The right landscaping choices can help bring nature to your back door
Making the right landscaping choices can turn your yard into a wild kingdom.
Phyllis Gresham, chair of the Vegetation Committee for the City of Sanibel, has a spectacular yard on the island’s Poinciana Circle. She has planted an incredible variety of flowers, shrubs, and trees. People even come to tour it. But her yard is not just beautiful; it is also a sanctuary for a wide array of local wildlife. And that’s just what Gresham wanted. “It is a responsibility for us all to protect and respect those with whom we share this planet,” she says. “This is true for birds, beast, or fish! And, frankly, I am just delighted to see all of the creatures.”
Landscaping with wildlife in mind has benefits that go far beyond the enjoyment people get by seeing birds, insects, and other creatures amidst the plants, especially since much of the native wildlife habitat along the Florida coast has been destroyed by development.
“Landscaping for wildlife is integral in supporting its populations,” says Jenny Evans, native plant nursery manager for the SanibelCaptiva Conservation Foundation ( SCCF). “As natural habitat disappears, our backyards are the places where wildlife eats, sleeps, raises young, migrates to and through, rests, and generally lives.”
It’s not hard to have a yard that is gorgeous to look at and attracts birds, butterflies, and other animals. Fortunately, there is plenty of help out there for homeowners who want to achieve both goals. On Sanibel and Captiva, for example, SCCF runs a special “Landscaping for Wildlife” program. The group provides information packets, workshops, and tours of its native- plant gardens and will even make house calls to offer suggestions.
Often people think of gardens and yards as just attracting birds and butterflies. SCCF’s Evans says homeowners shouldn’t limit themselves. “On Sanibel, we have a variety of mammals, reptiles, and lots and lots of native insects other than butterflies, which in turn attract our insect- eating birds,” she says. With the right combination of plantings, all kinds of mammals and reptiles could also become regular visitors, everything from marsh rabbits and gopher tortoises to green anoles and even bobcats.
What all the animals are looking for is food and shelter. Plants that have flowers, seeds, nuts, or fruit will be a great food source. Vines, shrubs, and trees can provide cover and nesting sites. Native plants are easier to maintain, and native animal species are adapted to utilizing them.
Cabbage palms— the state tree of Florida— grow everywhere down here. Gresham says that her cabbage palms are “a virtual apartment house for wildlife. Birds nest there, raccoons and the red- bellied woodpecker eat the fruit, small bats and snakes hide and rest there, and spiders and scorpions hide in the boots.”
Another great tree for wildlife is the strangler fig. Its fruit is eaten by a whole host of birds and animals, and the tree itself is a favorite shelter for many birds as well as lizards, raccoons, rodents, and snakes.
But one species alone won’t create a welcoming environment for wildlife. “It is very important to have a diversity of plants,” says Gresham. She suggests a variety of trees, shrubs, vines, and grasses. The more variation in height, the better it will be for attracting different types of wildlife.
Plants should produce flowers and fruits at different times of the year to provide a continuous food source for animal visitors. Though pretty, manicured lawns provide little in the way of food, nothing in terms of cover, and certainly aren’t native. They also require a lot of maintenance. Native ground covers such as sunshine mimosa require much less work and supply wildlife with food and shelter.
But continuous vegetation isn’t a requirement. Yards can have “islands” of vegetation that are fairly close together, so that
Though pretty, manicured lawns provide little in the way of food and nothing in terms of cover. Native ground covers such as sunshine mimosa require much less work and supply wildlife with food and shelter.
It’s not hard to have a yard that is gorgeous to look at and attracts birds, butterflies, and other animals.
wildlife can easily and safely move from one section to another.
Butterflies and birds are the easiest animals to attract and provide a colorful addition to the yard. But both are very particular in their needs. Different types of butterflies like different types of flowers. And if they lay eggs in the garden, the caterpillars will need leaves on which to munch.
When it comes to birds, nectar- eating hummingbirds like flowers. Many of the smaller birds like fruits and seeds. Even insect- eating birds can be attracted by flowers that, not surprisingly, attract insects. ( Check with SCCF or University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ local extension offices for specifics on what to plant to attract particular types of butterflies or birds.)
Besides the plantings, provide a source of water, such as a birdbath or even a small pond if you’re so inclined. This will attract more birds. “I have a red- shouldered hawk that bathes in one of my deeper birdbaths,” says Gresham. ( Birdbaths should be flushed with clean water at least once a week to prevent mosquitoes from breeding there.)
Look at a dead tree or stump as more than just an eyesore. Many insects burrow into the rotting wood, providing a buffet for birds. Woodpeckers especially love it. It also provides an excellent roosting site for larger birds.
Birds and insects are just the start. Ponds can attract amphibians or reptiles like frogs, turtles, and snakes. A big- enough pond may even attract an alligator or two. Yes, they can be dangerous, so enjoy them from a distance.
Brush piles are also good for providing food and shelter for small mammals and reptiles, such as snakes. The good news is that most of these slithering creatures are harmless and an important part of the local ecosystem. On Sanibel and Captiva, the only poisonous snake residents need to worry about is the eastern coral snake, a small, reclusive creature that is seldom seen. On the mainland, there are also cottonmouths and rattlesnakes. Like the alligator, if given their space, even these snakes will not cause problems.
Sanibel is famous for its gopher tortoises— just think of its “Gopher Tortoise Crossing” signs. True to its name, the gopher tortoise is an excellent excavator and loves to dig burrows in dry, sandy soil. If you want to attract members of this endangered species, they love sunny, dry ridges. SCCF has a brochure on plants the tortoises like to eat.
An additional benefit of luring gopher tortoises is that their burrows can become home to literally hundreds of other animals. One in particular is the nonpoisonous eastern indigo snake, the largest snake native to North America and also an endangered species.
Work with your neighbors to establish larger areas of wildlife habitats. The more area that is hospitable to wildlife, the more wildlife that will use it. Make it easy and safe for the animals to get from one yard to the next.
“These creatures are not likely to be able to thrive from one out of every ten backyards creating a wildlife habitat,” says Evans. “And they are also not likely to thrive by solely depending on preserved lands.”
SCCF suggests creating natural, connected corridors of plants that wildlife can use, especially if they lead to waterways. In this way, homeowners can attract the wildlife that lives in protected areas.
This is exactly what Gresham does with her land, which adjoins one of SCCF’s preserves. She doesn’t mind when the occasional armadillo comes digging through her yard looking for grubs and insects; she enjoys whatever nature provides. As she says, “When a bobcat lies in the shade of a bay cedar with her kitten, I am blessed!” Freelance writer Ed Brotak is a retired-meteorology professor turned stay- at- home dad. He and his family live in western North Carolina, but they love Florida and vacation there every chance they get.