Steps to Making Your Backyard a Wildlife Refuge

Every morning we get up to check on the garden and our plant collection here at Rancho Gatito. And every morning there is more to witness--there’s another native bee we’ve never seen before. There’s a bird back in the neighborhood for the season. There’s evidence of caterpillar munching on this plant—who is it?

It wasn’t always this way in our yard. When we first moved Rancho Gatito, about 2 and a half years ago, it was an empty, blank slate. The pigeons and house sparrows were the only wild birds in the yard (eating our chicken food). Only one large hackberry tree was present on our property, and a mesquite that hung over our neighbor’s fence.

We began planting and feeding the birds. It seems counterintuitive to put food out when you don’t want pigeons eating the chicken food. But we thought we might distract them.

 Every landscape and garden bed was dug and amended.

Every landscape and garden bed was dug and amended.

Over a period of a few months we graded our landscape, installed several garden beds, created a separate chicken run/coop, created an apiary for our beehives, and planted a lot of native plants in the landscape.

In that time we noticed the diversity of birds increasing. Suddenly we had finches, doves, then some abert’s towhees. We really wanted goldfinches so we planted things that they ate seeds off and added niger seed to our bird feeding regime.

Since that time we’ve counted just over 50 species of birds in our landscape. We’ve noticed countless native bees, wasps, and other nectar feeding insects. And we’ve counted over 40 species of butterflies and moths.

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Another strange thing we observed: the pigeons don’t come in our yard anymore. This wasn’t our intent, it just happened. We suspect they prefer locales with less or no competition.

Below is a list of some of the things we did to make our backyard a biology wonderland--these are things we encourage you to do. The goal for us is to create more safe spaces for wild things to exist, but there is a human benefit too: one of the benefit of gardening that doesn’t get enough attention is the increase biology that follows. Plants have a visual beauty that we understand, but they also have a complicated beauty defined by their relationship to the wild things that migrate through our small plots.

Don’t use pesticides!

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This should be obvious, but if you want wild organisms to thrive, don’t poison them. Change your attitude when you see a plant nibbled down. Instead of asking yourself “how do I kill this thing?”, step back and wonder, “Who ate this plant? Is it a butterfly or moth?” Be curious, not reactive.


Plant in layers

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Consider the trees first, then the large shrubs, then the smaller shrubs, then the perennials and native grasses, add succulents and accent plants. Make sure there are several layers of habitat for wild things to occupy.

Consider when your plants are flowering

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Do you have some periods and seasons when little or nothing is flowering? Remember that flowers = food. Try to have something blooming in the landscape at all times.

Plant a diversity of flower types

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Plant nectar plants with tubular flowers for the hummingbirds and verdin. You know the plants: the honeysuckles (Anisacanthus spp.), chuperosa and other Justicia species, autumn sage and other Salvia species, and all the plants with hummingbird in their names. Plant species in the Asteraceae (Daisy family) like dogweed (Thymophylla pentachaeta), blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leuthanthum), desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata) and blue mist flower (Conoclinium greggii). Plant legumes like all the various indigo bush species (Dalea spp.). Plant as many milkweed plants as you can (Asclepias spp). Different organisms prefer different types of flowers, so provide as much diversity as you can.

Is there standing water available?

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Make sure you have a place for birds and bees to drink. Use rocks for the bees so they can climb down to drink (the birds work around this just fine). This is especially important in summer but also during the dry periods of the cool season.

Have a compost pile

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A good compost encourages so much biology, small and large. Birds will pilfer your pile. Insects will make nests in your pile. It’s a free-for-all in there, in a good way. Learn to manage a nice, aerobic, balanced compost (we’ll post an article on the subject soon). The other result of doing this is that you create rich amendment for your soil.

Grow enough for everyone

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If you have a vegetable and herb garden, you will have to share. Plant enough of each variety that if you fail, you will still have enough. There are lots of butterflies that use garden vegetables as larval plants: the black swallowtail uses parsley, the cabbage white uses anything in the mustard family. Let them have some!

Plant native grasses

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Grasses are passed up in the landscape because people don’t know how to use them. We’ll dive into this in future blog posts but know this: many birds and solitary bees need grasses for nest building and they also collect their pollen. Also, native grasses are the larval food plants for many butterflies, especially the various species of skippers. There are many, many attractive native grasses to choose from. NOTE: Please don’t plant or encourage exotic, invasive grasses like fountain grass (Pennisetum setacetum) or buffel grass (Pennisetum cilare).

Make sure you plant fruiting plants

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An entire host of birds depend on fruiting plants like greythorn (Ziziphus obtusifolia), wolfberries (Lycium spp.), snakewood (Condalia spp.), prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.) and hackberries (Celtis spp). Also leave the mistletoes on your trees (they don’t harm healthy trees no matter what the guy who charges you to remove them says).

Consider the seed-bearing plants

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Many birds and mammals are granivorous, meaning that they consume seeds. Goldfinches are famous for this. Many plants provide seed that these animals love: the larger-seeded grasses like panic grass (Hopia and Panicum spp.), the evening primroses (Oenothera spp.), desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata), chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata), fairy dusters (Calliandra eriophylla), sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), and legume trees like mesquites (Prosopis spp.), and palo verdes (Parkinsonia spp.).

Plant a native velvet mesquite

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Just do it. The velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina) is a keystone species in our region providing nectar, seeds, shelter, and habitat for so many species. Make sure you got a true native. Many plants sold as native mesquites were from seed collected from trees near other mesquites and they hybridize readily. Your nursery source should know the source of the plants/seed and that source should be as wild and far from town as possible.

Make native bee hotels

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You can buy them too. But if you have a drill, and untreated wood, you can make a bee hotel. A number of species use holes for nests. After you install one of these hotels, you will notice them beginning to be capped--and not just with one type of material. Several species use these holes and use different materials to cap their nests.

Mulch, don’t rake

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Instead of throwing away organic material, rake it under the trees and shrubs. Not only does it feed plants, it provides materials for nests, and food for all kinds of organisms (visible and not). Leave some bare soil too: some bees that make subterranean nests in these places, and butterflies love to lick the moisture and minerals off of wet, exposed dirt.

Observe and document

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Make it a daily habit to walk through your landscape. Observe the drama that unfolds. If you do this daily, you will no longer need articles like this one for advice because you will observe for yourself what is happening and respond according to what you see. Keep a journal and document (and date) your findings to help you remember what happened the year before. Get binoculars and a magnifying loop.

This is the most important aspect of wildlife gardening and landscaping. We ask you to consider, if you are spending the time to put plants in your yard, you should get to know them, and the drama that surrounds them. We used to just look at plants as stand-alone features. But now, we realize that plants are part of the stage for the drama of the wild to unfold. When you take notice of this, you’ll want to protect and encourage this drama. Until we humans redevelop a relationship with nature as a whole, a few of us will need to help preserve it on whatever lands we have at our disposal.

Katherine Gierlach