Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: Modifying Your Design

photo of garden and yard under snow
My garden this morning, full of dreams.

Such potential! It’s almost time to plant the peas…and a little bit of snow on my garden this morning didn’t deter me from dreaming of what this year’s garden would look like, and remembering happy warm and sunny summer mornings out there with my feline supervisers.

I’m happily planning out this year’s garden which includes not only my vegetable garden but my entire yard. I would bet those of you who garden and manage a habitat in your backyard are doing the same, so it’s high time to consider design and layout for your vegetable and flower beds and your backyard wildlife habitat for the coming year, and any changes you need to make for new or problem areas in your habitat.

In this article I’ll discuss two of the most common issues that arise with backyard habitats: something in your design has actually created a new habitat for a pest, and a plant you’ve chosen for your habitat is either failing, or conditions it needs have changed over the years. We can always help a plant along or kill a pest with a lot of coddling and organic methods, or even resort to chemical means, but as much as we may want what we’ve worked so hard to establish in our habitats, the main goal is to let nature literally take her own course and manage the balance of your habitat naturally. That doesn’t mean you can only stand by and watch, though—you can meet the situation halfway, managing a pest or giving a plant an extra boost.

For total habitat beginners, you can start with the four introductory articles that explain what the habitat is and how to prepare your yard and develop it for wildlife. Or, you can easily read here and learn about adjusting what you’ve designed to suit changes in your yard or plans that didn’t work quite the way you’d planned.

Your lovely design has actually attracted pests

photo of section of backyard garden
The upper section of my garden at prime growing time…and prime slug time.

Ick. Slugs. Everywhere. And they weren’t drowning in my beer traps, they were having a pool party and getting the munchies later. My yard is near the bottom of a very steep hill, facing north. The soil is heavy clay and nearly always very damp, and more shady than sunny. You couldn’t ask for a yard less conducive to vegetable and flower gardening. As a result, when I run out of other things to do I can always battle slugs because they are always more than enough to do battle with.

When I first established my vegetable and flower beds in this yard, I used a number of ingenious methods of “clearing” soil to save time, much of which involved newspapers or other waste papers (those wide computer printouts from the old dot-matrix printers, for instance) covered with straw or wood chips, which I could get for free by the truckload from a friend with a tree service business. This layering killed off the grass and softened up the soil for easier tilling or hand-turning, kept the soil moist in the heat of the summer, and also became a convenient way to set up paths between the beds and walking paths, reducing the need for weeding. I was in heaven—less work, neat and orderly beds and all for free, with a little work.

The second year, I used some of the same methods to mulch the raised beds around my plants, and added the brick patio and brick edging on my raised beds. I would actually recommend this for someone with a very sunny garden, especially at the top of a hill.

white cat sleeping under brussels sprouts
Sally of the Garden, sleeping under the brussels sprouts.

The third year, slugs ate all my seedlings as soon as they came up. I had created the perfect breeding ground for slugs in the damp soil under all that paper and bricks where they love to hang out. They probably thought they’d reached Nirvana, and they had every intention of staying in paradise. I had to get rid of the slugs or trying to grow vegetables and flowers was senseless, and though removing all the barriers and bricks would have been a big step toward a solution,I liked my brick paths and mulching. With my feline garden patrol, seen at left and at the top, I certainly couldn’t spread slug bait all over my garden and flower beds. I set about looking for a compromise.

Carrying an armload of my trusty copies of Rodale’s Organic Gardening and all the books I’d purchased over the years to learn the various techniques of raised beds and drip-irrigation and composting along with organic pest control out to the garden, I tried every safe organic trap in the book—in all the books.

None was effective, even in combination. I was spending way too much time trying to kill slugs. Perhaps I should just whack them with the big heavy gardening books. Time to look at an alternative.

At about this time, introducing or attracting predator species became a possibility for home gardeners. This was practiced on organic and some conventional farms, but an entire field is a little easier for predators to find and inhabit than a row of green beans in your backyard. So, we just had to work a little harder.

photo of vegetable garden with lawn
The lower portion of my vegetable garden, one big bed with rows, and a berm of natural plants.

Now, what ate slugs, aside from people who called them escargot? Nope, ducks and chickens were out in my community, so it actually looked as if I needed some sort of amphibian or reptile. Well, that would go over big with the neighbors. The neighbor kids would think it was cool, though.

But I didn’t need a big amphibian or reptile, something inconspicuous would do the job. A garter snake! I studied the sort of habitat a garter snake would need but this was early in my backyard’s career, and I had very little groundcover that a garter snake would enjoy.

How about a toad? I have a friend who has a farm and one big puddle in their driveway produces legions of toads every year. We managed to catch two, and I let them go in the garden near one of the three the little toad abodes I had carefully prepared for them. I know that at least one stuck around because I saw it now and then, that year and the next, though it apparently didn’t use any of the abodes I had set up. I didn’t care because the number of slugs slowly decreased.

And, in time, I let the boundaries of my garden grow a little wild with native plants and grasses in a strip about a foot wide, and garter snakes did take up residence.

photo of two cats in a garden
Namir and Cookie inspect my gardening.

I also used a variety of methods related to me by long-time gardeners at my nearby Agway which included using copper to zap slugs—on researching I discovered that copper transmits through the slug’s slime and gives them a good zap, not killing them but certainly repelling them. A friend’s father had saved miles of copper wire which I used around small beds and surrounded certain plants, like basil, with circles of pennies, both of which worked as long as the wire and pennies weren’t covered up with mulch or leaves.

And though I still use mulch, I don’t use paper under the mulch, and rake it now and then in case anything has decided to take up residence under it (like fleas, which are another story). In areas where plants with larger leaves already shade the soil I don’t use mulch at all, and trim up the bottom leaves of the plant so none touch the ground to make a handy hangout for slugs and others, such as Sally’s happy summer sleep-out under the Brussels sprouts, above. I managed to keep much of my brick paths and brick-edged raised beds, but I lift all the bricks around the edge every year and turn all the soil in the beds two or three times as seen in the photo with Namir and Cookie at left, so I managed to keep the features I like best, with a little extra work.

Plants that just won’t work

silvery checkerspot on butterfly weed
Silvery Checkerspot on Butterfly Weed © B.E. Kazmarski

You may not be concerned with slug eradication, but you may want to attract Baltimore Orioles, or monarch butterflies, or bats to take care of your mosquito problem, and you always want to attract pollinators like honeybees. The steps to do that are to find out what the species needs and prefers, then to determine how you can add those features to your habitat.

So you’ve gotten the butterfly bushes and the bright orange asclepias tuberosa or butterfly weed and found sunny spots for each, but but you’re not getting butterflies, or the plants just aren’t flourishing.

To attract more butterflies, you may simply need to be more patient and give them a couple of years to find you. Flying creatures such as birds and insects tend to sight things from above and look for colors or foliage patterns that resemble their biological needs. They also tend to follow established flight paths where food has historically been found, so give them some time to “discover” your yard.

Alternately, you could plant more things butterflies like so they have lots of targets, and you may need to choose species that don’t bloom all at the same time so you have a good span of the growing and breeding season for them to find you—and especially be aware of species’ migration times when they are actively looking for a place to stop for the night, or to stay for the season. Using colors to lure works as well, considering, for example, a hummingbird’s attraction to shades of red, you can even add some silk flowers to your hummingbird feeder to help encourage them.

Back to butterflies, you might also consider a butterfly bath, like a birdbath but much shallower. I typically used a small plate that would hold about 1/4″  of water with a gentle slope toward the center where they could land at the edge and easily sip, or a deeper container with rocks or shells which a butterfly could land on to drink. Place it in the shade, preferably under the plant they visit. Butterflies might visit bird baths but they are usually too busy with birds, plus some birds actually eat butterflies, so setting something up for them in a quiet protected place is really a better choice.

If a plant is failing or just won’t survive in your yard you can try to modify its placement or you may need to decide that plant just isn’t meant for your garden. I’ve commonly met with this in my damp and shady yard as many of my native plants aren’t suited. Butterfly weed, above, for instance, likes a dry sunny spot, and does not like to be crowded with other plants or its slightly fuzzy leaves develop mildew which will eventually kill the plant, not just for that season, but forever. I had gathered seeds from along the trails and let the plant start up on its own in an open spot, but soon enough all else around the plant grew, including the trees which provided new shady areas. I cleared other tall plants from around it and left shorter ones, but the shade from the trees kept it from getting its required sunlight and left the leaves damp which promoted mildew, and even with organic soap sprays and placing a light-colored reflective pot with a plant in it behind the butterfly weed, I just had to give up on my lovely wild orange asclepias. I can’t grow this native wild plant in my yard, yet it grows in hardened clay ditches along the road, and purchased varieties have many of the same issues, and also are not necessarily native to my area.

A great online resource

photo of house with trees
The southwest corner of my yard with the silver maple, 60-foot spruce, river birch and dogwood (and my pink Escort)

My habitat was certified by the National Wildlife Federation, and they have a comprehensive resource area to help you develop and maintain any wildlife area, large or small. Another overall resource for finding native species and answering a lot of questions is www.eNature.com. One other way to help identify your local species and their needs is to find your local resources, which can be local chapters of national environmental and outdoor associations, or such an organization that is based in your community, explore your local, county and state parks and any trails that are maintained in your area. And a handy guidebook or two is a must for your library; one of these days I’ll cover this topic on its own!

And where your pets and other animals are concerned, be aware of plants that may be native, but may also be toxic to cats, dogs and horses by bookmarking the ASPCA website at http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control/ under both “17 Common Poisonous Plants” and a hugely comprehensive list of over 400 plant species in “Toxic and Non-toxic Plants”, which even has photos.

Good luck with your habitat

Get out that graph paper or that garden design program and take these long cold nights to dream of your summer garden!

About the art and photos used in these articles and on this blog

All the images used in this blog are mine, many from my own backyard. For years I’ve been documenting the flora and fauna here in photography and art, just for my own purposes. All of the images are also available as prints and notecards, some of which I have printed and sell regularly, but I can custom print any image on my site. If you see something you’d like, check my Marketplace blog to see if it’s a recent offering, the Marketplace on my website, which outlines everything I sell as merchandise, or e-mail me if you don’t find it in either place. Please also respect that these images and this information are copyrighted to me and may not be used without my consent, but please ask if you are interested in using something and feel free to link to my articles.

Read the other articles in this series.


Browse some rescued cats and kittens!


All images used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in using one in a print or internet publication. If you are interested in purchasing a print of this image or a product including this image, check my Etsy shop or Fine Art America profile to see if I have it available already. If you don’t find it there, visit Ordering Custom Artwork for more information on a custom greeting card, print or other item.


Inspired by felines you know! Visit Portraits of Animals on Etsy.
Inspired by felines you know! Visit Portraits of Animals on Etsy!
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Bernadette

From health and welfare to rescue and adoption stories, advocacy and art, The Creative Cat offers both visual and verbal education and entertainment about cats for people who love cats.

From catchy and creative headlines to factual articles and fictional stories, The Creative Cat provides constant entertainment and important information to people who love cats, pets and animals of all species.

10 thoughts on “Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: Modifying Your Design

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  • February 16, 2013 at 8:55 pm
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    Slugs! I’ve got plenty to share, and then some. Have you found diatomaceous earth effective in eliminating slugs?

    Reply
    • February 16, 2013 at 9:19 pm
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      Anita, I started using DE years ago for slugs in particular, and it does work against the tiny ones so if you get it out there early, when they’re still small, it really reduces the population. Doesn’t do a thing to the big ones. The only thing is, it washes away when it rains or blows away when it’s windy, and you’ve got to have a pretty dense layer all around the plant or the bed in order for it to work. It was hard to keep up with in a big garden, so I went for the copper, and I’ve tried a few other organic methods, plus modifying my setup. I use DE inside for fleas.

      Reply
  • February 16, 2013 at 7:54 pm
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    Slugs: ewwwww. (Munchies- Ha !) I would’ve been smashing them with the big heavy gardening books. (Or actually had someone else do it; don’t think I could bear to get that close or look at them.) I like the snakes + frogs, though. Wonderful post. 🙂 {You remind me of my mother, with your particular talents and interests; organic gardening was a big thing at all our houses, besides the cooking, sewing/crochet/art and kitties. She would’ve loved you, I guess that’s just one reason why me + Li do, too.} 🙂

    Reply
    • February 16, 2013 at 9:25 pm
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      Diana, I couldn’t bring myself to smash them, much as I hate them! The snakes and toads are wonderful partners–they just do their job, and I would bet they’re pretty happy that they’ve found a home with a ready food supply. Thanks for the compliment!

      Reply
  • February 16, 2013 at 4:21 pm
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    Thank you, Bernadette for this article on garden plans. This is just when I start dreaming about what goes where. My kitties (the garden girls) can’t wait to keep me company like Sally in the shade of taller plants. Love that picture! I’ve had problems with slugs too – they have keg parties with the beer I leave out. One thing that works well for me is sprinkling some woodstove ashes in a circle around the base of plants. It works like copper – the slugs don’t like to cross the line. You have lots of great information here and I’ve already signed on with the animal poison control center. Can’t wait to dream up a nice butterfly bath!

    Reply
    • February 16, 2013 at 6:27 pm
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      Susan, my slugs had keg parties too! I heard about the woodstove ashes but can’t get enough, though I use the burned charcoals from my grill. I just can’t wait to get out there! I’m sure Mimi will be a more than adequate supervisor.

      Reply
  • February 16, 2013 at 2:43 pm
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    Brussel sprout Sally looks so peaceful and contented. We are anxious for the weather to be nice enough so our mom can start working in the garden. Purrs and hugs, Lily Olivia, Mauricio, Misty May, Giulietta, Fiona, Astrid, Lisbeth and Calista Josette

    Reply
    • February 16, 2013 at 4:13 pm
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      Mimi is constantly disappointed that it isn’t summer yet outside. Me, I can wait for a little more winter…

      Reply

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