May 2015

Welcome to my garden!

Marla Mertz, Marion County Conservation, and Linette Bernard, Feathers & Ink

Landscaping and Gardening for Wildlife

Iowa is currently considered the most altered state in the nation. It is somewhat troubling to even write that statement. Fortunately many Iowan’s are being creative and working towards the protection of our native plants and animals. Observing wildlife isn’t only achieved in parks and preserve areas, your backyard can also be a place for observation and discovery. Over 100 species of birds may utilize your backyard habitat as well as numerous butterflies and other animals, such as bats, squirrels, and snakes.

Landscaping for wildlife in your backyard is great for those interested in observation but is also an opportunity for natural insect control. Good habitat for natural insect predators like bats, purple martins, dragonflies, tree swallows, and bluebirds can help rid you of mosquitoes, grasshoppers and others. A single bat can eat 3,000 to 7,000 insects each night. Snakes can eat up to five mice a week and should be considered in your habitat planning.

Your wildlife habitat can also be more cost-effective than vast lawns. Native plantings require little care once established and saves money because they do not require mowing. Native plants are adapted to the climate making them much hardier than non-native plants.

In order to landscape for wildlife in your backyard, first you need to understand habitat. A habitat is the place where an animal or plant normally lives and is often characterized by a dominant plant form or physical characteristics like a forest or stream habitat. Some species are adapted to living in only one type of habitat. The wildlife you attract will depend not only on the type of habitat existing in your yard, but also on the habitat in the surrounding area. It is always best to work with the dominant habitat in your area.

Wildlife have four basic needs for survival that are the building blocks of habitat; can anyone guess what those might be?


Every species of wildlife has its own food requirements which can vary with age and season. Several types of food can easily be provided in your backyard habitat. Fruit and seed bearing trees and plants are important, such as oak trees and sunflowers. Shrubs and grasses provide year-round forage and browse plants. Planting a variety of plants can provide food in all four seasons.


Water is essential for all wildlife and should be provided year-round if possible. Wildlife prefers moving water but bird baths are acceptable, but need to be cleaned and freshened regularly. During the winter months, you could use a heated birdbath, pond, or even a heated dog dish.


Shelter is necessary for protection from predators and adverse weather. It is critical during the breeding season when animals are trying to raise young or when animals are trying to rest or sleep. Ideal cover involves dense vegetation from vines, shrubs, and large conifers, like spruce or red cedar. Conifers are not deciduous and remain green year-round and are excellent for providing cover in all four seasons. Shelter can also be provided by structures such as rock and brush piles and bird and bat houses.


All wildlife species have different space or territorial requirements. For example, a pair of nesting bluebirds need about five acres of grassland with scattered trees (more than a typical backyard can provide). In contrast, house wrens have small space requirements and a pair can easily be attracted to a small backyard.

More tips and hints to think about when planning your garden to attract birds on this presentation.

Learn more:

Most importantly, landscape your yard with realistic goals for attracting different wildlife species and research their requirements.

Check out the "Native Plant Landscaping" album in Google Photos from 2012-2014 of native plantings in a suburban yard in Iowa. These plantings were started in 2008.

These are four important elements that animals need to survive and are all dependent on each other. If any component of habitat is missing or is affected significantly so that the arrangement for the individual animal or population of animals is no longer suitable, there will be an impact. Over time this impact may be significant. There are additional limiting factors beyond those of suitable food, water, shelter, and space. Disease, predation, pollution, accidents, and climatic conditions are other factors which can impact plant and animal populations.

Loss of any element of habitat will have impact on the animals living there and the components of habitat must be in an arrangement suitable to the needs of the individual animals or populations of animals in order for the animals to survive.

Books to help you plan:

    • Gardening with Prairie Plants: How to create beautiful native landscapes, by Sally Wasowski

    • Landscaping with Wildflowers: An Environmental Approach to Gardening, by Jim Wilson

    • Bird Gardening Book: The Complete Guide to Creating a Bird-Friendly Habitat in Your Backyard

    • The Butterfly Book: An easy guide to butterfly gardening, identification, and behavior, by Donald and Lillian Stokes, Ernest Williams

    • Your Backyard Wildlife Garden: How to Attract and Identify Wildlife in Your Yard, by Marcus Schneck

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