habitat gardens

An American Robin perches in the sunlight on an old rustic bird bath

Imagine walking out your door into a world full of life. The air is alive as birds chirp. The resident hawk circles. Squirrels scamper. Dragonflies hover above your pond, and a garter snake lounges on the warm rocks. Butterflies and bees visit long-lasting blooms. Your garden is a magnet for songbirds because you planted shrubs that supply them with essential fat that fuels their long trek south. 

Your garden has become a habitat. 

When designed as a habitat, your garden not only will be a beautiful place for humans to relax but also can provide an environment where many local animal and insect species will flourish, which in turn, benefits the region’s natural plants and trees.

Wildlife needs our help. Human activity has changed and eliminated habitat, both locally and on the global scale, pushing birds, butterflies, and other wildlife into ever-shrinking wilderness areas. The disappearance of one or two species can have surprising effects on other species in the area, leading to dominance among some or the loss of others.

A male House Sparrow rests on a nesting box.

Habitat gardens are a simple way individuals can help. The National Wildlife Federation says habitat gardens can thrive in a variety of sizes and locations, not just in fenced-in suburban lawns. Window and patio planters in urban apartments and businesses, backyard gardens and school gardens can work well, as can gardens in large venues such as college campuses, zoos and aquariums. A mosaic of small habitats connected to larger greenspaces can serve as spaces for migratory birds and butterflies to rest and feed. 

My friend on Altadena has counted 64 species of birds in her backyard since moving to their home in 1999.

A habitat garden can have a positive effect on the health of the soil, air and water, benefitting both native wildlife and the human community. So, how do you create an inviting habitat?  It’s easier than you might think. If you provide for their four basic needs—food, water, cover and places to raise their offspring—wildlife will come. 

I learned the value of a sustainable habitat garden a few years after Jim and I were married and moved to Virginia Beach. Our realtor wowed us with brand new model homes. We were hooked. We chose wallpaper; we chose carpet; we chose bathroom fixtures. The house was beautiful. It even came with a “landscape package.” 

An Easter lilac flowers in Spring

The lawn was seeded, and five boxwoods were planted like little soldiers marching in a row in front of the house. Neat and tidy. It never occurred to me that disaster was lurking right outside my door. What could go wrong? 

Then it rained—not a nice slow, steady Pennsylvania rain but a downpour—and all the grass seed washed to the street. The hot sun came out and radiated off the driveways of my newly paved street, which had no trees like the street of my Mt. Lebanon childhood and no lawns to absorb the heat. We had no mature shrubs, no harbingers of spring like the unforgettable scent of French lilacs from my mother’s garden. The soil was rock hard from the heavy equipment and filled with construction debris.  In my new world, my habitat lacked everything.

Our neighbors put up privacy fences, and I was confused. Why not plant shrubs? It costs about the same, and in five years, those beautiful shrubs would have given them all the privacy they needed. “Too much maintenance,” they said. (I don’t have to tell you what those fences looked like after five years of no maintenance.) And there was no wildlife—no birds, no squirrels, no nothing. It felt dead. I had no idea how much I would miss the leafy canopy and the gardens I had loved as a child. 

A female ruby-throated hummingbird feeds on honeysuckle flowers.

I began to garden, and in five years made great strides. We planted trees and shrubs, and the birds came. We put out water so they would have something to drink and bathe in. We planted shrubs with berries so they would have food. Little by little we improved our tiny piece of earth, and then it was time to move. We found ourselves back in Mt. Lebanon while Jim attended law school. 

By this time, gardening was in my soul

I was pleased to find the soil at our new home to be hospitable, softer and easier to work. Mature shrubs lined our property, and beautiful, glorious trees cooled our home and provided nesting for all sorts of critters. We call the large blue spruce right outside our bedroom “the apartment building,” because it is home to dozens of nesting birds. Even though this house was smaller and didn’t have great wallpaper or matching tile in the bathroom, it was alive. 

Thus, began my journey into gardening and gardens. Those years in Virginia Beach taught me that home doesn’t start and stop at the front door. Just as we are stewards of our homes, we are stewards of our properties and—in a larger way—of our earth. If not humans, then who? 

The natural world is all around us. We can either delight in it or try to ignore it. One thing is certain: it won’t go away. So, there’s the challenge—what to do with the little piece of earth that you are responsible for? You can make a difference. Invite beneficial wildlife to your yard and neighborhood by planting a simple garden habitat that meets their needs while at the same time serving as a place where you can sit quietly, breathe in deeply and be refreshed.  

Imagine your garden teeming with singing songbirds, colorful butterflies, flitting hummingbirds and small wildlife. It is our responsibility and privilege to rescue our Earth one garden at a time.

Providing a sustainable habitat begins with your plants. When you plant native species that wildlife depends upon, you are beginning the process of creating a habitat that can restore your local environment. Native plants provide nectar, seeds, nuts, fruits, berries, foliage, pollen and insects eaten by an exciting variety of small wildlife. Feeders can supplement natural food sources.

All animals need water to survive, and some need it for bathing or breeding as well.

Wildlife needs places to find shelter from bad weather and places to hide from predators or to stalk prey. Aside from plants, feeders and nesting boxes are also helpful. 

Wildlife needs resources to reproduce and sustain their species. Some species have totally different habitat needs in their juvenile phase than they do as adults. Consider where the creatures you would like to draw care for their young.

Landscape designer Claire Schuchman is the owner of Exceptional Gardens.