The Wildlife Garden

Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis) and Coreopsis

No matter how simple or complex, designed or haphazard, a garden is an ecosystem, a community of plants and animals interacting with the environment of a space — the sun, wind, rain, and soil. A wildlife garden is an ecosystem designed intentionally to attract birds and butterflies and other pollinators, not just because they’re enjoyable to watch, but because they need help to survive. Wildlife gardens compensate for habitat fragmentation and destruction by adding feeding grounds, nesting sites, and migratory way stations to the larger ecosystem, making up, if only on a small scale, for some of what has been lost.

In the Mid-Atlantic, an enthusiastic community of researchers and garden educators advanced the cause of wildlife gardening in 2020 through webinars, lectures, and courses sponsored by several environmental and gardening organizations. The speakers explained why it makes sense to create urban gardens that support wildlife, even if pocket-sized (Wildlife Gardening Workshop, Patterson Park Audubon Society), explored the data and science underlying the philosophy of wildlife gardening (Turning the Tide: A Practical Guide for Bringing Nature Home, Community Conservation Committee (C3) and Lancaster County Master Gardener Program — Penn State Extension), and in a three-session course, Inviting Wildlife into the Garden (Mt. Cuba Center), provided tips on attracting wildlife, discussed why native bees and other insects are essential for the survival of flowering plants, and described how to create a garden that meets the needs of migrating birds and hummingbirds.

From what I could tell as a fellow participant, audience members were ready to embrace wildlife gardening, despite its challenges. It takes research and thought to create a wildlife garden that succeeds ecologically and aesthetically. The commitment to giving it a try was heartening.

Plant layering is an essential component of wildlife gardens and one of the challenges. By installing plants of varying heights and differing roles, and preferably species that appear together in nature — canopy and midstory trees, understory shrubs, perennials, and ground covers, and for the perennials, mixing specimens that are upright, mounding, and trailing — the ecosystem knits together in a way that feeds and shelters wildlife. It becomes a plant community, similar to a natural landscape or the woodland edge of the neighborhood park down the street, which in the early morning is filled with birdsong.

Agastache with Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

When my garden fills with birdsong, it’s often in response to feeders packed with suet and black oil sunflower seeds. If I remove the feeders, I lose the diversity of birds and the density. My garden is not yet a wildlife garden, a landscape that, through its plant selections and designed plant communities — its layering — provides food (insect larvae, berries, seeds), nesting sites, and safe spaces for birds, bees, butterflies, and other creatures.

I’ve tested how a wildlife garden might work, by planting a few native perennials, and the process is rewarding: agastache and asters brought in bumble bees and swallowtails, cardinal flower led to daily hummingbird visits, and butterfly weed supported a new generation of monarch butterflies. These individual plantings can be magical attractions, with ruby-throated hummingbirds and monarchs materializing as if through spontaneous generation, but they are only parts of a plant community and do not offer a succession of resources for wildlife throughout the year. That’s where another challenge emerges, of designing a garden that is not only visually appealing in all seasons, as a garden should be, but that offers sustenance and shelter to wildlife from January through December.

To recreate nature is impossible, but attempting to build an inviting garden with wildlife-supporting plant communities provides insight into how nature works, especially the relationship between plants and pollinators. Understanding nature’s complexity encourages more experimentation to see if nature can at least be approximated, and a reinforcing loop that benefits wildlife begins.

In the last year and a half, at least three significant wildlife population declines have been reported, in North American birds1, wild bees2, and monarch butterflies3. Creating wildlife gardens is one step gardeners and landscape designers can take toward reversing these declines. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who have been leading the way.


  1. “Nearly 3 Billion Birds Gone.” Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Cornell University. Accessed January 2, 2021.
  2. Rutgers University. “Decline of bees, other pollinators threatens US crop yields.” Science X. July 28, 2020. Accessed January 2, 2021.
  3. Curry, Tierra. “Eastern monarch butterfly population plunges below extinction threshold.” Center for Biological Diversity. Science X. March 20, 2020. Accessed January 2, 2021.

If you’d like to read more . . .

Holm, Heather. Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants. 2014. Minnetonka, Minnesota: Pollination Press LLC.

Oudolf, Piet and Henk Gerritsen. Planting the Natural Garden. 2019. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Oudolf, Piet and Noel Kingsbury. Planting: A New Perspective. 2013. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Rainer, Thomas and Claudia West. Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities That Evoke Nature. 2015. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Tallamy, Douglas W. Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard. 2020. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Weaner, Larry and Thomas Christopher. Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change. 2016. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Accessed January 2, 2021.

Note: The original draft of this post was written on January 1, 2021.

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