Creating A Green Home Backyard Sanctuary

Many native plant species and animals are loosing their habitats. The state of Washington loses over 35,000 acres of wildlife habitat to housing and other development each year. The trend is the same in states across the country.

Conservationists are turning their attention to preserving not just large tracts of land, but our own backyards. Putting conservation practices in place in your yard, no matter how small, will make it a friendlier habitat for all types of wildlife, have a profound impact on our environment and in the process you'll create a beautiful oasis for yourself.

By creating a wildlife sanctuary in your backyard you can make an important commitment to conserving and protecting our environment. You may already be providing a backyard habitat for wildlife; it's as simple as assuring these essential elements:

  • Shelter – active nesting areas or shelters that attract and protect birds and other wildlife. This can take the form of bird nests or leaving a small pile of old wood in a corner of your yard.
  • Food – plantings and feeders that offer seeds, flowers, and berries to wildlife. Learn what plants are native to your area; these are what your native wildlife will need for survival.
  • Water – birdbaths, water gardens, or natural features with flowing water. Water features are becoming an important part of backyard landscapes and can provide a home to frogs and be an important resource for wildlife.
  • Nesting Sites – bird boxes, natural cavities, or woodpiles and vine tangles. Birds that nest in "snags" (dead trees) will benefit from small piles of brush.

Your efforts towards creating a backyard sanctuary can cover a broad spectrum or be geared towards a single species. Creating a haven for butterflies will provide you with a varied and easy to maintain garden while providing you with hours of viewing entertainment. Butterflies also are an important part of the pollination chain and provide food for other species. To attract a single species you need to ensure that you are supplying food for the entire life cycle of that species. Butterflies will need a place to lay eggs, food plants for the larva (caterpillar), a place to form a chrysalis and nectar sources for the adult.

Most caterpillars are choosy about the plants they feed on. Just like most "choosy" mothers, female butterflies are very particular about what their young eat and therefore where they will lay their eggs. To ensure a proper food supply for their young, the female butterfly will only lay her eggs on the caterpillar food plants. Although the caterpillars will feed on the leaves of plants, the damage is usually minor and only temporary.

Caterpillars of some species feed on plants which are usually considered weeds. You can benefit populations of these species by leaving some in place and you may be surprised at the beautiful flowers they produce. Common caterpillar host plants include milkweed, thistle, nettle, clover, Queen Anne's lace, wild lupine, American elm, tulip, poplar, spicebush, goldenrod, vetch and black cherry. The list of cultivated plants include butterfly weed, parsley, fennel, apple trees, dill and passionflower. You may need to investigate what the butterfly varieties in your area need. If you grow the correct plants, "they will come."

For the adult stage it will be important to have nectar-producing flowers. Adult butterflies are attracted to red, yellow, orange, pink, or purple blossoms, flat-topped or clustered flowers, and short flower tubes. Short flower tubes allow the butterflies to reach the nectar. Nectar-producing plants should be grown in open, sunny areas, as adults of most species rarely feed on plants in the shade. There are over dozens of plants which are especially attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies, but some of the most popular include azalea, bee balm, clover, honeysuckle, phlox and zinnia.

You will need to tinker with your garden design to ensure that different plants are flowering at different times of the season. Clusters of the same flowers are easier for butterflies to locate than individual plants. Butterflies will also appreciate having basking stones or boards to perch on while sunning. Provide caterpillar food sources in both sunny and shaded areas but most adult butterflies will want to dine in the sun. Since butterflies cannot drink from open water sources, damp areas such as moist sand, earth, or mud will provide the best watering holes. Butterfly houses will allow butterflies to hibernate and nest protected from predators and harsh weather. Make sure the box is hung no more than four feet above the ground, has a south or southwest exposure. The inside walls need to be rough to provide footing for the butterflies. A dense brush will also offer the protection they need.

You can gear your backyard sanctuary to attract bees for pollination, frogs for bug control, hummingbirds or other specific birds. A little investigation on your part will ensure that you can provide what they need for survival through out the seasons.

Insecticides have no place in your backyard sanctuary. Products such as Malathion, Sevin, and Diazinon are marketed to kill insects. Eliminating insects will eliminate a part of the food chain and may poison some of the very things you are hoping to attract.

If you are interested in your property just being wildlife friendly as opposed to attracting a single species the following are some tips to get you started.

  1. Plant more trees and shrubs. Native varieties support native species. Dead trees (snags) are especially valuable to wildlife; try to keep them on your property if they pose no safety hazard.
  2. A water element in your garden will act as a magnet to many animals. Moving water is best, or change standing water frequently so that it will not provide a habitat for mosquitoes.
  3. Add bird feeders. A feeder for millet, one for sunflower seeds, and one for suet will appeal to a wide variety of birds.
  4. Birdhouses will increase feathered visitors. Cavity-nesting birds have been especially impacted by urban development. A birdhouse of the proper dimensions can substitute for the snags where these birds used to nest.
  5. Cover any openings under the eaves or other places around your house where house sparrows and starlings may nest. These non-native birds are undesirable competitors for food and nesting cavities and many native birds have suffered because of their presence. Birdhouses and feeders should be designed and managed to reduce use by sparrows and starlings.
  6. Control cats that may be prowling around your sanctuary; they can be especially harmful to birds that feed or nest on the ground.
  7. Get your neighbors interested in backyard wildlife. Several adjacent yards with good wildlife resources are even more effective.

There are various organizations that will officially recognize your backyard sanctuary. Contact your local Audubon Society, or the National Wildlife Federation at nmwf.org. It may seem like a small step in what often feels like an overwhelming problem. But many small steps taken together can add up. Look what snowflakes can accomplish when they work together!

Mary Farrell is an herbalist, environmentalist and teaches dowsing. She can be reached at 508-747-4290 or marpfarr@hotmail.com.