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Gardening for Wildlife
by Scott Beuerlein - August 2015

A new ornamental onion selection that has proved a favorite of people and pollinators is Allium ‘Millenium’. It blooms for a long time in summer.

Habitat gardening falls somewhere between common sense and rocket science – so don’t overthink it. Most gardeners instinctively know what should be done: Simply add water, food and shelter.

For a long time I’ve wondered why all my friends are smarter than me. My whole life, I have been surrounded by genius-level friends, and I’ve often wondered why. I’m pretty sure I’m not terribly annoying. Sometimes I’m generous with a round. Occasionally I’m amusing, but still? After some of the best thought I’m capable of, I think I’ve got it figured out. I am not a genius, to be sure, but I am the right kind of smart. Bright enough to get concepts and ask good questions, but too stupid to remember details and (thankfully) get caught up in them.

Gardening for wildlife is smack dab in my IQ sweet spot. A few easy concepts and you’re rocking it. Overthink it and you get mired in the infinite variables, and now you’re in the weeds. Success comes from not agonizing over decisions, but from simply moving forward. So don’t sweat this! Don’t make it too hard. It can be more complex than rocket science, literally, or it can be as simple as one, two, three. Wildlife needs what? Water, food and shelter.


We all need relatively clean water, so provide it. Not standing, stagnant water, but aerated, moving water. Even a small amount — a bird bath (frequently changed), a fountain or the smallest of water gardens instantly opens up your garden to dozens of more insects, birds, reptiles and even mammals. And believe it or not, a little mud gives butterflies and other pollinators the minerals they need.


For vegetarian wildlife, food is nectar, pollen, foliage and wood. Omnivores might sample all or some of that, and then join the carnivores to eat the vegetarians (or each other), but it all starts with plants — in diversity and abundance.

A vitally important source of food comes from flowers. Most of the beneficial insects that help us control pests like to feed on nectar or pollen in one or more of their life stages. Given that gardeners like flowers too, it’s easy to include them. A continuous supply of blooming plants from early spring to late fall is key to a healthy garden ecosystem, and it’s certainly a joy to observe the insects that visit.

Milkweed species are the only host for monarch butterflies, but their blooms are also popular with many other pollinators.

But not all flowers are created equal. Some attract pollinating insects with abandon while others are seldom visited, so you need to be observant. Even among a certain species, you’ll find differences. Echinacea spp., for instance, is one of the very best flowers for attracting pollinators, but the new double, pompom types are sterile. They attract no pollinators at all. As a general rule, popular double-flowered cultivars with extra petals of many species swap sex parts for those extra petals. They may be showy, but they are wastelands for wildlife. Good references and a well-timed question to a good plant-aholic can help you make smart choices, but also staying with straight species or cultivars that are not far removed from their naturally growing relatives tends to favor pollinators.

Although gardeners often cringe at the thought of insects eating the leaves of their plants, foliage is a very important food source of favorite wildlife. Many popular butterflies and moths host on the leaves of very specific plants, which means they only lay their eggs and their larvae only feed on these plants. Everyone knows monarchs need milkweed, but many of the important host plants are grasses and trees. Oaks, for instance, provide for a great number of host-specific insects. Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) is not commonly thought of as a desirable yard tree, but it hosts many beautiful butterflies and moths. Want spicebush swallowtail? Well, you need some spicebush (Lindera benzoin) or sassafras (Sassafras albidum) around.

Botanically speaking, fruit is all seeds and the structure that carry them. This is super important for higher forms of wildlife, especially much higher forms (including us). Again, and this cannot be stressed enough, a rich diversity of plants is good, a paucity of them is bad. Fortunately, many of the good flower-producing plants are also excellent seed producers, so you get double duty. Rose family plants (such as roses, crabapples and more) and Composite family plants (such as daisies and asters) are especially outstanding in this service.

Last, and often overlooked, are the insects that feed on wood. We often hear of the bad borers that kill trees, but the vast majority of boring insects are merely feeding on dead wood and are doing no harm to living plants. They do, however, attract and provide for wildlife such as woodpeckers, small rodents and even foxes, and the work they do to break down organic matter is instrumental to good soil.

This garden presents a perfect landscape setting for wildlife, providing water, multiple layers of canopy, and a diversity of plant species. Even scaled down to urban or suburban garden scale, the ingredients are the same.

Gimme Shelter

There are just two things to know about providing shelter: One, provide for multiple tiers of canopy. Place herbaceous plants low to the ground, then small trees and shrubs in the middle range, and finally tall trees above. Two, don’t be so darned tidy. What might look like a small mess to us — a dead snag, dead branches on the ground, an old woodpile, mole runs, leaf litter, spent winter stems — are homes to most the wildlife we want in the garden. It makes no sense to foster insects and wildlife all season and then bag up or burn their overwintering egg cases in the fall. If you must, you can cut the dead stuff out whenever your inner Felix Unger insists that you do, but at least take it to an out of the way part of the garden and just let it be until early summer when it can safely go into the compost heap.

This rain garden contains a richly diverse plant grouping.

Limit the Use of Chemicals

Adding water, food and shelter will reap immediate dividends, but you could be simply attracting wildlife to their doom if you follow all of that with applications of nasty chemicals. Learn to tolerate some pest damage, or garden around it. Forget that perfect lawn. If a particular rose requires constant spraying, lose the rose. If insect damage threatens a favorite tree or other important element of the landscape, an application of something might be necessary. If it is, learn exactly which pest you face, and then use the most targeted treatment to solve the problem. You’ll find that with a diverse, rich landscape, it is pretty easy to avoid pesticides.

Then, have fun! It is such a delight to observe the many beautiful and interesting insects, birds, amphibians and mammals that come to visit. Get a few guidebooks. Knowing the different species and a little about them adds to the pleasure. If every existing garden aimed more at attracting wildlife, and if we could excite maybe every fourth or fifth essentially non-gardening household to start, we’d see such a healthier environment. You surely don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand that.


A version of this article appeared in a State-by-State Gardening print edition in July/August 2015. Photography by Scott Beuerlein.



Scott Beuerlein is a zoo and botanical garden horticulturist and chairs the Taking Root tree planting initiative. Contact him at


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