Create a Certified Wildlife Habitat in Your Garden

Common checkered skipper butterfly

Gardening is not just a way to grow fresh food and pretty flowers, but also an opportunity to create a thriving wildlife habitat in your backyard. With the decline in insect and wildlife populations and the loss of habitat across America, it has become more important than ever to take action and create spaces that support biodiversity.

One way I have been able to achieve that in my own garden is by following the steps to certify my garden as a wildlife habitat through the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife certification program.

When I started a garden in my suburban backyard in 2010 with my husband and daughter, our goal was to grow a few tomato and pepper plants. As the years went by and we expanded the garden to include herbs, flowers, trees, and shrubs, and we began to eliminate chemical inputs, we started to notice an increase in beneficial insect populations and the arrival of toads and more bird species.

It was that noticeable increase in biodiversity that encouraged me to keep doing more. The National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife certification program served as a template and a checklist to help guide me.

These are the five steps I took to certify my garden as a wildlife habitat. You too can complete these steps to create a refuge for nature in your area.

Wildlife habitat sign for a bird friendly garden
Certifying your garden or landscape as a certified wildlife habitat is a great way to display your commitment to ecological gardening.

Step 1: Food - Adding Native Plants

I began to see the importance of growing plants not just for us to eat but to provide food for the local insects and wildlife too. That’s the first essential element of a wildlife habitat garden: providing food for the diverse range of creatures that depend on it. Native plants play a crucial role in supporting wildlife by offering a source of natural food through berries, seeds, nuts, nectar, or foliage.

Plants that are native to your ecoregion have evolved alongside your local wildlife and provide the necessary nutrients for their survival. By incorporating a variety of native plants into your garden, you can attract a wide array of birds, butterflies, bees, and other pollinators.

If just half of privately-owned lawns in America were converted to native plantings, it would equal 20 million acres. That would go a long way toward making a significant contribution to conserving and protecting our regional wildlife and plant life.

Native Plants: A Feast for Wildlife

Native plants are the backbone of a wildlife-friendly garden since they have co-evolved with local wildlife. That doesn’t mean you have to go out and dig up all your non-native plants. I still have lots of non-native flowers like zinnia, tithonia, and sedum that feed tons of pollinators. And many of my herbs like rue, dill, and parsley serve as both nectar and host plants for many swallowtail butterflies. 

But I’ve also added native species to the mix, to further create an ecosystem that fosters a diverse range of wildlife. Below are just a few of the plants native to my region that I have either intentionally grown or that have begun to grow on their own in my garden. 

Milkweed (Asclepias):

Milkweed is a vital host plant for monarch butterflies. By planting milkweed in your garden, you can provide a crucial food source for monarch caterpillars and support their population. There are a lot of milkweed varieties to choose from so it’s best to pick those that are native to your area. A native one that I grow is Asclepias tuberosa known as butterfly weed. It feeds monarch caterpillars, has bright orange flowers that bees adore, and the milkweed bug also feeds on the seed heads.

Asclepias tuberosa orange flowers
Asclepias tuberosa commonly known as butterfly weed is one of the varieties of milkweed I grow in my garden to support Monarchs and other insects.
Goldenrod (Solidago):

Goldenrod is a late-season bloomer that provides nectar for migrating monarch butterflies and other pollinators. You’ll find it growing wild in meadows and in ditches. Its vibrant yellow flowers can also add a splash of color to your garden. Plant goldenrod alongside purple asters for a stunning fall display that rivals any mums you can find at the local box store.

I love to incorporate meadow plants in the garden. Goldenrod serves as an important food source in the late-season diet of bees.
Coneflowers (Echinacea):

Echinacea flowers feed bumble bees and other pollinators when in bloom. Then they produce seeds that attract a variety of birds, including finches and sparrows. These birds feed on the seeds, helping to disperse them and promote plant growth. I once found my echinacea covered in caterpillars and learned that it serves as a host plant for the Silvery Checkerspot butterfly and several moths as well.

Echinacea serves as a nectar plant, host plant, and provides seeds for birds in winter.
Eastern Redbud Tree:

Right around the time we built the first backyard garden beds, we planted an Eastern redbud tree which is a native tree in Oklahoma. It flowers bright pink blossoms in early spring and feeds bees when little else is blooming. Once the flowers turn into seed pods and it puts on its dark green heart shaped leaves, our local birds seek shelter and shade in its branches. The redbud now serves as the centerpiece of the garden.

Bumble bee on redbud blossom
The Eastern redbud blooms bright pink in early spring feeding bumblebees and other pollinators when other nectar sources are scarce.
New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae):

A wide variety of moth caterpillars use aster plants as hosts. Butterfly caterpillars that feed on asters include Silvery Checkerspots, Pearl Crescents, and Painted Ladies. Many species of butterflies will visit asters for nectar, along with various bees. We have a few aster shrubs in our garden that bloom in fall and are covered daily in a variety of pollinators. Green lynx spiders also hang out on the aster flowers and hunt for prey.

New England Aster
This aster bush is a powerhouse of a plant, especially when it blooms in fall. Once those tiny purple daisies open up, it's covered in insects.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin):

This is one of our favorite native plants because it serves as a host plant for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly caterpillar. I wrote an entire article on this plant with photos of the spicebush swallowtail caterpillar and its remarkable mimicry adaptations here.

Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar in a rolled leaf
One of the joys of gardening is providing host plants like spicebush. This allows you to see and observe the incredible lifecycle of butterflies like the spicebush swallowtail.
Pokeberry (Phytolacca americana):

Where I grew up in the country, pokeberry was abundant. So when it began to grow wild in my garden and on the perimeters of my lawn, I recognized it like an old friend. The berries are eaten by a variety of bird species which likely deposited the seeds on my property. Additionally, its flowers serve as a nectar source for pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. It is a toxic plant that many gardeners would consider a weed to eradicate from their landscape. However, my dog doesn’t try to eat it (she’s too busy with the tomatoes) and I don’t have small children so I let it grow and provide beauty and wildlife benefits to my landscape.

I love that pokeberry grows wild in my garden and landscape. It serves as a fall and winter food source for some mammals and many birds, plus I also think it's a beautiful plant. Look at those hot pink stems and branches!
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium):

As a passionate herb gardener, I’m delighted that one of my favorite herbs is also beneficial for a wildlife habitat. While not technically native to my area, yarrow grows wild in fields and meadows in my region. I planted yarrow years ago in my garden and since then it has popped up in various places around the lawn and raised beds. Its abundant white flowers attract all kinds of native bees as well as beetles and butterflies. And it has a lovely soft feathery foliage that can be incorporated into a natural lawn.

Yarrow plant in bloom
Not only is yarrow a medicinal herb but it provides a nectar source for pollinators and is a lovely ornamental plant to have in the garden.
Blanket Flower (Gaillardia pulchella):

Gaillardia commonly known as Blanketflower or Fire Wheel, is the stunning state wildflower of Oklahoma. This native species not only serves as a beautiful garden plant but also provides numerous benefits for wildlife. The vibrant flowers of gaillardia are highly attractive to pollinators, including bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects. I’ve noticed that both bumblebees and metallic green sweat bees adore Blanketflower. It also serves as a host plant for the painted schinia moth.

blanket flower
This bumblebee has been collecting and storing pollen from this blanketflower and others. Check out those pollen baskets on her legs!
Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia):

Rudbeckia, commonly known as black-eyed Susan, is a native wildflower that attracts pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and birds, serving as a valuable nectar source. Additionally, the plant’s seeds are often consumed by birds and small mammals. It also serves as a larval host for Silvery Checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis) and Bordered Patch (Chlosyne lacinia) butterfly caterpillars.

Black-eyed Susan is a stunning addition to an flower garden. Like echinacea, it provides pollen, seeds, and serves as a host plant.

Supplementary Feeders for Wildlife

While native plants form the foundation of a wildlife habitat garden, supplementary feeders can help provide additional nourishment for wildlife. Bird feeders filled with seeds and suet can attract a wide range of bird species, including cardinals, woodpeckers, and bluebirds and help to keep birds fed in winter. Hummingbird feeders filled with nectar can also attract these tiny, colorful birds to your garden. We’ve also had Baltimore Orioles visit our hummingbird feeds. Remember to clean and refill feeders regularly to prevent the spread of disease.

A Baltimore oriole
One year, Baltimore orioles discovered our hummingbird feeders.

Step 2: Water - A Lifesaver for Wildlife

Water is an essential resource for all living creatures, and providing a water source in your garden can attract a variety of wildlife. From birds and butterflies to amphibians and mammals, many species rely on water for drinking, bathing, and reproduction. By incorporating water features into your garden, you can create a welcoming environment for wildlife.

Birdbaths and Water Dishes

Birdbaths are a popular choice for providing water to birds. Choose a shallow birdbath with a rough surface to ensure birds can grip the edges while they drink or bathe. Make sure to clean and refill the birdbath regularly to prevent the buildup of algae and bacteria. Consider adding a small water dish at ground level for small mammals and insects to access water easily.

Ponds and Water Gardens for Wildlife Habitat

If you have space in your garden, consider creating a pond or water garden. Ponds provide a habitat for aquatic plants, insects, dragonflies, and amphibians, attracting a wide range of wildlife. Native aquatic plants, such as water lilies and water irises, not only add beauty to your garden but also provide shelter and food for aquatic creatures. Ensure your pond has shallow areas, sloping sides, and a variety of submerged and emergent plants to support a diverse ecosystem.

We added a small pond to our garden several years ago and it’s been one of the most enjoyable additions we’ve made to our property. It has served as a habitat for leopard frogs and bullfrogs, a place for toads to cool off, and a gathering spot for tree frogs to sing at night.

We added duckweed to the water in the first year and it has returned every year after. It completely covers the water’s surface which shades the water in the heat of summer and provides cover for frogs to hide from snakes and birds of prey.

A young frog on a leaf
Add a small pond or ground-level water source to your garden to attract and support frogs.

Step 3: Cover - Shelter from the Elements

Wildlife needs shelter to protect themselves from harsh weather conditions and predators. By providing various types of cover in your garden, you can create safe havens for wildlife to seek refuge. Cover can come in many forms, including trees, shrubs, grasses, and even brush piles.

Trees and Shrubs

Planting trees and shrubs in your garden creates vertical structure and provides shelter for birds and small mammals. Evergreen trees, such as pine and spruce, offer year-round cover and protection from the elements.

Deciduous trees, like oak and maple, provide shade and cover during the summer months, as well as nesting sites for birds. We have several small to medium sized trees and shrubs and have found bird nests in them each year.

Fledgling bluebird in a tree
Trees and shrubs are an important part of an ecological garden and wildlife habitat.
Grasses and Brush Piles Create Wildlife Habitat

Grasses and tall perennials, such as switchgrass and big bluestem, offer excellent cover for ground-dwelling wildlife. These plants provide hiding places for small mammals, reptiles, and insects.

Creating brush piles with fallen branches and leaves can also provide shelter for a variety of creatures, including birds, reptiles, and beneficial insects.

I’ve been amazed at how something as simple as a brush pile can become its own tiny ecosystem. Our brush pile consists of garden debris, tree limbs, and shrub branches gathered after pruning. Pokeweed and wild flowers grow all around it giving it additional food options. 

In winter it’s covered in birds eating seeds and seeking shelter. Bunnies and small mice nest under it in spring. Lizards hunt in the branches during summer no doubt eating up a lot of the insects that utilize the dead and decaying wood as places to nest.

brush pile surrounded by wildflowers
In one corner of our side yard, we keep a brush pile that serves as shelter and a food source for a variety of wildlife.
Moist Loose Soil

I am including this as a shelter element because of the many toads we have in the garden. Toads need dark, damp soil in the shade to burrow down in, especially to stay cool in the hottest part of summer and to hide from predators. Toads also hide out under structures. We elevate grow bags and pots a couple of inches off the ground for them to hide under and take shelter in the cool soil that stays wet from watering the containers. There are lots of ways you can create what we call “toad abodes” in the garden.

Garden toad in loose soil
This is a common site in spring and early summer in the garden. Toads dig backwards into damp cool soil to bury themselves creating their summer home in the garden.

Step 4: Places to Raise Young - Nurturing New Life

Creating an environment that supports the reproduction and growth of wildlife is an essential aspect of a wildlife habitat garden. By providing resources for nesting, breeding, and raising young, you can help sustain local populations of birds, butterflies, and other wildlife.

Nesting Boxes and Birdhouses

Installing nesting boxes and birdhouses in your garden can provide critical nesting sites for cavity-nesting birds. Different species have varying preferences for the size and shape of nest boxes, so research the specific requirements of the birds in your area. Place nest boxes in appropriate locations, such as near trees or shrubs, and ensure they are protected from predators. We learned the hard way that nesting boxes are a prime target for rat snakes. We’ve added snake baffles and cages to help with that.

nesting box with snake baffle and cage
After witnessing snakes enter one of the nesting boxes, we are experimenting with fortifications such as entry cages and snake baffles.
Butterfly Host Plants

Butterflies have specific host plants on which they lay their eggs, and their caterpillars feed exclusively on these plants. By including host plants in your garden, you can create an ideal environment for butterflies to complete their life cycles. For example, planting milkweed attracts monarch butterflies, as it is their sole host plant. Research the host plants for the butterfly species in your region and include them in your garden to support their populations.

monarch caterpillar on milkweed
Lots of milkweed in the garden provides food for the Monarchs that pass through during the annual migration.
Places for Cavity and Ground Nesting Bees and Insects

One of my biggest wildlife habitat goals is to foster insect biodiversity. Insects are an important part of a balanced ecosystem.

In addition to pollination services, insects feed birds, reptiles, and amphibians in the garden. But they also eat each other which can be beneficial to any gardener looking for an eco-friendly way to manage pests. Insect numbers are declining which means their essential ecosystem services and those important interactions with other insect species declines as well.

Many important pollinators like solitary bees and wasps nest in cavities or in the ground. Bee species like leafcutters and mason bees need hollow stems and cavities in dead wood or brush piles.

Where possible, allow dead trees to remain in the landscape or add dead logs to habitat areas. Commercial and backyard “insect hotels” and manmade bamboo cavities are available but require maintenance to limit the spread of disease and mites. We refrain from intensively cleaning up the garden in fall and instead leave plants with pithy hollow stems that can provide habitat for small bees and other cavity nesting insects.

leaf cuter bee on nesting holes
Solitary bees like this leafcutter don't nest in hives. They need cavities to deposit their eggs and keep them safe.
Leaf Piles

Rather than raking or blowing the leaves into piles in autumn, we leave our fall leaves where they fall. They gather at the base of trees where they can decay naturally and feed the trees. They also land in our vegetable and flower beds. We do collect bagged leaves from others who choose not to leave the leaves and dump them out in a corner of the garden. This allows any insects in those leaves to overwinter and continue their lifecycle in our garden. The leaf piles also serve as nesting sites for a variety of reptiles. As an added bonus, the piles turn into leaf mold which makes an incredible soil amendment and mulch in the spring.

Wildlife-Friendly Landscaping

Creating a diverse landscape with a variety of plant heights, textures, and structures can provide hiding places, nesting sites, and food sources for wildlife. Incorporate layers in your garden design, such as tall trees, shrubs, grasses, and groundcover, to create a multi-dimensional habitat. Avoid the use of pesticides and herbicides, as they can harm beneficial insects and other wildlife. We also practice no-till gardening as much as possible. Tilling can disrupt the soil food web but also destroy insect nesting cavities.

fallen leaves
Fallen leaves left in place provide habitat for overwintering insects to complete their life cycle in spring.

Step 5: Sustainable Practices - Caring for the Environment

Maintaining a wildlife habitat garden goes beyond the design and creation phase. It involves adopting sustainable practices that promote a healthy ecosystem and minimize negative impacts on the environment. By implementing sustainable gardening techniques, you can ensure the long-term success of your wildlife habitat.

Organic Gardening

I embraced organic gardening practices early on. I kept all the harmful sprays out of the garden and away from the food I was growing, but didn’t think about all the chemical inputs being added to my lawn.

To make matters worse, our exterminator service was spraying insecticides all around the outside perimeters of our home specifically targeting spiders and wasps which both play important ecological roles.

Once we removed those chemical services, toads began to arrive in great numbers and over the years the insect population has continued to increase.

One of those insects is wasps. Wasps are both pollinators and predators so they play an important role in the ecosystem and most don’t sting or pose any danger to us.

All chemicals whether organic or not have the potential to harm wildlife and disrupt the delicate balance of the ecosystem. Instead, I focus on natural alternatives, such as composting to feed the soil, using organic fertilizers only occasionally, and supporting beneficial and predatory insects to help keep pests in balance.

fraternal potter wasp on mint flower
A diverse variety of wasps have become a welcome addition to my ecological garden, including this fraternal potter wasp.
Water Conservation

Conserving water is crucial, especially in areas prone to drought or water scarcity. Implement water-saving techniques, such as installing rain barrels to collect rainwater for irrigation or using drip irrigation systems to minimize water waste. Grouping plants with similar water needs together can also help optimize water usage.

Even though we use soaker hoses on our raised beds and apply mulch to keep soil moist in between waterings, water conservation is one area where we know we can do better. Water catchment and possibly even a sand point are on our short term list of improvements to add to the garden. In a hot area like Oklahoma that can experience long periods without rain and weeks of triple digit temperatures, keeping water waste in check is a challenge.

Soil Health

Maintaining healthy soil is key to the success of any garden. We make our own compost which adds organic matter to the soil and keeps food scraps out of the landfill. But we also supplement with store bought organic compost when needed. Natural mulches like leaves and straw help to retain soil moisture, suppress weeds, and provide nutrients for plants.

We avoid excessive tilling of our soil unless it has become too compacted to work in. Tilling and frequent turning of the soil disrupts the soil ecosystem and can lead to erosion and soil compaction. I also practice crop rotation of vegetables as much as I can to help cut down on pests and disease. I use fertilizer sparingly. Compost and the natural breakdown of mulch seems to provide most of the nutrients the soil needs. Cover cropping can also be used to enhance soil fertility.

Wildlife Habitat Certification and Community

By following these five steps and creating a wildlife habitat garden, you are making a significant contribution to conserving and protecting natural resources, increasing native plant diversity, and fostering insect survival.

Certification programs like the Garden for Wildlife program serve as a helpful template and checklist to follow. In addition, you join a community of like-minded individuals who are committed to creating havens for wildlife.

Pollinator pathway sign
There are a number of programs that have guides, checklists, and certification programs you can follow to support wildlife in your garden.

Other Programs and Resources

Recently I cohosted The joe gardener® Show podcast with my boss, Joe Lamp’l where we laid out a 10 step blueprint for ecological gardening. In that discussion we expanded on many of the actions and concepts I’ve written about in this article. You can listen to that conversation here.

There are also other organizations that are leading the charge in this area and also offer guides for creating an eco-friendly garden and landscape.

Homegrown National Park is a non-profit created by Doug Tallamy with the goal of planting native plants on at least 20 million acres in the US. They are doing this by mobilizing individual homeowners, property owners, land managers, farmers, and anyone with some soil to grow more native plants and remove invasive plants. You can create an account, log your native plants and get on the map on their website.

The Pollinator Pathway is another project I’ve joined. This volunteer organization seeks to create a pollinator corridor and has a list of ways property owners can “rethink their lawn.” You can register and purchase your sign for display here.

The Pollinator Partnership has a Pollinator Steward Certification with an educational component to it. Its steps for certification include a 9-part virtual training module and a habitat creation project. You can learn more about The Pollinator Partnership here.

By certifying your garden as a wildlife habitat, or joining one of the other initiatives listed above, you are creating a sanctuary for nature. And by displaying the organization’s sign in your lawn or garden, you just might also inspire neighbors to take action, or at least start a conversation.

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Cultivating Nature's Wisdom

I’m a nature photographer and gardener sharing how I created an ecological garden in a small suburban backyard. I also share a few tips for growing and using herbs to craft your own homegrown spice blends.

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