Designing for Wildlife

For some people, creating space for wildlife in their yards is a no-brainer – a habit they grew up with that doesn’t require much effort. For others, it’s a new endeavor that leaves them unsure of where to start or apprehensive that wildlife and a carefully constructed landscape design won’t mix. With a little forethought and understanding, your yard’s landscape design can be an attractive retreat for both nature and your family.

American Goldfinch eating seeds of Purple Coneflower

Habitat is Where It’s At!

An empty, sterile yard doesn’t encourage you to spend time outside and it doesn’t invite much wildlife either. The same elements that create spaces we want to inhabit tend to welcome smaller guests, too. Incorporating trees and shrubs into a landscape design provides birds places to perch, build nests, and escape from predators. Even a yard with bird feeders will have few visitors without adequate cover nearby. Flowering perennials attract pollinators like bees and butterflies while providing shady spots on the ground for toads. Adding organic matter to the soil through compost or shredded bark mulch creates a favorable environment for earthworms and other beneficial insects, which in turn attract more birds.

When choosing plants for your landscape design, look for those that do double (or triple) duty: multiple-season interest for you (flowers, leaf color), edible fruit, and cover. Serviceberry is a perfect example: pretty white flowers in the spring followed by tasty fruit that robins and cedar waxwings love, an attractive shape, beautiful fall color, and lovely bark and architecture through the winter. Include a balance of evergreen (for cover and winter interest) and deciduous flowering shrubs (for pollinators and summer interest). Oak trees make graceful shade trees while providing habitat and are a vital food source. Squirrels, woodpeckers, and blue jays love oak acorns, while owls and hawks prefer their open, sturdy branches for perching and watching for prey.

Cedar Waxwing eating the fruit of Serviceberry

Water is a Must

Bird baths are often thought of (and sold) as decorative pieces in landscape designs, but providing water is crucial for attracting wildlife to your yard. While all animals need to drink water to survive, birds also need to bathe to maintain their feathers for flight and insulation in cold weather. Pedestal baths near shrubs and small ornamental trees allow birds to take a dip and then alight to nearby branches to finish preening. Ground level baths are accessible to birds, rabbits, squirrels, and ducks.

There are many varieties of birds that aren’t interested in seed feeders that can be seen at the birdbath, including resident insect eaters like robins and migrating warblers. Perfectly situated between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, northern Illinois is a primary migration path for many species of birds. These birds will happily visit backyard birdbaths, giving us welcome opportunities to see them in person.

Keep fresh water available all year-round with either a heated birdbath or by adding a special heating element to your bath – you’ll have many grateful birds visiting your yard (and you’ll help them survive!). Once you witness a robin splash like a delighted toddler in the water, you’ll want to keep your birdbath full!

Black Capped Chickadee in the birdbath

Don’t Forget the Pollinators

With increasing development dwindling our open areas and our over-fondness for chemical herbicides causing habitat loss, pollinators like the Monarch Butterfly are struggling to survive. Many gardeners are paying more attention to the plants they add to their landscape design, requiring them to not just be pretty, but also help sustain bees and butterflies.

Monarch caterpillar on Milkweed

Monarch Butterfly on Zinnia

To attract butterflies to your yard, choose perennials with flowers they love: Coneflower (Echinacea), Bee Balm (Monarda), Butterfly Bush (Buddleia), Blazing Star (Liatris), Aster, Catmint (Nepeta), and Phlox. Also, consider host plants that they’ll lay their eggs on and caterpillars can eat. For Monarchs, the only host plants are members of the Milkweed family, such as the bold and brash Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), the mid-sized, daintier Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and the smaller, more refined Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa). The beautiful Black Swallowtail butterfly is easy to attract to your yard with the right plants. They lay eggs on members of the carrot family, so you may find caterpillars on Parsley (flat or curly leaf), Dill, Fennel, and Celery. Plant a little extra in your herb garden so you can share and the Swallowtails will find your garden!

Black Swallowtail Caterpillars on Parsley

Black Swallowtail Butterfly on Salvia

Bees are important pollinators that are vital not just for ornamental plants, but food crops as well. You may not notice them, but they’re busy as soon as the first flowers of Vernal Witch Hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) open in March. Pachysandra – which we adore for being an evergreen groundcover – has little white, fragrant flowers in early spring that bees love. You’ll also see bees on early spring bulbs like daffodils and crocus (yet another good reason to plant bulbs in the fall). While they’ll go to any flowering perennial in the summer, adding some Allium, Stonecrop (Sedum), Catmint (Nepeta) or Calamint (Calamintha), and Bee Balm (Monarda) to your landscape design will let them know you want them to stay – all while putting on a dazzling flower show for you.

Bee flying towards Grape Hyacinth (a spring-flowering bulb)

Many of the flowers that attract bees and butterflies also attract hummingbirds. Did you know that they act as pollinators, too? In addition to the flowering perennials mentioned earlier, they love annual Salvia, Verbena, and Lantana – perfect additions for any sunny spot or container. You can also encourage them to visit with a hummingbird feeder (or 2…or 3). Store-bought nectar isn’t necessary; just boil 1 part sugar in 4 parts water (i.e. 1 cup sugar in 4 cups water) – skip the red food coloring – the hummingbirds don’t need it and may be harmed by it! Keep the extra nectar in the refrigerator so cleaning and refilling the feeder is easier. Hummingbirds migrate, usually arriving in northern Illinois by late April/early May and leaving again in late September. Once they discover a reliable source of food and habitat, they’ll return to your yard year after year!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Honeysuckle

Cooper’s Hawk at the birdbath (predators need water, too!)

Know when to hire a professional!

Love the idea of sharing your yard with wildlife but not sure where to start? The designers at Bruss Landscaping can help you turn your landscape design into an oasis for your family and the natural world, all while accommodating your busy and evolving lifestyle. To find out more about it, visit us here:


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