March 29, 2021
By Brandon Butler
It does not take a large tract of land to attract wildlife. There is plenty of room in your backyard to grow and maintain plants, bushes and trees that provide benefits to deer, turkey, squirrels, birds, butterflies and more.
This list includes just a few of the options available for creating a backyard habitat for wildlife. You may be surprised at how robust your local wildlife population is once your place becomes the go-to destination for the critters in the neighborhood.
1. Purple Coneflower
Aside from being an aesthetically beautiful flowering plant, purple coneflower nectar is a favorite of bees and butterflies. Many birds also feast on the seeds. Growing between 2 and 4 feet tall, these plants do well in a range of soil from moist to dry, making them easy to establish. They like sunshine, so plant them where they’ll be exposed for at least six hours per day.
2. Common Sunflower
Hunters and anglers aren’t the only ones who enjoy sunflower seeds. Many bird species, including soulful-sounding mourning doves, along with squirrels, chipmunks and other small mammals love them. Common sunflowers grow up to 8 feet tall and need about two feet of room to grow. Plant them fully exposed to the sun, and expect blooms to begin mid-summer.
3. Big Bluestem
Above ground, native grasses provide critical habitat for most wildlife species. Down below, the root structures of native grasses grow much deeper than their engineered cousins, providing benefits in soil health and creating robust microbial communities. Big Bluestem is a warm season, perennial bunchgrass that grows around six feet tall. Insects will abound in the grasses, meaning birds will too.
4. Indian Grass
Another warm-season perennial, Indian Grass grows shorter than Big Bluestem, so it serves as a great grass to blend amongst other plants. It’s a coarse grass and does well with erosion control, making it ideal for sloped terrains. Plant it in the full sun and look for its light-brown, feathery panicles to bloom in the peak of summer. The thick grass habitat will fill up with wildlife.
5. Prairie Blazing Star
If looks matter, plant Prairie Blazing Star. This beautiful flowering plant has a purple head that pollinators crave. A single plant can have up to 40 flower spikes, though fewer are more common. It grows on average around four feet tall and typically blooms in July. Bees and butterflies will be all over your Blazing Star.
6. Red Cedar
If a snowstorm hits and you have red cedars on your place, critters will fight to be there for shelter from the storm. Actually junipers, red cedars are an evergreen that offer birds, deer, rabbits and just about any other animal shelter all year round, but especially in bad weather. The berries provide food from summer through winter. More than 30 moth and butterfly species lay their eggs on red cedar trees.
7. White Oak
Deer walk right past red oaks to find the much sweeter acorns of a white oak. White oak acorns have much less tannic acid than reds, making them more pleasant to the taste. However, they are less hardy, so they’re eaten fast. If given too much time on the ground, they are susceptible to rot. White oaks only grow about a foot per year, so it takes them a while to mature. They won’t begin producing acorns until they’re 20 years old, but a healthy white oak will live hundreds of years. Providing a home to countless squirrels.
8. Crab Apple
If one crab apple tree is good, a cluster of them is great. Deer love crab apples, but many more species benefit from these trees. The sweet nectar of crab apple tree flowers is appealing to pollinators, the thick branches provide nesting cover for birds, and the fruit is eaten by insects, birds and mammals. These trees stay relatively small, growing a mere 15 to 20 feet tall. They live up to 70 years.
9. Blackberry Bushes
If you plant blackberry bushes for wildlife, you’ll have to keep yourself from outcompeting the critters for these sweet berries. The bushes do best in climates with warm days and cool nights. Plant them in well-draining soil. They like sandy areas. Make sure you plant your bushes where they have plenty of room to spread out. Blackberries will climb a trellis if you provide one. Once the berries are ripe, birds will gorge on them, but so will bears. Watch out if you’re in bear country.
10. American Holly
Food and shelter, two basics tenants of survival provided by one bush. Holly provides excellent habitat for birds and small mammals, most of which also enjoy dining on the red berries the plant produces. It grows to about 50 inches tall and is easily controlled by trimming, making it an excellent choice for a barrier bush along a property line.
An old, unattributed Greek proverb states, "Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in." Creating habitat for wildlife provides one with a sense of accomplishment and joy hard to explain to those who do not share our love of nature. For those of us who do understand, we are thankful for your efforts. So too, will be generations of wildlife enthusiasts who may never know your name, but will be grateful for what you did all those years ago.