Yard Redesign For Wildlife

Our house, which is fully integrated with the native trees surrounding it; apologies for the crap myrtle…

Jeff VanderMeer

This weekend, I gave a talk on yard rewilding at Native Nurseries here in Tallahassee. Below you’ll find the information from the accompanying hand-out, much of which I mentioned in my talk. This is by no means a comprehensive overview of this kind of project, but may be of use in thinking about your yard.

You can also check out my Yard blog entry, my Yard Hacks piece for Orion, and my balcony rewilding piece for Esquire.com.

Are you currently in a mode of pushing back against the landscape or working with the landscape?

Kindness and close observation are two important qualities with regard to designing a yard for wildlife. Kindness refers to always trying to live in harmony with wildlife and to find imaginative and organic ways to do so. Close observation refers to knowing your yard and what lives in it well enough that you both do no unintentional harm and so you can help to the fullest extent.

What if your yard could not just be useful to wildlife, but the kind of sanctuary where wildlife feels safe, contented, and happy?

“Wildlife” should mean, as much as possible, the widest variety of organisms, from mammals and birds to reptiles, amphibians, and insects plus other invertebrates.

Clean, consistently refilled water sources are essential for wildlife in urban and suburban areas.

General Questions to Ask

  • How well do I know my yard already? Without having a baseline idea of how wildlife already uses your yard, you can’t determine what improvements to make and may actively hurt wildlife without realizing it. If you want to help wildlife and start by clearing all the bramble on your property, to prepare for planting, you may be removing habitat for snakes and rabbits. If you decide to clean up dead wood piles, you may be taking away the places box turtles live under. These are just examples of unintended consequences. Best to start your effort with as much observation of your yard as possible.
  • What are the 2 or 3 major ways I can better serve wildlife? Especially if there are major improvements to be made, you might be tempted to take on too much at once. It’s also true that you can cause harm by changing everything at once. You would be better served identifying the two or three areas of greatest concern and tackle them first. Once these improvements are in place, make sure to gauge their effects on other areas of the yard and make sure there are no unintended consequences.
  • What are the 2 or 3 things I can stop doing that will benefit wildlife? Sometimes you can help wildlife by just doing nothing. For example, if you’ve always raked up the leaves, stop doing so in as much of the yard as possible. This leaf layer forms a delicate biosphere of its own that creatures live their whole lives in, sometimes. We have skinks and insects that depend on the areas of the yard covered in leaves. Fireflies depend on these areas as well, before they mature.
Red-shouldered hawk reporting for duty.

Specific Things to Do

  • Conduct a tree survey of your yard and become familiar with the wildlife those trees support. Use the app PictureThis, which is 95% accurate. Native trees will always support the most robust biodiversity–much more than wildflowers, etc. So one thing you can do to help wildlife is nuture the health of your mature native trees and plant more.
  • Use the tree survey to determine which trees are invasive and should be removed, but do so at a time that will not harm wildlife (nesting birds, etc.). Over time, try to remove invasive trees that may only support a few organisms in your yard. We recently had three large camphor trees cut down. This not only will stop their saplings from spreading everywhere, crowding out trees with more food value for wildlife, but it opened up an area near the dry creek bed to plant understory trees and wildflowers that needed more sun to thrive.
  • Choose one or two areas for “wildlife enrichment” and focus on them first rather than attempt wholesale change across the entire yard (to avoid unintended consequences). Make sure you are realistic about the time, energy, and money you can spend on more or less terraforming areas of your yard to be of more wildlife benefit. Do not overcommit because consistency across time is more important than a short-lived fling with trying to help. If dealing with invasive plants, these areas where you plant natives are useful anchors–when battling invasives, start by weeding them out from these anchor areas, moving outward, to protect them.
  • Understand how wildlife travels through your yard and remove impediments (like unnecessary fencing) while providing enrichment along those paths. You can reduce conflict with your plantings by knowing how animals use your yard. I used to have more problems with raccoons digging up new plantings, because I didn’t realize I was planting them in the middle of animal pathways. CamPark trail cams are cheap but durable and high quality—invest in a couple to know what nocturnal wildlife lives in or travels through your yard.
Baby smols will be particularly susceptible to contaminants and poisons you add to your yard.

Preconditions for Success (as many as possible / practical)

  • No use of pesticides or herbicides or lawn treatments in the yard. Given new research on herbicides and pesticides, the long-term unintended consequences for organisms not the target of such products seem significant. For this reason, hand-weeding is far preferable to any mass application of herbicide, for example, to control invasives. If you do have to use an herbicide, please try to do spot application only. (For example on a tree stump.)
  • Limited or no outside lights at night. Outdoor lights of any kind disrupt lifecycles of nocturnal animals and insects. As possible, reduce or eliminate your personal light pollution. In Tallahassee, you can also request the city or county replace unshielded old-style street lights with more shielded ones. Neighbors may be receptive to a nature-based plea to reduce their light pollution, but are likely more receptive if you politely note it is interfering with your own enjoyment of your yard in the evenings.
  • Put out water sources. Especially in places like our dry-creek ravine, having water out for the wildlife is providing an incredibly important service. For one thing, the wildlife doesn’t have to come up out of the ravine in search of water, onto roads and near houses. Birdbaths of various types that don’t pollute the environment due to the materials they are made from will work for most everything, not just birds. But make sure to have some lid-like water sources flush to the ground for box turtles and other earth-bound smols.
  • Discourage feral cats. If you have outdoor cats that use your yard, review the law in your city and county and, within the letter of the law, attempt to get those cats spayed or neutered and homed. Although socially and culturally controversial, the science is clear: outdoor cats are terrible for ecosystems.
  • Do not feed wildlife (except birds; exception, check re guidelines re avian flu). In theory, as you rewild your yard, bird feeders will be less and less necessary, but be sure to monitor your particular situation so migratory birds have the roughly 10% of food they need from feeders during their long journeys. Otherwise, it is usually illegal to feed wildlife, for various reasons, including not wanting to habituate animals to humans. (However, I have found it’s okay to toss a grape to a box turtle once a year.)
  • Make your house secure by making sure there is no access to attics or crawlspaces. If you are going to attract wildlife to your yard, you don’t want to have to harm it through location or lethal means because it gets into your house. When starting this process, hand-check or get a professional service to affirm that there are no ways for animals to get into your house.
Best case: Your birbs are so happy in your yard, they start bossing other birds around.

Ways to See Your Yard

  • “Passive zones” encourage the preexisting native plants and trees and require only weeding out of invasive plants. This will preserve areas already likely of high value to wildlife. You may also be surprised over time what pops up from the native seedbank in these areas.
  • “Restoration” of part of whatever landscape you live in to what it would be like in an rural/ wilderness state. For example, our ravine would be most like the Garden of Eden Trail near the Apalachicola River. Thinking of restoration as plants in the right combination with one another helps build up complex ecosystems, which creates a more complex biosphere.
  • “Seasonal Richness” refers to having food in the yard for wildlife every season of the year. This approach may require some Florida friendly plants and trees that aren’t native but useful. (For example, we kept our camellias because they help pollinators in early winter when native flowers are dormant.)

Creative Fixes to Wildlife Conflicts

A willingness to find a solution that does not require lethal intervention or relocation goes a long way; the right mental attitude and the right analysis of the problem’s actual severity make a difference. (If a rabbit eats some of your vegetables, should it be World War III?)

  • Armadillos love moist ground, so supersaturate areas you don’t mind them digging; protect sensitive plantings with logs around them of at least 10 inches in diameter and armadillos will usually dig elsewhere.
  • Raccoons like to dig up new plantings; plant loosely if possible the first time and the dug up plant will usually not be damaged and the raccoon’s curiosity will be satisfied.
  • Don’t like yellow jacket ground nests? Put a dab of peanut butter at the mouth after dark (the wasps sleep at night) and within a week raccoons, opossums, or sharks… I mean armadillos drawn by the smell will find the nest and eat all the wasps.

What creative, organic solutions can you find to help your relationship with wildlife?

A Few Resources to consult (not comprehensive)

This series is absolutely amazing–you will learn more about Florida ecosystems and be able to then “translate” that to your yard in a holistic way than from any other book or books.

One comment on “Yard Redesign For Wildlife

  1. John Outland says:


    Thanks for thorough information about the potential to benefit wildlife in our yards. I have been a proponent of conservation subdivisions for large residential development’s such as Welaunee and Fallschase. Sadly the developers preferred to clearcut the forest.

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