Garden & Landscape Tips

Waxwings love berries
© Andreas Nilsson

Gardening or landscaping for wildlife is slightly different than regular gardening. For one thing, the wildlife in your area are most interested in native plants from your area. The animals and insects are hard wired to those plants for food and shelter as part of their lifecycle. Gardening or landscaping for wildlife is a philosophy of accepting nature as nature – which means some plants will be eaten. Think of it as a different way of cherishing nature.

Wildlife in the garden keeps your plot of nature rich with diverse inhabitants and visitors. Some plants – especially nectar-rich flowers, nutritious berries and those that pollinate – attract wildlife more than others.

American goldfinch
An American goldfinch nibbles on coneflower seeds.
© Paul Lemke

Food — Nectar, Foliage, Seeds & Berries

Native insects, birds and other wildlife are hard wired to seek food from native plants, so plant those that provide nectar, berries, pollen, seeds and nuts. Most plants that produce berries, seeds and nectar will be sufficient. Here are some easy-to-grow suggestions (* = North America native plant):


  • Columbine (Aquilegia*)
  • Crocus
  • Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida*)
  • Magnolia*
  • Crabapples (Malus)


  • Purple coneflowers (Echinacea*)
  • Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia*)
  • Salvia (S. farinacea*, S. splendens)
  • Oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia*)


  • Aster (Symphyotrichum*)
  • Turtlehead (Chelone*)
  • Sedum (Hylotelephium)
  • Goldenrod (Solidago*)
  • Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpurea)

Winter fruit:

  • American cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum*)
  • Crabapple
  • Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana*)
  • Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana*)
  • Seeds from perennials and annuals such as purple coneflower, salvia and black-eyed Susan.

You can also feed the birds with feeders. Keep in mind that birds have feeder preferences. Some, such as finches and sparrows like food from tube feeders, but others, such as cardinals and juncos, prefer their food on the ground or on a tray. (For information about birds, seed preferences and bird-related activities for children and families, visit the Lyric Wild Bird Food Web site.

Shelter, Cover and Raising Families

Pileated woodpecker feeds its young.
© Steve Byland

Conifers and other evergreens are bird condos in the winter. Dozens of them will sit in these dense trees and shrubs to protect themselves from the wind and winter temperatures. They also take refuge in evergreens on blazing hot summer days, where the area closest to the trunk offers cool relief.

Birds and other wildlife use the limbs of trees and shrubs to build their nests or dens. They also use small piles of twigs and brush. If a tree on your property is dead and does not pose a threat to people, cars or buildings if it falls, allow it to stay upright for creatures that build their homes in cavities, such as owls and woodpeckers. For safety sake, always check with a certified arborist ( about dead trees in the landscape.

Install birdhouses, many of which are specially designed to attract particular species, such as purple martins, bluebirds or wrens. Allow bits of leaves, small twigs and other plant debris to collect on the ground. These elements are used to make nests.

A word of caution to cat lovers: Cats allowed to roam take a terrible toll on the songbirds people want to attract to their landscapes.

Water — the biggest draw

Robin on birdbath
Robin in birdbath
© Hamiza Bakirci

Even if you don’t have a landscape full of plants, one of the surest ways to attract birds and other wildlife to the garden is with water. For most people, a birdbath is the easiest way to get a source of water in the landscape. Wildlife needs water for drinking, bathing, cooling off and reproduction.

Many gardeners place several birdbaths around their property. Bird bath water should be changed two or three times a week to keep it clean and to cut down on mosquito population. In winter, reduce the number of birdbaths to one and install a small, electrical or solar-powered heater to keep the water from freezing.

Butterflies prefer to drink from very shallow mud puddles. Create a small concave area in mud and fill with small pebbles and water. Usually these dry up quickly and need replenishment, so mosquitoes tend not to be an issue.

A gardener also can create a rain garden or plant a marsh area to help control storm water run-off and create a habitat for amphibians, birds and small mammals. Fountains and ponds also are good sources of water. Be sure the water is not moving too quickly – if it is, birds may not be able to drink.

Other tips:

bees on coneflower
Bumble bees on conflowers
© Angie Lingnau

Reduce or eliminate the use of insecticides and use caution when applying a fungicide. We need insects in the garden to attract birds, which eat the bugs. If there are not bugs, there will be fewer birds. We also need insects to pollinate plants. Many fungicides are deadly to bees, which are the chief pollinators of vegetables and flowers. Without bees, food and flower production will be low. Always read and follow label directions.

For more information about developing a wildlife habitat in your backyard and how to get certification, visit National Wildlife Federation’s Backyard Habitat Program’s Web site.

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