If you could engage in one activity that would increase biodiversity, reverse species extinction, build soil, improve your neighborhood, provide sensory richness, teach people how ecosystems function, and deliver soul-satisfying fun all at the same time, wouldn’t you do it? Creating a backyard wildlife habitat accomplishes all that and more. If you feel powerless in the face of ecological devastation, here’s where you get your power back.
The great irony of home building—natural or otherwise—is that we create a place for a few humans while destroying the habitat of countless other species. If you build a single house on a large piece of land, the wildlife may eventually adjust around you—if you don’t landscape inhospitably. But in suburbs and cities, the dense buildings, with their concomitant paving and pesticide-laden non-native landscaping, force everything from birds and bees to soil microorganisms to seek happier ground or die out.
Globally, habitat loss is the greatest threat to biodiversity and a major factor in species extinction. As human settlements grow, natural areas become smaller and more fragmented. Migratory birds lose their stopovers, pollinators must travel farther to find food, and amphibians become deformed by contaminated air and water. Urban areas are now the true deserts; natural deserts support far more richness and diversity of flora and fauna than do most backyards.
Fortunately, we can do something about this. Whether you have a backyard or a balcony, you can enhance biodiversity by providing a habitat for birds, bees, butterflies, and myriad other living things. This is easier than it may sound; the concepts are simple, the work is best done one step at a time, and a lot of information and support are available.
You are also likely to get back more than you put in: hearing birds sing by day and crickets chirp by night, watching bees and butterflies on their pollinating rounds, seeing sunlight glint off trickling water, and catching the scent of flowers and rich earth nourish us in profound ways. Anything less rich-textured than this natural complexity with which we evolved is unsatisfying to our bodies and beings.
What is a habitat garden?
It might seem that any garden is good for biodiversity. But there is a big difference between a garden of exotics (non- native species) managed with pesticides and fertilizers and a garden of native plants that relies on soil building and natural pest controls and nurtures native wildlife. In fact, the three Eurasian grass species that constitute the bulk of lawns are of little use to most beneficial insects and animals.
Wildlife habitat involves four basic elements: food, water, shelter, and territory in which to reproduce and raise young. Vegetation provides food in the form of acorns, nuts, berries, seeds, buds, catkins, nectar, and pollen; bird feeders can fill in while plants are maturing and during winter. Water can be supplied in a birdbath, a small pond, a recirculating fountain, or a shallow dish. Shelter is found in dense shrubs, hollow logs, rock or brush piles, stone walls, evergreens, patches of meadow, and ponds. Territory includes safe areas for bird nests; larval plants for butterflies; bodies of water for tadpoles, salamanders, and insects; and nesting boxes for birds, bats, or squirrels.
Native plants—the ones that grew in your region before people started “improving” it with imports—are an essential element of habitat gardening. Because they are adapted to your soils and climate, native plants generally require less care and maintenance. And because local fauna are adapted to them, native plants provide the best overall food sources, often supporting ten to fifty times more species of wildlife than non-natives. Even when exotic plants provide food for wildlife, they generally can’t supply the range of seasonal habitat features that well-chosen natives can. Planting natives restores critical aspects of the web of life. Nearly 500 native plant species are on the verge of extinction in North America; natural landscaping can help reverse that destruction.
Although it begins locally, habitat gardening isn’t just a “personal solution.” When you nurture pollinators and migratory birds, your reach may extend thousands of miles. Neighbors can alter their fences to create wildlife corridors, counteracting the trend toward “habitat islands.” You may choose to create a habitat garden at school or work to further increase your impact on both humans and other life forms. And your entire town might choose to become a Community Wildlife Habitat, as did Alpine, California.
Where do you begin?
The beginning habitat gardener can rely on a wonderful network of support. The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has operated its Backyard Wildlife Habitat program since 1973 and has certified more than 27,000 habitat gardens in five countries. Its website is loaded with inspiration, information, and contacts; you can also order its Backyard Wildlife Habitat Starter Kit. The NWF sponsors a national network of Backyard Wildlife Habitat Stewards who are available to guide you through the process of creating and certifying your Backyard Wildlife Habitat.
I recently decided to learn the basics of habitat gardening by enriching a strip of dirt adjacent to my urban apartment. One step at a time (and with help from the NWF Stewards program, the Native Plant Society, Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, and earth-wise friends), I’ve transformed a barren plot into a garden of ecologically responsible delights. I love visiting the garden to see what’s growing and which critters are there. Bees and butterflies pass through and alight; birds come to eat, bathe, and frolic; and neighbors hang out in the garden, where I educate them on the sly.
It’s hard to go wrong with this stuff; you start somewhere (a bird feeder, a dish of water, a nectar plant), you learn a few things, and you become so delighted that you keep going. In the process, your understanding of the complexity and interdependence of the web of life jumps from the textbook into your hands and heart, and the world becomes a better place.
CAROL VENOLIA is an architect, author of Healing Environments: Your Guide to Indoor Well-Being (Celestial Arts, 1988), and former publisher of Building with Nature Newsletter.