Include wildlife in your garden plans

Published 8:43 pm Tuesday, March 10, 2015

By Susan and Biff Andrews

While we are waiting for spring, let’s think about our yards and gardens … and warm sunshine … and nature.

It’s one of the first signs that spring is surely coming: The seed catalogs have arrived.

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Many of you are already dreaming of gorgeous flower and vegetable gardens and thinking about landscaping plans. Birds and other wildlife can figure into those plans, and you can create a natural habitat that supports wildlife diversity right in your own back yard.

Wildlife is suffering because of the constant pressure of habitat loss due to housing developments, highways, shopping centers and industrial parks. What used to be slow changes to the natural environment are becoming fast and furious in our area.

Natural areas that have a many-storied environment of trees, shrubs and undergrowth are being cleared for housing developments that focus on tidy lawns and bits of landscaping with non-native plants.

This is a disaster for the wildlife that once thrived among a variety of different native plant species. They must compete to find another suitable habitat in ever-shrinking and -stressed natural areas that still remain.

Even if you have a small yard, you can make a difference in the lives of songbirds, mammals, amphibians and a diverse array of wildlife. Your yard, no matter what the size, can become a wildlife sanctuary with some thought toward what type you would like to attract and a little planning.

Even though we may not be able to slow the development that is displacing wildlife from their natural homes, we can ease the pressure by providing alternative accommodations aimed at their specific needs.

All wildlife requires the same basic elements: enough food and water to sustain the population through out the year, shelter from the elements and predators, and enough space to find a mate, breed and successfully raise their young. The specifics come into the equation when planning for a certain type of wildlife.

It could be a butterfly garden with many brightly colored types of nectar-producing flowers. You might attract some hummingbirds, and honeybees to do some pollinating, as well! You may want to attract songbirds with a variety of trees and shrubs that provide food, shelter and nesting opportunities.

Many evergreen species of trees and shrubs offer year round shelter to a variety of small woodland creatures. Native plants are naturally best for supporting native wildlife.

Thinking about the multi-storied plant structure found in the natural environment will help you plan your backyard habitat. In nature, tall trees form a canopy, and mid-size trees, like dogwoods and berry-producing shrubs, form the understory. Ground covers, grasses and flowers make up the herbaceous bottom layer.

Wildlife is attracted to a multi-level plant structure for food, shelter and forage. Have shrubs leading to small trees alongside larger trees that form clusters and multi-levels.

Most yards tend to have tall trees and broad expanses of lawn that don’t offer much to support wildlife. They are sorely lacking in the important wildlife sustaining middle and lower layers. Diversity in landscape is important, because some plants provide food but not much cover, and others provide cover but little food.

Plant near sources of water or provide a water feature to an area you have planted. Removing the saucer from the birdbath and placing it in a depression made in the ground will attract small, insect loving amphibians to your garden. Be sure to clean it out at least once a week to avoid mosquitoes.

It doesn’t matter if you like a very formal garden or a more natural setting. You can still provide a habitat for wildlife. If you like a really tidy garden, unruly native vines like trumpet vine and honeysuckle can be trained into compact shapes or confined to trellises. If you can tolerate things a little less formal, leave a little leaf litter or a brush pile in a suitable location.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries sponsors Habitat At Home where you can certify your yard as a home habitat. Visit for an application.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at