For the Birds...and Beyond. How to Create a Backyard Wildlife Habitat (Plus a Giveaway!)

It's cold. Temperatures and weather forecasts and school delays highlight most Facebook statuses this week. I'll admit, I'm guilty. When faced with 11 degrees in South Carolina, I feel a momentary panic. After all, I moved from northwest Indiana to escape the -50 degree windchill and lake effect snow. When winter—real, freezing-your-eyelashes-together-winter--sneaks into the south, sometimes I fear I only dreamt my escape from northern winters. I'm afraid I'll awake in my childhood home, facing an hour-plus commute to work at the publishing company. No amount of protective layers kept the frosty air from burning my lungs.

Still, I remember that even on those extreme days, when the wind made you gasp and the snow blew mountainous drifts against the garage, my mom would bundle up, head for the backyard—and fill the bird feeders.

My mom loved her birds. With feeders strategically positioned so she could watch them from the kitchen window while preparing dinner or washing dishes, she had her own wildlife reality show before its time.

My mom didn't pursue many hobbies. She stayed home with us or volunteered at school. She read. She finally learned to drive when I was in first grade, and she began chauffeuring us to activities. I never understood how she could lead such a dull life.

And now, here I am. Minus the chain smoking and soap operas, I live much the same life as my mom.

(My teenage self would be appalled.)

However, while my mom planted a few petunias and pansies, I'm a bit more obsessive about gardening. While she filled bird feeders, we created a backyard wildlife habitat.

Creating wildlife-friendly gardens isn't anything new. But habitat creation and restoration needs to be embraced by more gardeners. With a little effort and PR, we can make it trend-worthy.

It's not difficult. Put down the Round-Up and Ortho. Pick up some native plants.

What's difficult is scouring an organic garden for bees—and finding none. What's troubling is looking for ladybugs—and finding few. What's finally become newsworthy is the decimation of an entire population, the monarch. Instead of jumping on the bandwagon and planting milkweed, wouldn't it have been a better use of our resources to intervene years ago, before their numbers became dire?

Still, we're all Monday morning quarterbacks. Better late than never, right?

Planting a backyard wildlife habitat is a rewarding journey.

Our garden is a certified backyard wildlife habitat. If you're interested in certifying your garden, go here for more information.

Whether you want to certify your garden or simply hope to help wildlife thrive, the process for creating a backyard wildlife habitat is easy:

Provide Food for Wildlife.
Nectar, berries, pollen, seeds, nuts...chose organically grown plants that produce food suitable for the wildlife in your area. I'm the first to admit that I don't plant only natives--but we do plant a LOT of natives. Native plant societies are excellent sources, both for information and for plants in your garden. While some berry-laden plants seem ideal for feeding wildlife, it's important to research before you buy. For instance, Nandina domestica is considered a noxious weed in the U.S. Imported from China and Japan and planted by many landscapers and homeowners, it rapidly spreads, choking out native plants. Worse, the toxic berries are linked to the death of birds. When dozens of cedar waxwings in Thomas Country, GA were found dead, researchers from the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia investigated. They found the cause of death to be from the berries, which produce highly toxic hydrogen cyanide.

Please, check the toxicity of your plants and their berries.

Also, if you're planting a pollinator garden, don't be like my neighbor. This sweet older gentleman planted a bed filled with roses, lantana, and native grasses. It's a pretty little space where I wait at the bus stop for Mikey. However, last spring I watched, horrified, as he sprayed pesticide on the plants—WHILE TWO BUTTERFLIES WERE LANDING ON THE LANTANA!

Please. Put down the poison.

Also, let's rethink our attitudes about garden pests. Squirrels and deer need to eat, too. We've installed some squirrel-proof bird feeders so that the birds get their share, but we also leave bowls of nuts and seeds for the squirrels. Our daughter is determined to build a deer feeder this winter. I do love our deer—as long as they stay away from my heirloom tomatoes!

Supply Water for Wildlife.
Drinking, bathing, reproduction...wildlife needs clean water for all of these things. While we have a large natural water source—the Middle Tyger River—that runs behind our house, we worry that it's not the cleanest water for our forest friends. In fact, in turns odd colors and occasionally smells unpleasant. As we've been searching along the river for our newest pal, a beaver who's been busy harvesting small trees, we've felt pretty sorry for anything trying to make a home in the river.

We can't do much personally to clean the river for the beavers (other than collect trash), but we can provide drinking water for the birds and other small animals and insects in our backyard. With the use of bird baths and drip lines in the garden, there's at least some clean water for the wildlife. We're planning to install a pond eventually, which will also help. Now, if we can just find the time to do it...

Create Cover for Wildlife.
Wildlife need places to hide to escape people, predators, and bad weather. Since we live in a forest, this criteria was pretty easily checked off for us. Still, as a gardener, I'm always adding more shrubs and native vegetation that provide good hiding places. In fact, right outside my office window is a chipmunk that uses the space under the shrubbery as a hideout, and a male and female cardinal taking shelter under the azaleas. I'll admit, it gets a little distracting when I need to work but am busy being entertained by wildlife.

If you don't have much vegetation, bird houses, mason bee houses, bat boxes, and owl houses all provide good shelter. Just make sure to clean them each spring. Also, as you take down Christmas decorations, that formerly fresh tree can provide a good source of shelter for birds and small animals if you place it in your yard. One year, the kids and I decorated the tree a second time. After we removed it from the house and placed it by the river, we added bird seed ornaments and a garland of fruit and cereal for a wildlife snack.

Provide a Place for Wildlife to Raise Their Young.
The sheltered areas you provide can double as places for wildlife to raise their babies. We find many nests in bushes and trees, while hollow trees and small burrows under rocks host many mammal families. When we discovered a family of foxes in our forest, we searched to try to find their home—but we never found it. Butterflies and moths lay their eggs on trees, bushes, and wildflowers.

And of course, if you want to encourage monarchs to lay eggs in your garden, milkweed is a must. There are many, many varieties of milkweed. Here is where you can find which ones are native to your area.

Once you have the four important elements in place: food, water, shelter, and a place to raise young, you can apply for consideration as a National Wildlife Foundation Certified Wildlife Habitat here.

You certainly don't need to buy a sign to support wildlife. However, I like our sign. We display it in a bed at the top of the driveway, and it's a conversation starter for families walking by or for visitors who attend the Carolina Farm Stewardship's Annual Farm Tour, as our garden is typically on the tour. My mission is to encourage other people to garden, both for wildlife and to produce delicious, healthy food. The sign helps jump-start a conversation.

And, to help jump-start your Backyard Wildlife Habitat, we're having a GIVEAWAY! The fabulous folks at Gardener's Supply Company sent me these beautiful bamboo habitats to trial. (The funny thing is, I already owned the mason bee house. I bought it a year ago to encourage the mason bees to make their home in the house, instead of chewing holes in our house! It's been fantastic. Mason bees are excellent pollinators.)

So, let's get your backyard wildlife habitat started! Gardener's Supply is generously allowing me to give away FIVE sets of the wildlife habitats! Isn't that cool? Here's a bit about the prize:

wildlife habitats

Bamboo Habitat Homes (image from Gardener's Supply Company)
Welcome birds, bees and butterflies to your garden.

Create a haven for songbirds, butterflies and mason bees.
Bamboo shelters are natural landscape accents.
Attractive design combined with functionality and convenience.
Set includes one each: birdhouse, butterfly house, and mason bee house.
Woven from natural bamboo, these teardrop-shaped shelters shed water while providing good ventilation. The birdhouse has a 1-1/4″ entrance hole for common backyard birds like nuthatches, titmice, and finches, and there’s a clean-out door on the back. The butterfly shelter provides a safe spot for butterflies to roost, with narrow slots that keep predators out. The door on the back provides access so you can place bark or twigs inside for butterflies to perch on as they roost or take shelter from rain and wind. The mason bee house provides a happy home for these peaceful bees that can boost your garden’s productivity by pollinating flowers. Each mason bee visits as many as 1,000 blooms per day — 20 times as many as a honeybee! All three shelters have built-in hanging loops.
Retail price: $49.95

About Gardener's Supply: Founded in 1983, Gardener’s Supply is proud to be a 100% employee-owned company of avid gardeners providing garden-tested, earth-friendly products combined with practical information. Headquartered in Burlington’s Intervale, Vermont, the company has won many awards for its patented products and innovative management style, and donates 8% of its profits to gardening and other community projects.

Your odds of winning are very good. Five prizes!! Remember: you can't win if you don't enter.

To enter, leave a comment on this post (please include your email address so I can contact you if you're selected.) Then, click on the “Friends” tab to follow the Garden Delights blog. Entries accepted until midnight EST Sunday, January 18. I'll randomly select the five winners on Monday, January 19 and announce them on the blog and the Garden Delights Facebook page.

(Here's the legalese: This giveaway is limited to U.S. residents over the age of 18 years old. NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO WIN. This sweepstakes is VOID WHERE PROHIBITED BY LAW. I received no compensation for this post other than a set of the Bamboo Habitats to trial.)

So, let's make a gardening resolution.

Let's resolve to garden for wildlife.

Who's with me?



UPDATE: The winners of the wildlife habitats are Jen McGuinness, Marissa Carabin, Amber Wolfrom, Linda Lehmusvirta, and Kristi Deeley. Congratulations! Thank you to everyone who entered.