Get Wild in Your Garden

How to turn your backyard into certified wildlife habitat

| July-August 2008

  • A Wild Garden

    image by Anni Betts

  • A Wild Garden

Gardeners are tuned in to the weather; we can’t help it. We grumble over droughts and fret about when the first hard freeze will hit. We notice when lilac and cherry blossoms emerge earlier in spring, and we’re quick to spot an unfamiliar dragonfly or hummingbird in the backyard. But sometimes those aren’t just idle observations; they’re signs that global warming is happening at home.

Wild creatures bear the burden of our behavior as much as we do: Unprecedented droughts, floods, and freezes erode habitat, throw off migratory routes, and make food and water sources scarce. Sprawl only compounds the problem; each year development claims more than a million acres in the United States, making it harder for a bird to find a meal or build a nest. Turning gardens into habitats is one way to fight back, which is why I took the only piece of land that I control—the 6,000-square-foot patch surrounding my home in Eureka, California—and restored as much wildlife habitat as I could.

My earliest forays into wildlife gardening were a few years ago, and my motivation was sheer vanity. The dance of orange painted-lady butterflies and the fierce whir of ruby-throated hummingbirds would, I thought, improve the allure of my flower beds. It turns out these creatures aren’t terribly interested in hydrangeas or roses—not enough nectar—so I found a native fuchsia with red trumpet-shaped flowers for the hummingbirds, and for the butterflies I planted yarrow and tall purple verbena, plants with sturdy, flat-topped blossoms that make good landing pads.

Soon I found myself cataloging the activities of the black and yellow agriope spiders that hung, pregnant and swollen to the size of grapes, from their webs. I began to count on the flock of red-breasted American robins that arrived each December to pick winter berries off the shrubs.

Over time, my backyard became a wildlife haven, a refuge from extreme weather and ravaged ecosystems. Last fall I made it official and registered it with the National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program ( The program has been around since 1973, but it has recently gained momentum. By spring 2008, there were nearly 100,000 certified habitats in yards and gardens near homes, businesses, schools, and places of worship, in both urban and more rural areas.

The designation might not mean much to the critters in my garden (they can find me without the help of a yard sign or a certificate), but in going through the process I made a statement not only against climate change but also in favor of something: in favor of nutritious seeds in wintertime and feathered nests in the spring, in favor of slippery tadpoles, fat grubs, and delicate egg cases suspended from blades of grass.

7/7/2008 7:30:04 PM

We also have a certified yard, and are mighty proud of our little haven. We've had beavers, river otters, hawks... even an osprey came to visit. Go for it, you'll be glad you did. Go to to learn more.

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