Beginner’s Guide to Gardening for Wildlife with Native Plants
Gardening isn't just about creating a beautiful outdoor space; it's an opportunity to connect with nature and make a positive impact on the environment. If you're a beginner looking to start a garden that’s not only beautiful but also supports your local birds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators, then wildlife gardening with native plants is the perfect choice. In this comprehensive guide, we'll explore the exciting world of wildlife gardening and how native plants can help you get started on this rewarding journey.
What is Wildlife Gardening?
Wildlife gardening is a special way of gardening that aims to create a habitat that attracts and supports local wildlife. It's about cultivating a space where birds, butterflies, bees, and other creatures can find the food, water, cover, and places to raise young so their species’ can survive. they need to survive. By embracing wildlife gardening, you can play a crucial role in conserving native species and enhancing the ecological health of your city, town or neighborhood. It’s the perfect way to “think globally, act locally.”
The Benefits of Wildlife Gardening with Native Plants
There are numerous advantages to choosing native plants for your wildlife garden:
Supporting Biodiversity: Native plants are at the base of the food web that supports a diversity of animal species. Native plants and native wildlife have co-evolved together over thousands of years, like two pieces of a puzzle. Without native plants, many wildlife species would disappear. When you plant native species, you help sustain the web of life in your area that’s disappearing because of human activities.
Wildlife Habitat: Native plants offer a variety of resources for wildlife. Wildflowers provide nectar to butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and other pollinators. Birds and mammals shelter and give birth to the next generation in the branches of trees and shrubs. Caterpillars feed on native plants, ensuring the next generation of butterflies and moths, which in turn feed the birds.
Low Maintenance: Native plants are well-suited to their local environments because they evolved there, which means they generally require less care than non-native species once they get established in the garden. They're adapted to the soil, climate, and weather conditions of your region, reducing the need for water, fertilizer, and pest control.
Water Conservation: As native plants have evolved to thrive in local conditions, they typically don’t require extra watering once established. This can lead to significant water savings in your garden, contributing to sustainable gardening practices.
Vegetable Gardens: Many native plants are particularly attractive to pollinators, including bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. By planting natives, you create a welcoming environment for these essential insects, which also play a crucial role in pollinating our food garden plants from tomatoes to peppers to squash.
Education and Enjoyment: Wildlife gardening provides an excellent opportunity for learning and enjoyment. Observing the various creatures that visit your garden can be a fascinating and educational experience, especially for children. It connects you to the natural world right outside your door.
Is Wildlife Gardening Hard?
Wildlife gardening isn’t harder than any other type of gardening, and its difficulty level largely depends on your goals and the effort you want to invest. There are some factors to consider as you begin.
Garden Size: The size of your garden or outdoor space is a significant factor in planning your wildlife garden. Smaller spaces are easier to plan, but are more limited on the features you can include. Larger spaces offer more opportunities but require more work to create. If you have a large space, consider focusing on one area and starting small if it seems overwhelming.
Plant Selection: Planning any gardening involves choosing the right plants for your space, and wildlife gardening is no different. Understanding the light conditions, soil types and moisture levels is key to picking the right plants. When it comes to wildlife gardening, the most important thing is choosing native plants, and then picking species that will thrive in your specific garden conditions.
Design and Planning: Any garden space can benefit from some though put into planning an overall design and goals. Many wildlife habitat gardens have a natural, wild design, but they can’t be more tidy and organized if that’s your preference, as long as there are plenty of native plants. Think about other features you’d like to include, such as a birdbath, garden decor or a place to sit in the garden and enjoy it.
Maintenance: Wildlife gardens, like any garden, do require some maintenance. However, in native plant gardens, the bulk of the effort is in the beginning and is mostly focused on weeding and watering. Once your native plants are established and growing, the need for weeding and watering is significantly reduced.
Learning Curve: If you're new to wildlife gardening, there might be a learning curve as you become familiar with the needs of local wildlife and how different native plants can support them. However, there are plenty of resources available to help you learn and adapt.
Patience: Creating a thriving wildlife garden may take time. It can take a few seasons for your garden to become established and attract a diverse range of wildlife. Patience is a key attribute for wildlife gardeners.
Wildlife Observations: Part of the joy of wildlife gardening is observing the various creatures that visit your garden. There’s one guarantee when you garden with native plants: if you plant them, the wildlife will come!
As you gain experience and knowledge, the maintenance and management of your wildlife garden become more intuitive and enjoyable. Don't be discouraged by the potential challenges; instead, view them as opportunities to grow and learn alongside your garden on your journey toward creating a thriving wildlife-friendly space.
10 Steps to Wildlife Gardening with Native Plants
1. Research Your Local Ecosystem
Now that you understand the benefits of wildlife gardening with native plants, let's explore how to get started:
Begin by researching the native plants and wildlife in your area. Local botanical gardens, nature centers, wildlife organizations,books and online resources can provide valuable information. Identify which native species are suitable for your garden and the specific wildlife you want to attract.2. Assess Your Garden's Conditions
Evaluate your garden's specific conditions, including sunlight, soil type, and moisture levels. This information will help you select native plants that will thrive in your garden.3. Plan Your Garden Design
Consider the layout and design of your wildlife garden. Plan for a variety of plant types, including trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses. Diversity in plant selection will attract a broader range of wildlife. Note where you’ll place features like pathways or sitting areas.4. Prepare Your Site
Before planting, prepare by removing any non-native plants and other weeds. Remove rocks from the soil that make digging difficult and outline garden beds and pathways with a garden hose before digging an edge to define them.5. Choose Native Plants
Select native plants that match your garden's conditions and design, like the amount of sunlight and water your chosen area receives. There are native plants that will thrive in just about any growing condition, from dry shade to full sun to wet soil. Choose species that provide nectar, seeds, berries, and foliage that wildlife can use as food throughout the seasons.6. Plant Carefully
Plant your native plants at the appropriate depth and spacing, following the planting instructions provided for each species. Consider the design and flow of your space. Use plants of varying height for more interest. Water them thoroughly after planting to help them establish their roots.7. Mulch and Weed Control
Apply a layer of mulch around your native plants to help conserve moisture, suppress weeds, and maintain a tidy appearance. Keep an eye on weeds and remove them promptly to prevent competition for resources. If you plant densely, eventually the native plants will fully cover the soil, suppressing weeds all on their own.8. Water Wisely
During the establishment phase, water your native plants as needed to keep the soil consistently moist. Once they are established, reduce watering to a level that aligns with their specific needs and local rainfall patterns. In most cases, unless there’s a severe drought, you won’t need to water once your plants get established after a few months.9. Provide Wildlife Features
Consider adding features such as birdhouses, bird feeders, and birdbaths to enhance the wildlife-friendliness of your garden. These features can attract a wider range of birds and other creatures. If you have native plants and a water source like a bird bath, you're ready to apply to be a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat.10. Monitor and Maintain
Regularly monitor your wildlife garden for signs of wildlife activity, plant health, and potential issues. Keep a journal or take photographs to document the species you observe. Maintenance tasks may include pruning, weeding, and replacing plants as needed.
Easy Care Native Plants for Beginners
It depends on where you live, but native plants are always your best option. Here are some popular native plant species with wide natural ranges that are relatively easy to grow and maintain, making them excellent choices for beginners interested in wildlife gardening:
Known for its stunning purple-pink flowers, this native perennial attracts pollinators like bees and butterflies and provides seeds for birds.
Black-eyed Susans are cheerful yellow wildflowers that thrive in a variety of soil conditions, making them a versatile choice for attracting pollinators and seed-eating birds.
This plant is a magnet for butterflies, especially monarchs. It features vibrant orange flowers and serves as a host plant for monarch butterfly caterpillars.
This tall, pink-flowering perennial attracts a variety of pollinators, including butterflies and bees, and offers seeds for birds in the fall.
Tips for a Thriving Wildlife Garden
Here are some additional tips for creating a wildlife-friendly garden with native plants:
Skip The Pesticides
Native plants have evolved alongside local wildlife, and they often possess natural defenses against local pests and diseases. Introducing pesticides can disrupt the delicate ecological balance within the ecosystem. These substances can harm not only pests but also beneficial insects like pollinators and natural predators that play a crucial role in controlling pests naturally. Additionally, pesticides can contaminate the soil, water, and plants, negatively affecting the wildlife that relies on these resources. Be sure to use organic practices in your new wildlife garden.
Just Add Water
A water feature is a vital resource for various species, making your garden a focal point for wildlife activity. From drinking to bathing to breeding, birds, mammals, amphibians and more can make use of water sources.
Insects are also drawn to water sources, contributing to the overall health of your garden's ecosystem. Providing a water feature for wildlife will create a welcoming environment for these creatures, fostering a rich and diverse habitat.
While there are many options for water features to support wildlife. A bird bath is a great start! Be sure to clean it regularly for your wildlife visitors. You may even already have everything you need for a butterfly puddling station reusing old materials.
Leave The Leaves
Leaving fallen leaves in your garden benefits wildlife by providing essential habitat. Fallen leaves create shelter for insects, amphibians, and small mammals. Many butterflies, moths and bumble bee queens overwinter in the fallen leaf layer. Those insects are pollinators and also food source for other wildlife, notably backyard birds. Use fallen leaves as a natural mulch in your garden bed, where they’ll suppress weeds, retain soil moisture and enrich the soil at the root zone of your plants as they naturally compost. Leaving your leaves is a win-win for both your garden and the environment.
It’s important to relax and let some areas go wild. Letting your garden grow wild is the goal, to some extent, which offers significant benefits for wildlife and the ecosystem. Allowing natural processes to unfold without excessive human intervention can create a thriving habitat for native plants and animals. However, even wildlife gardens need cultivation to prevent takeover of invasive weeds.
If the totally wild look isn’t your aesthetic or local regulations or homeowners association rule prevent it, it’s also ok to have a more convention looking garden. If you’re using native plants, the local wildlife will still benefit. You might create a more wild look in the back of your property while keeping a tidier look in the front. The key is finding a balance that suits your goals and the needs of your local ecosystem.
Have Patience & Plant On
“Patience is a plant that does not grow in everyone’s garden.”
As your wildlife garden matures, you'll find yourself immersed in the beauty and wonder of the natural world, right in your own backyard. Native plant gardening is an investment, and your plants will require time to become strong. There’s also a saying about how native plants “sleep, creep and leap” over time, so don’t be disheartened if you don’t see big blooms right away.
So, roll up your sleeves, put on your gardening gloves, and embark on a journey that connects you more deeply with nature and enriches your outdoor space. Your wildlife garden will not only be a source of personal pride but also a haven for local wildlife. Happy gardening!
Ready to turn your yard into a wildlife habitat?
Take our quiz to find the right plants for your yard and area!