In these times of increased development, roadways, and the infrastructure of human civilization, natural habitats are on the decline and as a result, wildlife has suffered. The National Wildlife Federation asserts that loss of habitat is the single greatest threat to wildlife in the United States today. Luckily, all is not lost. Individual landowners can help by making their own backyards more ecologically friendly. That is not to say that everyone should revert his or her property into unkempt wilderness. Quite the contrary, a backyard habitat can be an intentional, controlled environment that possesses the qualities integral to the support of native wildlife. More than that, a backyard habitat can be adventurous, stylistic, and gardenesque. A backyard habitat can be a beautiful thing.
“Backyard Habitat” is a phrase used by organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation, Audobon Society, or Nature Conservancy. While many programs offer a certification for landowners, this is not necessary. The components of a successful backyard habitat include: food, water, cover, nursery (a place for wildlife to raise their young), and the establishment of ongoing ecologically sound landscape practice. An additional element that should be considered is the idea of habitat connectivity. That is, the integration of one backyard habitat into the larger ecology with emphasis on contiguous corridors for successful migration of species. In other words, an entire tract of contiguous backyard habitats is better than one.
When speaking of food for wildlife, one must consider the vast variety of species who will come to the backyard feast. A good variety of berries, nuts, seeds, forbs, twigs, grasses, sap, nectar, and pollen will cover a lot of bases. Supplemental feeders for birds, squirrels, and even butterflies will help to fill in the gaps. In terms of taking the gardenistic approach to animal feeding, covering the pollen and nectar department can be quite a colorful display. There are plenty of blooming perennials to choose from, and the blooming trees and shrubs will round out the display. Butterflies like brightly colored flowers (especially umbel-types) placed in the sun. (Check this link for more on butterflies.) In terms of berries, consider some of these beauties: Amelanchier canandensis, Aronia melanocarpa, Aralia racemosa, Cornus alternifolia, Juniperus virginiana, or Celastrus scandens (not to be confused with the invasive Oriental Bittersweet, Celastrus orbiculatus.) Beech trees, Fagus grandifolia, produce nuts that are a very important wildlife food. Squirrels, raccoons, bears, rodents, and game birds all enjoy its nut. Some other native nut-bearing trees include species of Quercus (oaks), Juglans(walnuts), Carya (hickories), Aesculus (buckeyeyes), and Castanea (chestnuts), to name a few. The choices are many, and the selection process is important. Make sure you do a thorough site analysis to determine the culture of your site, in order to make the best selection of plant.
Water is as necessary as food, and comes in many forms, from birdbaths to oceans. While most Vermonters won’t see much in the way of an oceanic backyard like our neighbors to the east, it is indeed a watery region. Whether or not ponds, streams, springs, wetlands, rivers, or lakes occur naturally on a property, water will surely fall from the sky at one point or another. Dealing with surface water run-off is a universal “problem” that can be turned into an attractive design feature and in the very least, a backyard habitat opportunity. Consider collecting water that sheds from impervious surfaces (roofs, walkways, paved roads) and directing them through a vegetated swale, or to a retention pond or rain garden. Not only will it be an attractive design move that can speak to the vernacular of the larger ecosystem, but it will be better for the cleanliness of the water and offer access to wildlife. Spring thaws can cause waterlogged lawns, but can also provide opportunity to create much need vernal pools. Wetlands are cherished, golden filters of the worlds’ water and homes to hosts of living species. Those who already have a wetland on their property should do their best to preserve it in its natural state. For those who already have quickly percolating soil and no standing water of which to speak, a birdbath or butterfly wading pool can be a nice ornament for you and a needed thirst quencher for many others.
Wildlife needs cover in the form of meadows, mature trees, brush, stone piles, thickets, caves, burrows, dead trees, evergreen trees, and in the very least bird or bat houses. Consider incorporating these ideas into the garden landscape. A dry-laid stone wall, for example, offers plenty of caverns and caves for rodents, insects, and small mammals to use. A wildflower meadow is a perfect place for small mammals, ground-nesting birds, insects, and the like to live. Large trees, evergreen or deciduous can be chosen for their aesthetic AND wildlife harboring qualities. Even thickets can be attractive and/or useful. Consider using the strikingly branched Cornus sericea, red-twigged dogwood, as a thicket. A large collection of Rubus occidentalis, black raspberry, will offer up a stunning scene in winter with its opalescent blue stems. It will provide berries for you and everyone else in summer. Have an existing snag in the backyard? Make it a wild garden feature. Plant it with native Clematis virginiana, Virgin’s bower. Don’t, however, bring in dead or dying trees from elsewhere. They can harbor dangerous insects or diseases that can spread to the outlying forests. If you need to put in something artificial, consider bird houses or bat boxes.
Everyone needs a place to raise his or her young, especially the wildlife. Conditions include: meadows, mature trees, wetlands, caves, host plants for caterpillars, snags, thickets, ponds, wetlands, and burrows. Caterpillars in particular need very specific conditions in which to thrive. The zebra swallowtail larvae, for example, prefers Asimina triloba or Paw Paw, a zone five fruit bearing tree native to North America. The Red and White Admirals like to eat black birches, black oaks, and wild cherries. The Acmon Blue eats milk vetch, lupines, and buckwheat. Click here for a link to a complete list of “Common Butterflies and the Plants their Caterpillars Eat.”
How one proceeds to care for his or her landscape is as important as its initial composition of course. Ecologically sustainable practice is integral to the health of the backyard habitat and the ecosystem as a whole. It can include composting, abstaining from pesticides, the removal of invasive species, the use of native species, dealing with rainwater, reusing water, reducing lawn areas and mowing, proper fertilizer use, controlling erosion, protecting waterways and wetlands, using drip irrigation, and practicing Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Planting a butterfly garden is no good, for example, if you then douse the plants with insecticide. Living with wildlife in your garden requires an adjustment to one’s understanding of “perfection.” As Joni Mitchell once sang, “Give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees.” Please.
For help with planning your backyard habitat, you might consider hiring a professional to walk you through the process of developing a Master Plan, conservation plan, exotic species removal plan, or even a native planting list. Many features of your particular site will impact the design, from soil type and quality to topography, geographic region, and neighboring land uses. No matter what you do, make sure to do a proper site evaluation before beginning the process of design.
Here are a few helpful links to get you started. Please feel free to comment, ask questions, and sign for the RSS feed (above left) or go to the Andromeda Facebook page and "like" us if you are interested in reading similar articles about gardening, homesteading, nature, and plants. Good luck with your own backyard habitat.
The photo, by the way, is of my own mother's backyard habitat. She, too is a garden designer named Liz Bowman (The Compleat Gardener) out of Lambertville, New Jersey. The link to the Goat Patrol, is listed below. It is owned and operated by my sister, Alix Bowman out of Durham, North Carolina.
Nature Conservancy of Vermont native plant list
National Wildlife Federation Backyard Habitat Certification program
Vermont rain garden manual
What butterflies eat
Exotic and invasive species list
Landowner's Guide to Invasive Terrestial Plant Management
Invasive Plant slide show
Voluntary Code of Conduct
Native plant species list
Native ground covers
Vermont nurseries that sell native plants
Native trees and shrubs that provide habitat for birds
Wetland plant lists and nursery
Windham County Conservation and Basin 11 Watershed
Vermont Fish and Wildlife invasive species list
Invasive Plant Atlas of New England