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Creating Beautiful and Beneficial Wildlife Habitats

By Painters Co-Owner Dana Owen, featuring advice and photos by Angela Esmond


Let’s “relate people to plants - a wildlife garden can be just as attractive to people as it is to wildlife!” (A quote from the National Wildlife Federation that we wholeheartedly agree with!)


First, you do of course need to do your research to determine what type of environment you have for each of your garden spaces - maybe you have a forest environment with almost full shade and rich mulchy soil, as well as a full sun area with sandy soil, and possibly also a wet, clay dense area with poor drainage. You want to reduce your frustration, time and expenses by determining this first so that you are planting the right plants for the right location. You may have limited space with all of the same sun exposure and soil type, but most yards contain several different microhabitats and you therefore need to plan several different gardens accordingly. If you’re new to this, just choose one space to start with… it’s easy to get overwhelmed and be unrealistic about the amount of work each garden can involve, especially if you need to amend your soil, remove a lot of rock, or remove a lot of invasives!

A well-designed wildlife garden can enhance your wildlife habitat, benefit pollinators and also improve ground water quality through natural filtration. When planned according to your naturally occurring conditions and using mostly natives, it can be relatively low maintenance, being more likely to flourish with less amendments or irrigation - for instance, we have a lot of beautiful native plants that do great in our native clay-rich soils without any amendment. (Don’t do what I did and try for years to convert a field of blue clay into a rich, crumbly soil - be smart about it and instead plan for a beneficial wetland/rain garden!) Identify and work with what you have and use the appropriate natives for those circumstances, and you will save yourself a lot of aggravation, money and wasted resources! Do a soil test, perform a basic test on how long your soil holds water, observe how many hours of direct sun you get in the location, and take the time to do your homework up front - trust me, it pays off!

-Work with what colors and shapes you already see occurring in your space - if you have a lot of certain color or texture already occurring naturally (or with your home or other structures), amplify that with complimentary textures or patterns.

-Mass plantings are very critical for pollinator support - we need to ensure that the insect has enough food. The added benefit is that all plants look best planted en masse - you get a big impact with a large swath of red bee balm, and it looks even better and provides even more ecological benefit if you repeat that species in several mass plantings through the space. If you don’t have a giant yard, choose just a few of your favorite pollinator plants and plant in groupings of 5+ plants rather than mixing a huge variety of beneficial plants in just ones or twos (many pollinator plants do well in container gardens also - just make sure to read how large they get at maturity and plan appropriately).

-Be sure to incorporate multiple heights, even if working with a small space. Ideally, you incorporate a few native trees as well as a variety of native shrubs of varying heights, but you may not have room. (Remember that that one Oak tree can feed over 500 species of caterpillars and support hundreds of birds and other wildlife! Native pawpaws, persimmons, black cherries, and serviceberries are all excellent support for birds, caterpillars, and butterflies as well as creating tasty produce!) Regardless of your space, focus on more low to medium height plants with the taller plants as your backdrops and highlights. Make sure you are aware of the mature size of each plant when designing - it may start small, but next season it could block out some lovely shorter species behind it. Some native herbaceous plants can get very tall and sometimes a bit floppy - you can stake them, but you can also plan to plant sturdy shrubs nearby or shorter, stockier plants and grasses around them to help support them. Vines are a wonderful way to add height to your gardens and are great for smaller spaces; native honeysuckle, clematis or crossvine can provide excellent food sources for moths and hummingbirds as well as add a lot of color and beauty to your space.

-In addition to planning for a variety of heights (and placing plants appropriately), we encourage you to play around with texture. I never was a fan of grasses until I visited some native landscapes with mass plantings of a variety of mature grasses, or saw them planted as a border. Grass seed heads can be more beautiful than many flowers, and many have a wide range of colors presented on their foliage, creating some lovely contrasts. They also create movement in the garden, swaying and sometimes creating soft sounds in the wind. Grasses are essential habitat for overwintering native solitary bees, and provide food and shelter for a range of wildlife. You can also increase textural interest by including a range of flower shapes - this is not only beautiful, but helps support a range of bee and other pollinator species (long-tongued bees love foxglove, while short tongued bees prefer plants like forget-me-nots).

-Water features of any type add great visual interest to the garden as well as providing an essential resource to wildlife of all kinds. A basic birdbath or bee bath is extremely helpful, and you don’t have to dig a massive water garden to enjoy a variety of aquatic plants and attract and support aquatic insects, amphibians and other wildlife that feeds on them. We encourage you to play around with water gardens, but incorporating a bird bath is something very simple and inexpensive that everyone should do - make sure to keep the water only about an inch deep and check it daily as it will dry up quickly in the heat. Placing some pebbles throughout is helpful for bees. If you have an area where moisture collects, work with it - dig the space out and allow water to pool, then plant the edges and moist soil surrounding it with species such as willows, buttonbush, winterberries, sedges, and rushes as well as blooming moisture lovers like cardinal flower, obedient plant, turtlehead and flag iris.

-Plan for blooms and seed heads or colorful bark and leaves throughout the seasons - this not only means you will have a diversity of plants which can support a diversity of wildlife, but also provides garden interest throughout the year for you to enjoy. Consider adding more of certain colors based on their benefits to wildlife - for instance bees are attracted to blue and violet shades (they see in ultraviolet!).

-If you prefer a more tidy and formal appearance, consider edging your gardens, creating paths, and sticking with more limited color palettes (you can still create a highly beneficial garden with only a few colors if you choose a range of beneficial species within that palette). Hedging can be beneficial for wildlife while also providing a more formal or organized appearance. We encourage using native plants for the hedge so you provide the best food sources for wildlife as well as shelter - a hedge of mixed species with different periods of flowering and fruiting will be most beneficial, and you can also incorporate small hedges or mass border plantings with species like lavender or rosemary which provide great nectar sources as well as a beautiful border option.

- When planting native/a majority native, then you want to plant the way they would naturally occur - this means planting more densely than you may have otherwise planned or been trained. Yes, you may sometimes get some mildew, but in general most natives are used to growing densely and in a great diversity of species - they support one another structurally, create a natural ‘mulch’/defense against invasives, and overall work well when planted thickly if done so in the appropriate light and soil. An additional critical benefit of planting more densely is aiding in groundwater filtration and creating cleaner water for our communities.

NWF’s guidelines for each height grouping of plant when planning:

-Structural plants (backbones of your design - trees, shrubs and taller perennials), should take up about 10-15% of your space. They provide shelter and food sources for birds and insects as well as general physical structure, shade and possible screening/privacy benefits.

-A variety of colorful flowering plants providing pollinator benefits and beauty should be varied based on early/mid/late blooming periods and take up about 25-40% of your area.

-Groundcover and border plants should act as the ‘green mulch’ of your gardens - these can act as a natural weed prevention (though some natives useful for this are often thought of as weeds such as clover), and they play a very important ecological role and can provide not only pollen sources but erosion control. Ideally these should consume up to 50% of your space (especially if replacing some lawn).

-Filler plants are shorter lived/annuals that serve to fill in gaps, helping to suppress weeds/unwanted plants and providing color and nectar sources - these should take up to 10% of your area… likely less as the perennials mature, but these often create a nature seed bank for a beautiful long-term pollinator garden.


(Most of this is required to be licensed as a Certified Pollinator Habitat.)

  • Nectar sources (which can include many annuals, non-natives and herbs)

  • Larval Host Plants (natives species that can feed a range of caterpillars and other larvae)

  • Water sources (you wouldn’t believe how much a single small water garden or bird bath will do to increase your pollinator and bird diversity!)

  • Shelter (Ideally native plants such as grasses, shrubs and trees that providing nesting habitats and safe shelter for everything from bees to birds to mammals)

  • A wide range of blooming plants that provide a variety of flower shapes and bloom from early spring to late fall.

While doing this, we also of course want to limit if not eliminate pesticides - if you must use some, at least focus on organic-safe, but keep in mind that you may be killing at risk native species such as monarchs along with those pesky Japanese beetles. (Try being selective and doing your research about host plants - you could spray an organic-safe pesticide on select veggies but not your herbs as so many herbs serve as food sources for native moths and butterflies).

We also want to remove invasive plant species that are taking over natural spaces, and it’s very helpful to leave piles of leaf mulch and dead branches/tree snags for shelter and nesting. We encourage you to leave your grasses up all winter for habitat (it adds texture and winter visual interest also), and if you deadhead plants that may provide beneficial seeds, consider collecting the stems and bundling them into a food bouquet to hang from a tree or porch, where birds can easily feed on them.


General methods for pollinator gardens: start by planting your potted items/bare root items, then sprinkle in the seeds throughout remaining space and cover with a thin layer of soil. Don’t thin seedlings when they emerge, just let them fill in.


Blooming Perennials:

Spring: Salvia nemorosa (such as May Night), Winter Jasmine, Hellebores, Green and Gold, Coreopsis Nana, Columbine

Summer: Joy Pye Weed, Penstemon, Agastache, Autumn Sage, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Butterfly Milkweed, Goldenrod, Blazing Star, Catmint

Late Summer-Fall: Autumn Sage, Pineapple Sage, Helianthus (we love Autumn Gold), Heliopsis, Helenium, Goldenrod, New England and New York Aster, Hardy Mums (we love Sheffield Pink), Autumn Joy Sedum

Summer Blooming Annuals:

Cosmos, Tithonia, Zinnias, Annual Sages (Black & Blue is a favorite)

Herbs (mostly summer blooming): Lavenders, fennel, dill, basils, chives, parsley, borage, marjoram, thyme (Herbs are particularly loved by bees!)

Shrubs (late spring-summer blooming): Itea, Viburnum, Clethra, Shrubby St. John’s Wort, Ninebark, Lacecap Hydrangeas


Summer-late Summer Blooming Perennials: Turtlehead, Obedient Plant, Cardinal Flower, Swamp Milkweed, Bee Balm

Shrubs: New Jersey Tea, Willows, Spicebush, Redtwig Dogwood, native Hibiscus


Perennials: Hostas, Bears Breeches, Astilbe, Hellebore

Shrubs: Annabelle Hydrangeas, Oakleaf Hydrangeas, Flame Azaleas


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