Creating Habitat: Inviting Life to Your Backyard

It's becoming more and more popular to replace traditional grass lawns with plants, shrubs and flowers that support the local ecosystem, and I couldn't be happier about it. Our local bugs and birds and animals need all the habitat we can give them. It may not seem like much, but even a little patch of earth restored to a natural, healthy state can make a huge difference.

No matter how small our space, we can give our more-than-human kin a helping hand. If you're reading this and live in an apartment with a tiny balcony (as I did for many years), don't be discouraged - even setting out a few planters makes a difference to a little bee looking for something to eat.

If you'd like to make your space more welcoming, there are a few simple steps you can take. Just like us, our insect and bird friends need three essential things to survive: food, water, and shelter.


Filling your yard with flowers and berries is a great way to provide food for our pollinators, but it makes a big difference which ones you choose. 

Plants native to your region have co-evolved alongside your local bees, butterflies and birds to provide the best, most easily accessible nourishment for them. The shape, color, and nutritional value of native plants fit perfectly together with what they need, and these are what they'll be searching for as they fly past your garden.

So, while it's very tempting to buy the showiest flowers at the garden center, they're often a poor choice if your goal is to feed a bee. Many of them are invasive, the wrong colors, have the wrong flower shapes, and don't provide very good nutrition. Any pollinators that do visit a garden filled with these plants will probably be confused, put-off, and undernourished.

Another important factor to consider when choosing plants is how well they are suited to your garden. Are they native to your state and county? Do they need more sun than you have? Do they like wet or dry soil? Sand or loam or clay? Matching a plant to your ecoregion and growing conditions will drastically increase the odds that it will survive, do well, and attract pollinators to your yard.

You should also consider bloom and berry time, and plan your garden so that the it is providing nourishment from spring through fall, and even into winter. Planting a wide variety of flowers, shrubs and trees is ideal so that you attract as many different pollinators as you can and offer them a varied diet throughout the seasons.

A note about cultivars: Cultivars have become popular at garden centers, but should be avoided if your goal is to create a welcoming habitat. Cultivars, sometime called nativars, are native plants that have been hybridized to create different colors and flower shapes. They often don't produce nectar or seeds, and they can be very unappealing to pollinators. For example, our native, unaltered Echinacea is called Echinacea purpurea, while one of the cultivars is called Echinacea purpurea "Pink Double," so named for it's extra layer of flowers. While interesting to look at, this strange extra layer of petals and flowers makes access to the pollen within nearly impossible for bees and they tend to avoid it. 

I realize picking out the right plants can get confusing fast - just take your time and don't rush! It's perfectly fine to start out with just one or two, see how it goes, and add more as you can. (That's also why I'm here - if you feel you need it, I can help you design your garden and choose the perfect plants.)


Yes, butterflies drink water! And so do bees and moths and dragonflies and all of the other little creatures you'd like to attract to your garden. In a world of perfectly groomed green grass lawns, there aren't a lot of places for them to get a drink. No fallen leaves collecting little pools of dew, no rocks holding last night's rain in their hollows. We can help by adding in sources of clean water.

It's easier than you'd think to build a little wildlife pond, if you have the space. All you really need is a pond liner, a filter to ensure the water doesn't go stagnant, and rocks built up inside so that any little creature who slips into the pond has a way to climb out. Birds especially love running water, so it's a great idea to attach a hose to your filter and let it run over the rocks. Disturbing the surface of the pond with a trickle of water will also keep mosquitos from landing and breeding in it.

You can also set out shallow dishes of water dotted with small rocks or glass stones for the bees and butterflies to safely perch on while they drink. Butterflies especially like water sources that are a bit muddy - if you want to attract them, toss in a little handful of dirt. Because this water is still, you'll need to keep an eye on it and change it regularly to ensure it stays clean and there aren't mosquitos taking advantage of it.


A lawn free of any leaf or twig might be the current standard of suburban perfection, but it leaves nowhere for pollinators, birds and other little animals to go. Just like any creatures, they need places to sleep, get out of bad weather, and hide from predators. 

The simplest and best way to create areas of shelter in your yard is to leave the leaves alone in the fall, at the very least until the end of spring, after which time you can rake them into small piles here and there. Gathering sticks and twigs and fallen branches into little stacks at the edges of your yard is a great option, too. And, of course, having lots of native plants and shrubs for bugs and birds to sleep in helps tremendously, especially if you skip the clippers and mower and leave old flower stalks standing through the winter.

Common Questions

Whenever I talk about creating backyard habitat, I inevitably get the same two questions: What if the neighbors think it's unsightly? What if it attracts more pests, like snakes and ticks?

My answer to the first question is simply to talk to your neighbors. I realize that's easier for some than others, and that the luck of the draw when it comes to who we live next to is widely varied. I do think, though, that if you're planning to make changes to your yard that are, well, unconventional, it's not a bad idea to check in with your neighbors and explain to them why you're doing what you're doing. Who knows - you might even convince them to add a few native plants to their landscape, too. And, as I mentioned at the start of this post, more and more people are coming around to the idea that lawns are out and habitat is in, so this may not even be an issue for you. 

Now, when it comes to ticks...I understand the concern! But here is what I've observed in nearly a decade of cultivating habitat: the diversity of bugs, birds, and animals that will be attracted to your yard will balance everything out. There are more bugs...but also more birds to eat them. The little ponds and drinking dishes I've set out attract dragonflies, who love to zoom around and eat up all the mosquitos. The chipmunks and mice are kept in check by the foxes, and the hawks are on the lookout for snakes. The food chain is pretty intact, and I've never noticed a problem with too many of any one thing.

Nature seeks balance, and if you create a healthy ecosystem, it will take care of itself.



Be well,








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