Landscape for Wildlife
by Laurel Schiller and Dan Walton
Landscaping for wildlife means using native plants in your homescape. Native plants have been growing here for thousands of years without human intervention, and are the natural food, shelter, and nesting plants of our local wildlife. Native plants and native wildlife have evolved together in an intricate food web. Though birds, lizards, toads, frogs, foxes, butterflies etc. may use exotic plants as alternative food sources or resting sites, they look to the native plants for predictable sources of nectar, berries, insects and firm branches in which to hide their nests.
When you plant native plants you add life to your landscape, and you create a haven on your property for wildlife. This is about living with and supporting nature around our homes. It is the opposite of having a homescape dominated by a lawn and a few palms or shrubs that will be a sterile space with respect to wildlife.
We have the extra joy here of supporting not only diverse populations of resident wildlife but also migratory species that pass through Florida on their way to southern winter and northern summer ranges. This makes us an especially important wildlife corridor as well as homeland.
Wildlife need food, shelter, nesting sites and fresh water. To support many kinds of wildlife we need to create many different kinds of wildlife spaces on our property. Killing the grass and planting an eighteen-foot buffer around the backyard is a start. This area should include various shrubs of all sizes that berry in the spring or fall. They should have strong, stiff branch angles to support nests, and provide hiding places from the ground up. We tend to think trees and low-growing ground covers are the most important, but it is the middle story shrub layer that wildlife utilize the most. Allow this area to become dense, perhaps overgrown, and definitely neglected. The last thing a pair of nesting cardinals want is someone out there every other week taming the wilderness…pruning, shaping, thinning, weeding.
Make sure one area of your homescape connects with another. By this we mean that there should be enough lower and middle story plantings to provide a sheltered corridor for lizards, frogs, rabbits and mice to move about freely from area to area without being picked off by you or another predator. Create woodpiles and brushy thickets in which critters can hide. This is especially important for those species that don't fly. Nesting rabbits, native mice and rats, perhaps foxes in rural areas need ground shelters or places to hide burrows. Always remember the food chain. Owls eat mice, baby rabbits and rats. If you want to hear hooting at night, you need to think of hiding and nesting places for female rabbits, mice, and rats.
A source of fresh water, particularly during the winter dry months, attracts wildlife to your homescape. This can be a series of containers such as a birdbath, wet stone for butterflies, or a shallow container full of water buried in the sand for small critters. One of the most enjoyable features one can create in a backyard wildlife oasis is a small fresh water pond of pickerel weed, soft-stem bulrush, and water lilies. Trickling water from a small submerged pump attracts birds by the droves. Dragonflies will flitter across the surface and frogs will miraculously appear and reproduce at will.
It is also important to include places in which wildlife can give birth to and rear their young. Dead trees, old snags, palms that have recently died attract cavity nesters such as woodpeckers and owls. These should be left on your property unless they are located in a position to fall on you or your house. Dead fronds on your palms are daytime roosts for mosquito-eating bats.
As development reduces native habitat, homescapes become more and more important for wildlife survival. Gardening takes on added enjoyment when you are not only using plants to which you are attracted, but are also contributing to the survival of our biological heritage.