This is the second in a series of four articles about considering your backyard wildlife habitat.
You think planning your garden is fun? Wait until you start an inventory of what’s currently available for wildlife in your yard. You will be shocked at what you have already, and if you’re not too clear on native species now just the process of identification will show you at least your most common native plants and animals and you’ll feel like an expert.
Where and how you garden
If you are reading about a backyard wildlife habitat, then it’s probably safe to assume that you are already gardening, even if you live in an apartment or just have a patio.
I gardened for a while with a flower box on my apartment balcony railing, a half-barrel with tomatoes, peppers and basil, a bird feeder and a deep-dish pie pan for a birdbath. I also had a garden behind an apartment building where I wasn’t supposed to garden, and I don’t suggest you do that, but it just illustrates that gardening can be done anywhere there is soil, light and water—and determination—and birds, bees and butterflies will come.
Likewise, the habitat doesn’t need to be in your backyard, nor be confined to your backyard. Community gardens, parks and other public places are also habitats—native flora and fauna don’t recognize our boundaries. The public area may also have most or all of the requirements for a habitat, or with permission of the authority for the public area you may enhance it. Whatever your space, consider it your habitat for the purposes of inventory.
Preparing for your inventory
To register your habitat, or just to maintain it without formalizing it, you don’t need to know everything that’s in it. If you are starting now, in January, it may be most difficult to remember all that grows in your habitat through the course of the year, but even in summer it’s hard to remember where your bulbs bloomed in the spring (how many times have you unintentionally uprooted your sleeping daffodils while tucking a few annuals into the open spot they left behind?), or in spring where your chrysanthemums will sprout in May.
Still, if you’ve developed your habitat you probably remember what you’ve done or have your plans. You’ve probably taken photos of your habitat or you can visualize a walk through it, and from all of this you can probably call to mind most of what’s there.
And even if you don’t register it, the portion that asks you to describe your habitat information by providing a list or checkboxes can be very helpful in telling you, first of all, what to look for, and where you stand with what you provide.
Putting it on paper, literally or virtually
Start with your plants. Unlike all the species of animals, insects, amphibians and more, some of which you may never see, plants tend to stay put and are easy to identify. It’s a good idea to start with a diagram of some sort, whether you use an electronic gardening program or pull out a good old-fashioned piece of graph paper and a pencil. Just having the diagram in front of you will both prompt you to remember plants and help you to show the eventual growth size of your plants and plan for future changes.
I am both a fine and commercial artist, so I’m no stranger to layouts and sketches done both on paper and on computer. Normally, I’m just as pleased to put everything on the computer where it’s more or less permanently stored and I can manipulate it at will.
However, when it came to this, I got my pencils and graph paper and 50-marker set and went to town. First I blocked off the outlines of my property, leaving space around because of the inclusion of my neighbor’s trees. Then I blocked in my house and other permanent fixtures like my driveway and sidewalks.
Then I could visualize my vegetable and flower beds in their approximate sizes. After that I sketched in the shrubs and the outlines of the tree canopies. At that point I could begin filling in the plants that existed, down to even the smallest things. Here is my diagram.
It’s probably pretty difficult to tell what’s going on, but when you build this layer by layer it’s easier to understand your own. It’s also easier to tell what’s in the yard without the tree canopies indicated, but for planning purposes they should be there so you keep in mind the localized conditions.
My yard is 75’ x 125’, which is larger than other yards in my neighborhood, probably because I have two little steep slopes on either side included in my deed; much mining, legal and otherwise, was done all over this hill as it was all over Pennsylvania, and I suspect my yard got its unique shape by being dug out, then laden with piles of overburden from local strip mining by someone who owned the property a century or more ago. I dig up coal all the time.
A thin green line indicating my actual property line runs well inside the edges of the diagram. You can see that I’ve included trees and shrubs that are not in my yard, but which count toward my habitat because the animals use them and they provide specific needs to the plants underneath.
I can tell you that I did not go out there with my markers and create this in one pass! I went out there with a tablet of graph paper and a pencil with a sturdy eraser making many, many adjustments as I worked.
Filling in the details
The basic structure and larger plants were easy to figure out, but I had actually begun when I moved here to identify any plant that decided to grow in my yard. It began with a walk on a local trail in midsummer among the multitudes of wildflowers nodding in the breeze. I thought I knew my wildflowers, but though I recognized many I hardly recalled any names and most I had no idea at all what they were.
I felt as if I was walking in a foreign country where I could hear the language and it sounded familiar, but I could neither speak nor understand it. I was completely frustrated by this and resolved to change it as soon as soon as possible. I signed up for wildflower walks with the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, asked about a few good books, then took them with me wherever I went.
This totally changed my perspective on “weeds”. There is no such thing. A plant you don’t care for may grow in your space, or one you like may grow where you don’t want it, but each of those plants has a part in your region’s ecological structure—it feeds something, provides nesting material, shade or cover, attracts pollinators or all of the above, or, in the case of foreign invasives, it gets in the way of all this. Learning the names, origins, biology and purpose of each of these wildflowers prepared me for setting up my habitat long before I knew the possibility existed.
When I moved to this house, the former owners had been out for nearly a year and the yard was quite overgrown; they had also not been outdoorsy types and only cut the grass in the level areas so lots of things were growing in the yard. I began using my own backyard as a classroom for new-found knowledge of wildflowers, and from then on allowed anything unfamiliar to grow until I could identify it.
As a consequence of this observation, I quit trying to plant things where they wouldn’t grow and started developing areas in my yard around the natives that volunteered. This doesn’t mean I let everything continue to grow wherever it came up, but on the steep slopes on either side I did.
By the time I got to my habitat registration, I had been identifying plants for more than ten years. Creating my diagram and writing out my list gave me something to do with the knowledge I had worked so hard to learn.
That doesn’t mean your species list needs to look like mine!
Take the time and learn more
Take your time with this part of the process. You will learn so much about your habitat in this way, and not just about what grows and lives there, but why it grows and lives there, and ultimately it will make your job of planning and planting easier.
Some plants are indicators of soil content or condition, others attract specific species of butterflies, others yet are the main food and nesting source for specific species of birds (see the previous article, An Introduction to Backyard Wildlife Habitats for an example involving American Goldfinches). If you choose to, you can fine-tune what’s in your yard to what lives in your region and attract the greatest number of residents.
And the greatest satisfaction is being able to share what you’ve learned with other gardeners. One of my greatest pleasures is to answer a question, whether it’s in a workshop or one of my neighbors asks me to take a look at something in their yard.
Trees, shrubs and plants are typically specific to regions so there is no one single resource for learning to identify what’s in your yard—or along the trail. Consider joining a local environmental organization or land trust that offers identification hikes, or your local Audubon Society or Sierra Club or other outdoor organization. Often the best information, especially for a beginner, comes from a more experienced person. It’s a great way to get started.
I have three books which I use for Western Pennsylvania, two of which also cover much larger regions:
Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, by Lawrence Newcomb, illustrated by Gordon Morrison; Little, Brown & Company, 1977. Covers northeastern and north-central North America, uses only illustrations, some color plates.
A Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs, by George A. Petrides, illustrated by George A. Petrides and Roger Tory Peterson; Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, 1972. Covers northeastern and north-central North America, uses only illustrations, some color plates.
Wildflowers of Pennsylvania, by Mary Joy Haywood, RSM, PhD. and Phyllis Testal Mon, M.Ed., photographs by members of the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania; Venture Graphics, Pittsburgh, 2001. Specific to Pennsylvania, uses only photographs.
That’s not to say these are the only books I have—I’ve only found that if I carry these with me I can identify just about anything I find.
Before you begin purchasing guidebooks, though, stop at your local public library. Most libraries carry these guidebooks in their reference sections, and if your local one doesn’t have the specific book they may be able to order it for you from another library. That way you can try out a dozen guidebooks, see how well the information works for you and only buy the one or ones you can most easily use. I purchased several guidebooks which either didn’t have enough information or didn’t have it organized in a way I could use.
You can also find books specific to your area at local Audubon Society Chapters, wildlife centers or even your zoo, and purchasing them from one of these organizations not only assists the organization but you will also find interested and informed persons through these organizations.
On the internet, it’s actually difficult to find sites to identify wildflowers unless you know a bit about their biology, like what class or genus they belong to, and I’m not sure I even know that now but I could guess. One site that can get you started is Wildflower Information, because, even though it doesn’t contain every wildflower, it’s organized in a way that a beginner could use it, and someone who thinks she knows her wildflowers could use it as well.
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.
Identifying the fauna in your habitat
Next will be information on looking for and identifying the living creatures in your habitat.
Read the other articles in this series:
Also read about my art, photography, poetry and prose inspired by my backyard wildlife habitat: