How to Garden for Wildlife

I was working on a handout for a presentation, and as I went along I realized just how much I’ve learned in the five years that I’ve had a garden–and not all of those was I aware that I was gardening for wildlife, and what I could yet do. So I want to share the refresher, and please do add or take away in your comments as you see fit. (All of the images are from my prairie-esque Nebraska garden.)

Main back garden just before it hit 22 degrees. Yes, much wildlife shelters here in all 4 seasons.

1) Never use chemicals of any kind.

2) Use native plants. Plant thickly to conserve water and kill weeds.

3) Have a water feature.

Never have I seen so many birds at the fountain this year. 2.5″ of rain in the last four months.

4) Garden for insects – they are the base of the food chain & all life. (Ex. birds only feed insects to their young.)

5) Embrace bees and wasps – they’re too busy pollinating to sting.  Honest!

6) Spiders, preying mantis, and other predator bugs are signs of a healthy garden and kill pests FAST. Love them.

That wasp was so intent on nectaring, it missed something.

7) Don’t cut down or “clean up” the garden in fall, wait until early March.

8) Use the spring cut down as mulch and to create bee houses (I cut hollow joy pye weed stalks into 6″ lengths, bundle, and tie to the fence for mason bees).

9) Fall leaves are free soil—they’ll break down over winter & be warm homes for hibernating insects.

Liatris mucronata and indian grass.

10) Diversity – grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, trees.

11) Diversity II – groundcovers, short plants, tall plants, big blooms, tiny blooms… create a varied habitat for 4 seasons of life.

A skipper on eupatorium altissimum.

12) Host plants for butterflies: milkweed, zizia, baptisia, wild senna, side oats grama, willow, elm, oak.

13) Fave nectar plants: milkweed, aster, joy pye weed, mountain mint, ironweed, culver’s root, goldenrod, coneflowers, baptisia.

Signs of a healthy garden, and a child’s playground.

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  1. Pauline Horn says

    Great review, and true for my garden, too, even though I garden in Baltimore city where it is humid and my yard is only 30 ft wide.

    • says

      Oh man, it get very muggy here in July and August, which always surprises folks. Dewpoints in 60s and 70s often. Stinks. My main garden is about 20′ wide and 30′ long. Then a 20′ x 8′ strip out to the main gate.
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..My Prairie Dream

  2. Hawk says

    These are good guidelines. I don’t have much of a garden – really I have a yard full of goodness-knows what sort of grass, pretty standard suburban stuff. I live in the South. Milkweed would be a balm to me. But, no, I get thistle. Six-foot-tall, thorny, horrible, thistle. It’s the thistle that drives me to mow.

    This year in the front yard though, I did plant some morning glories, which I got from cuttings from my father-in-law’s yard. They might not be natives, but they did grow modestly. I also have some kind of nifty ground cover that seems to have wild-seeded itself. And of course we have money plant, that is a native to our area. If the whole yard could be money plant, and I wouldn’t get fussed at by the neighborhood association…!

    If you can tell me what thistle is actually GOOD for…maybe I’d let it grow…

    • says

      There are native prairie thistles, but honestly, I can’t tell the difference. I did have a musk thistle this year which I let bloom (insects adore it) then quickly cut off and trashed the heads before they set seed. I do let globe thistle in my garden because it doesn’t spread much for me, and the insects are all over it like I’m all over apple pie.
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..My Prairie Dream

  3. Sue In Austin says

    Right On, Benjamin!
    We need a **lot** more information published about maintenance of our native gardens / yard habitats. Your overall approach is quite helpful, and is appropriate for regions that have some sort of dormant season. It works as well down here in central Texas as up there.

    I am struggling to collect useful native plant maintenance info for CenTex plants. I have attended several ‘maintenance’ talks and gleaned some guidance and a few specific plant care tips for the annual lifecycle. However, faced with 40 to 50 different species in my own yard as well as several demonstration wildscapes that I help manage, I am still very short on guidance for each specific plant.
    Maintaining a mature wildscape is complicated, especially if it is used to teach others.
    When/if to trim? How to trim? Feed a bit or not? Soil amendments to start babies in situ? How close to plant, really? How much help to give particular plants during especially severe conditions? Let the ‘winners’ spread and ‘losers’ croak, or continue to encourgage diversity with timely intervention?
    I understand that the answers to some of these questions depend on the *purpose* of the garden.
    Anyone reading this comment – feel free to point me to good advice or references appropriate for my region. I am stumbling forward and will continue to write up maintenance plans to add to our overall knowledge in time.

    • says

      You just gave me a book idea–Wild Gardening. All about letting nature take its course, how to garden chem free, how to garden for wildlife. Personally, I’m letting things do what they will–whatever makes it makes it, whatever fades fades (even if I cry). Some things self sow where I don’t want them, so I get anal and move the seedlings… I am still a gardener, after all.
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..My Prairie Dream

    • says

      Do Liatris count as bulbs? Nodding onion? I didn’t start out planting in groups, but did have repetition of plant and form. Now, plants are spreading gently (finally!) and creating communities. Plant roots share info and nutrients with each other, so I subscribe to planting thickly. Plus, I have virtually no weeds, and even with all those thirsty roots, I don’t have to water as often (helps to put the right plant in the right place as well, and by that I mean never trust plant tags).
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..My Prairie Dream

  4. says

    Great guidelines, Benjamin! Thanks for giving the essentials, which combine good design and great advice about how to garden in a healthy, sustainable, low-maintenance way that just happens to grow the kind of garden community that is beautiful in all seasons and provides habitat for wildlife from big to microscopic. I like that book idea, by the way. Maybe Timber Press would be interested?
    Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Looking Back, Feeling My Way Forward

  5. says

    Great guidelines…I had not heard about the hollow joe pye tied together for mason bees….who knew? Love it. I love not cleaning up and the leaves do indeed break down as the season progresses…the new season of leaves is coating the garden and it looks wonderful.
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Surrender


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