Going Wild in the Garden

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Going Wild in the Garden

Make your garden even more welcoming to birds and butterflies: turn it into a certified wildlife habitat.

You don’t need a certificate to attract wildlife, of course, but more than 150,000 wildlife gardens across the country have been certified through the National Wildlife Federation’s online process, and I’m proud to be among them. The plants in my garden provide food and shelter for all kinds of wildlife.

Going Wild in the Garden-wildlife-habitat-sign

Birds and butterflies like the same things most gardeners do — pretty flowers, fresh water, shelter from the sun and wind, and a pleasant place to raise a family. When you feather your own outdoor nest with colorful flowers and handsome trees and shrubs, you’re inviting birds, butterflies, and other wildlife to make themselves at home, too.

Millions of gardeners are planning and planting for wildlife, says David Mizejewski, a naturalist at the NWF, and, in the process, they’re learning about the intricate and important relationships between humans, animals, and the environment.

Going Wild in the Garden-box-turtle

“I don’t think the average American gardener is going to say ‘I want toads in my yard,’” Mizejewski says, “but if we can get them started with flowers and birds and butterflies, if they take the first baby steps, those people will get engaged.”

Good wildlife-garden design requires diverse plantings, says Alan Branhagen, horticulture director of Powell Gardens, near Kansas City. It includes ground-cover plants, flowers, shrubs, understory trees, and canopy trees — the elements of what he calls the “planting pyramid.”

Going Wild in the garden-monarch-on-yellow-flower

Branhagen’s garden, a NWF wildlife habitat, also is registered with the North American Butterfly Association and Monarch Watch as a Monarch way-station. He plants mostly native plants, which in general support more wildlife than non-native plants. He does not use pesticides.

Butterfly milkweed is one of the most important plants: the leaves of this plant are the only food of monarch butterfly caterpillars. Milkweed flowers, which bloom from spring through summer, also support many other butterflies and pollinators. Columbines, coreopsis, black-eyed Susans, and ornamental grasses are some other great plants for wildlife gardens. In fall, asters and goldenrods are among the best plants for butterflies, birds, and pollinators of all kinds.


My wildlife habitat is wildly successful. I follow the seasons in my garden not just by the progression of the flowers that bloom, but through the lives of butterflies, birds, spiders, praying mantis, and even turtles. I’ve learned to keep an eye out for box turtles in shady spots in the flower beds, and to follow the wrens as they hop through the garden until I spot their nest. Last summer, I discovered a rough green snake that liked to hang out in the crape myrtles along our lane, and one day I saw a pair of bats sleeping through the day in a magnolia tree.


A small brush-pile or two is a good thing in a wildlife garden: birds find insects and nesting materials among the twigs and branches, and turtles sometimes hide at the bottom of a brush heap. It doesn’t have to be very big; the next time you’re pruning shrubs (use sharp loppers, such as Fiskars Quantum loppers), pile up the trimmings in a loose heap. Even a few pieces of firewood, stacked log-cabin style, provide shelter and food for birds. Place your brush heap where you can see it from indoors.

 Going-Wild-in-the-Garden-caterpillar on parsley plant

When I watch the butterflies flit from the coneflowers to the phlox, and follow the flight of hummingbirds as they race from the honeysuckle to the beebalm, I also think about my own place in nature. Every species has its role, says Douglas Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home. Wildlife gardening, he says, “is a way to show that you believe in tomorrow.”