Going wild in the garden: Why and how to create a wildlife-friendly landscape

Alabama Living Magazine
Plants that produce berries, nuts, insects, pollen and nectar help feed the birds and butterflies that populate our yards. Those animals are part of the food web and, thus, help connect and sustain the Earth’s circle of life. Photo by Doug Tallamy

By Katie Jackson

Anyone who gardens, or even putters in the yard, knows that the simple act of gardening provides many benefits – fresh air, exercise, stress relief and access to fresh foods to name a few. But they may not realize those simple acts can also help save the world, especially the wild world. Entomologist and conservationist Doug Tallamy has been exploring and explaining those connections for more than three decades in his job as a University of Delaware professor and researcher. His work, which includes studying issues such as the impact of native versus nonnative plants on interconnected wildlife species (caterpillars and chickadees, for example), led Tallamy to write Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants.

This award-winning book focuses on the whys and hows of gardening for nature and, since its publication in 2007, has made Tallamy a guru in the growing movement toward more nature- and wildlife-friendly gardening. And that movement has never been so important as it is today.
“We are in a global wildlife extinction crisis,” says naturalist and media star David Mizejewski, spokesperson for the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife program and author of the popular how-to book Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife.

“More than a million wildlife species worldwide are endangered,” he says. “In the U.S. alone, some 12,000 animal species are experiencing rapid population declines and one-third of all native wildlife species are at an increased risk of extinction in the coming decade.”

Planting with an eye toward wildlife can bring color to any yard, not just through flowers and leaves but also through the stunning array of birds, butterflies and other creatures that come to feed on these plants, such as this goldfinch feasting on the seeds of a purple coneflower. Photo by Kathy Diamontopoulos; courtesy of American Meadows

Among these species are beloved yard and garden visitors such as birds and butterflies as well native bee species, which play essential roles in crop pollination. These statistics are disturbing not just because they represent the loss of irreplaceable wildlife populations but also their dilemma may be a harbinger for the future of humankind, which also relies on healthy ecosystems.

Humans are also connected to nature cognitively, says Michelle Bertelsen, an ecologist with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center in Texas. “We have evolved and learned to think by interacting with the natural world forever and ever and ever,” she says. “That doesn’t stop just because we may live in cities.” And it is a connection many humans have come to appreciate during the past two years of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Plants form the foundation of a wildlife-friendly garden, especially when a diverse selection of densely spaced native plants are used. Every region of the country has plants unique to their local environment, plants that evolved in conjunction with the insects and other animals native to the area. Depending on which plants are chosen, wildlife-friendly gardens can range from formal, manicured gardens to more natural designs, such as this nectar garden, and everything in between. Photo courtesy of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

“People have sought solace in nature during these tough times,” Mizejewski says, and many found it in their own yards, especially at the peak of COVID-19 shutdowns and stay-at-home orders.
While concerns about and connections to nature are increasing, they are also a source of frustration. “Everybody on the planet requires healthy ecosystems,” Tallamy says. But, he addd, when faced with stark statistics about the decline of wildlife and ecosystems “most people feel absolutely powerless. The Earth is huge and what can one person do?”

A lot, agree Tallamy, Mizejewski and Bertelsen, and it all begins in the landscapes that surround us.
“How we choose to manage and care for our own piece of earth is a powerful way to help out these declining populations,” Mizejewski says. “Sure, what we do in our backyards is not going to save polar bears, but it can make a huge difference for the rapidly declining Monarch butterflies and the birds and wild bee species that really need our help.”

“There is a central role that Joe Public can play because Joe Public owns the country,” Tallamy adds, explaining that while public parks, preserves and wilderness areas provide vital habitat for wildlife, they alone cannot save these species. However, on the 78 percent of U.S. land that is privately owned, wildlife-friendly management can have huge impacts on these animals and the overall health of the planet.

Monarch butterflies, one of some 12,000 U.S. wildlife species currently experiencing alarming population declines, benefit greatly from wildlife-friendly gardening practices. By providing Monarchs and other insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals with four basic needs – food, cover, water and a place to raise their young – home gardeners even in big cities can help avert a wildlife extinction crisis. In the process, their landscapes become living, thriving ecosystems that benefit all life on the planet. Photo by Val Bugh; courtesy of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

That kind of impact can occur anywhere and on any piece of land, from large rural fields to medium-sized suburban yards to tiny urban greenspaces. According to Bertelsen, studies have shown that putting small strips of pollinator habitat between rows or on the edges of agricultural land can greatly benefit pollinators, which in turn benefits the crops. The same can happen in our yards.
“It’s amazing how much impact a small pollinator garden can have,” Bertelsen says. “Even tiny islands (of wildlife-friendly real estate) in cities can help these species out so much. A little bit really does go a long way.” And when numerous people in the same vicinity and eventually across the globe provide wildlife habitats, such as pollinator gardens, the impact grows exponentially.

So what exactly is a wildlife-friendly landscape? According to Tallamy, it’s a landscape that contributes four components to the local ecosystem: it supports a diverse population of pollinators, supports the greater food web, sequesters carbon and protects and manages watersheds. And many of these functions, says Mizejewski, can be accomplished by providing wildlife with four basic needs: food, cover, places to raise young, and water.

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