news is twofold: many native plants double as sources of food and cover, and wildlife isn’t picky about hiding places! Anything from dead trees and brush piles to underneath a leaf or rock will be eagerly inhabited by small wildlife looking for cover.

NWF recommends your yard provide two sources of cover for wildlife in order to become certified. This can include adorning your yard with the aforementioned brush pile or dead tree, to planting a native tree or shrub, to creating an entire forest edge complete with ground cover and trees of varying heights. You could even install a pond for your amphibious neighbors. Toni offers several ideas for cover here.

Step five: Provide a place to raise young. It’s a tough world out there, and a top priority for wild parents is securing a safe spot to raise a family. An important purpose of the wildlife certified habitat is helping wild creatures throughout their entire life cycles, from courtship and mating to bearing and raising their young, thereby ensuring that the next generations survives to keep populations healthy. Your yard should have at least two places for wildlife to raise their young in order to become certified.

Fortunately, in a theme that should be growing familiar by now, native plants often make excellent cover for parents to keep their young safe. Toni recommends native shrubs with thick branches and leaf growth. You can also construct or buy bird, bee and bat houses, and a water garden or pond with native plants offers cover for aquatic wildlife.

For the more advanced gardener, Toni suggests the following, “Pick the species you want in your yard, and provide the right home setting. I’m not a gardener, so I had to see it to believe it, and it actually worked!” Whether it’s a tree snag, or a chimney swift tower similar to this video, there are countless creative ways to offer cover to wild parents and their young. Look for different ideas and specifications for places for raise young here.

Step six: Sustainability. This means doing anything from controlling exotic, invasive plants to using organic products in your yard. For more information and ideas of how to practice sustainability in your yard maintenance, see these ideas from NWF. NWF requires at least one item from two of three categories. The categories are 1. soil and water conservation, 2. controlling exotic species and 3. organic practices. These practices will help you manage your habitat in a sustainable way to better help wildlife and you.

Step seven: Get certified! Now it’s time to pat yourself on the back and have your yard nationally recognized by the National Wildlife Federation. By filling out the online application and submitting it along with an application fee, you receive free benefits such as a year of the National Wildlife Magazine. You’ll also join the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, a national effort to restore habitat for the over 1,000 vertebrates (including birds and mammals) and 100,000 invertebrates (including insects such as bees and butterflies) that pollinate plants. Additionally, purchasing a sign and posting it will explain what you are doing and why and encourage others to do the same! By becoming certified, you’ll join the ranks of conscientious home gardeners who are taking the fate of our wild places, plants and creatures into their own hands.

Stay tuned for the final article in this series, which will look at the positive impact you may see as a result of your work. – Meredith Southard

An animal lover since she could shriek the word “doggie,” Meredith Southard has written for national and statewide publications on topics such as wildlife rehabilitation and rescue, conservation dogs, and the animals of Ohio’s wetlands. On warm spring nights she can be found traipsing around vernal pools with a flashlight, looking for salamanders and frogs.

Photo credit: Hummingbird pollinates Native Trumpet (or Coral) Honeysuckle Vine in a small Ohio city yard.