With our landscape radically altered by human activity, home gardeners have a real chance to help wildlife. By boosting insect populations through landscaping with native plants, you can design an outdoor space of any size—from a collection of flowerpots to an expanse of several acres—to attract wild creatures such as butterflies, birds, bees and more. The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) can even certify your yard as a wildlife habitat.
What can you expect after you transform your outdoor spaces from traditional to wildlife-friendly? Toni, a gardener in central Ohio, took the plunge and changed her typical suburban yard to an oasis for wildlife and sanctuary for herself. You can watch this You Tube video from her yard called Wildlife Habitat Visitors to get a taste of living in a wildlife-friendly yard. Read on to learn about what sorts of benefits both you and wildlife may reap.
Benefits for humans
As you stop applying chemicals and replace non-native plants with natives, one concern you may have is its impact on your neighbors. The good news is that the beauty of native plants, and the variety of Ohio birds and butterflies, will win over just about anyone. As Toni says, “It’s got great curb appeal.”
Toni describes the impact of her yard as universally positive. “People think it’s beautiful,” she says, and tell her that the air in her yard smells better. Passersby pause to admire the yard and to read the NWF certified sign. Drivers stop and roll down their windows to share their admiration. When a roofing company came to do work on her house, one roofer told her “Wow, your yard is so beautiful,” and another shared his almost childlike excitement over spotting a hummingbird.
For Toni, her wildlife-friendly yard offers a peaceful oasis. “On a summer night,” she says, “the relaxing wildlife sounds make me feel like I’m living in a park. I’ve read many studies about the positive effects of natural surroundings on people’s health, and I can believe it. Just to turn the corner and see the yard lowers my blood pressure.”
Benefits for wildlife
Part of the appeal of Toni’s yard is the dazzling diversity of wildlife that it draws. For instance, she increased the different kinds of butterflies in her yard from 2 to 34 in only three years, including the breathtaking Giant Swallowtail, the largest butterfly in Ohio. In a 2007 study comparing her chemical-free property to a neighboring one that uses chemical fertilizers and pesticides, Toni found that her property showed over three times as many firefly blinks. It also hosted 16 species of birds versus 6 species in a 20-minute period. The bird counts were done at the same time by two people watching the yards from across the street with binoculars.
Attracting the wildlife you’d like to see
Do you envision your yard buzzing with ruby-throated hummingbirds? Would you like your garden to be visited by a stunning variety of bees and butterflies? The How Do I Do This? tab on Toni’s website offers a variety of guides for attracting creatures ranging from hummingbirds to bats that eat mosquitoes at night.
For instance, while many people enjoy seeing robins and cardinals in their yards, you can attract more unusual birds by creating a forest edge. A forest edge is a vertical design that incorporates tall trees such as the wild black cherry tree, smaller plantings such as spicebush, and groundcover such as Virginia creeper. Toni spotted birds such as a Red-bellied Woodpecker and a migrating Ovenbird in her newly “forested” yard.
You may find that your appreciation for ever humbler species grows as you spend more time in your garden. Toni describes her initial admiration being for the birds that flocked to her yard. Gradually, her appreciation grew to include butterflies and dragonflies, and finally even the tiny, beneficial insects she found in the ground under rocks.
Bear in mind that you control the design of your wildlife-friendly habitat. It can be as wild and rugged as you like—or as tidy as a traditional English garden. Landscaping with native plants lessens the time you must spend caring for them, giving you even more time to observe the life in the mini-ecosystem your yard sustains. Toni advises, “Be sure to take before and after photos of your yard from the same angle each year to see how things grow and flourish.”
Time for a wildlife roll call
One way to truly understand the impact that your actions have for wildlife is to learn the names of the visitors to and residents of your yard. To get you started, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife offers free beginner guides. To view the guides online, click on “Identification Guides” on the ODNR website, or order free print versions to keep by the window and carry with you by calling 1-800-WILDLIFE.
If you’d like to take your wildlife viewing a step further, using binoculars and cameras would be great additions. You can keep a list of all the species you see in your yard. “It’s exciting when I see something new that I didn’t have on the list before, and I can watch the species count grow,” Toni says. “I feel proud that I am helping more kinds of wildlife.”
She advocates deciding at the beginning what kind of wildlife you want to see on your list. Do you want to track the number of bird species? Butterflies? Toni recommends paying special attention to bioindicator species—those that are sensitive to chemical pollution, and whose presence thus indicates a healthy ecosystem. Examples are worms, frogs and toads, which absorb chemicals through their skin.
Finally, though it’s fairly simple to maintain a wildlife-friendly yard, Toni has created a monthly email newsletter with timely reminders for each month in Ohio. It also contains links to events and current nature news in case you want to learn more about a particular topic. It’s called Nature Scoop,and you can sign up to receive it here.
Through the years, as your yard recovers from previous chemical treatments and grows lush with native plants, the variety of wild species that visit will grow as well. Whether your space is big or small, transforming it into a wildlife habitat is truly a gift to these wild neighbors. And for the humans who enjoy viewing wildlife, and are also dependent on the ecosystem that supports us all, the benefits are priceless. – 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.