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Going Wild in the Garden

Why and how to create a wildlife-friendly landscape

APRIL 2022

Plants form the foundation of a wildlife-friendly garden. (Photo Courtesy: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center)

by Katie Jackson, Contributing Writer

Anyone who gardens, or even putters in the yard, knows that the simple act of gardening provides many benefits — fresh air, exercise, stress relief and access to fresh foods to name a few.

But they may not realize those simple acts can have a significant positive impact on the planet and all its interconnected inhabitants.

Entomologist and conservationist Doug Tallamy has been exploring and explaining those connections for more than three decades as a University of Delaware professor and researcher.

His work, which includes studying issues such as the impact of native versus nonnative plants on interconnected wildlife species (caterpillars and chickadees, for example) led Tallamy to write “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants.”

The award-winning book focuses on the whys and hows of gardening for nature and, since its publication in 2007, has made Tallamy a guru in the growing movement toward more nature-and wildlife-friendly gardening.

That movement has never been so important as it is today.


“We are in a global wildlife extinction crisis,” says naturalist and media star David Mizejewski, spokesperson for the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife program and author of “Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife.”

Monarch butterflies benefit greatly from wildlife-friendly gardening practices.(Photo Courtesy: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center)

“More than a million wildlife species worldwide are endangered,” he says. “In the U.S. alone, some 12,000 animal species are experiencing rapid population declines and one-third of all native wildlife species are at an increased risk of extinction in the coming decade.”

These statistics are disturbing because they represent the loss of irreplaceable wildlife populations and their dilemma may threaten healthy ecosystems.

Humans are connected to nature cognitively, says Michelle Bertelsen, an ecologist with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center in Texas. “We have evolved and learned to think by interacting with the natural world forever,” she says. “That doesn’t stop just because we may live in cities.”

“People have sought solace in nature during these tough times,” Mizejewski says, and many found it in their own yards, especially at the peak of COVID-19 shutdowns and stay-at-home orders.


“There is a central role that Joe Public can play because Joe Public owns the country,” Tallamy adds, explaining that while public parks, preserves and wilderness areas provide vital habitat for wildlife, they alone cannot save these species.

However, on the 78 % of U.S. land that is privately owned, wildlife-friendly management can have huge impacts on these animals and the overall health of the planet.

That kind of impact can occur anywhere and on any piece of land, from large rural fields to medium-sized suburban yards to tiny urban greenspaces.

According to Bertelsen, studies have shown that putting small strips of pollinator habitat between rows or on the edges of agricultural land can greatly benefit pollinators, which in turn benefits the crops. The same can happen in our yards.

“It’s amazing how much impact a small pollinator garden can have,” Bertelsen says. “Even tiny islands [of wildlife-friendly real estate] in cities can help these species out so much. A little bit really does go a long way.”

And when numerous people in the same vicinity and eventually across the globe provide wildlife habitats, such as pollinator gardens, the impact grows exponentially.


So what exactly is a wildlife-friendly landscape? According to Tallamy, it’s a landscape that contributes four components to the local ecosystem: It supports a diverse population of pollinators, supports the greater food web, sequesters carbon and protects and manages watersheds.

Many of these functions, says Mizejewski, can be accomplished by providing wildlife with four basic needs: food, cover, places to raise young and water.

“All wildlife, whether they’re in the wilderness or in our gardens, need these things,” Mizejewski says. As they create a food web, they also create an ecosystem that supports all life in the area.

The primary foundation of any ecosystem is the very thing that makes a garden a garden — plants. Native plants can provide three of the four basic circle-of-life needs — food, shelter and nesting/birthing sites. Just add water and you have a wildlife-friendly habitat.

Tallamy noted that even folks living in high-rise apartments and concrete jungles without access to so much as a postage-stamp sized patch of land can help by donating to, or volunteering with, conservation groups, public gardens and national, state or local parks.

City dwellers can also grow native plants on balconies, rooftops, vacant lots and any open strip of land or help establish wildlife-friendly beds or entire gardens at local schools, community centers or assisted living facilities.

Katie Jackson is a freelance journalist and book author with more than four decades of experience, including as gardening columnist for Alabama Living.