Wildlife in your back yard, naturally

June 13, 1997
  • umichnews@umich.edu

EDITORS: Graphic shown in this story is available.

ANN ARBOR—Set out a colorful smorgasbord of seeds, berries and nectar and watch who comes for dinner. By planting the right assortment of trees, flowers, and shrubs, a back yard can be turned into a wildlife sanctuary.

“Everything growing in your yard may be a food source,” says Liz Elling, visitor programs coordinator and educational director at the University of Michigan’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens. “Remember the web-of-life principle: animals feed on each other. Bats, frogs and snakes will handle the mosquitoes. Spiders and ladybugs will clean up aphids attacking roses and other plants. And, yes, you should even leave a nice nest of ants to ensure a visit from a pair of hungry flickers. The most important principle here is not to use pesticides or herbicides in your yard.”

Bird houses, squirrel nesting boxes and bat houses placed in the yard will offer shelter, but even better shelter can be provided by natural plantings such as evergreens, a variety of shrubs and flowering plants, and even stacked brush piles.

“No matter how you design your yards,” says Elling, “remember that birds and butterflies need open space for flying and perches for resting and eating. Placing driftwood, branches or large rocks in your landscape will offer plenty of perching

Elling and other staff at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens offer some general tips for a backyard landscape that will attract wildlife:

—Plant taller trees and shrubs around the perimeter of the yard or garden, offering shelter and shade.

—Plan colors to attract wildlife. Orange and purple flowers will attract butterflies, red will bring hummingbirds and white will encourage moths and other nocturnal flying insects.

—Provide water. A water source for birds, mammals and amphibians can be anything from a pond, to a bird bath. A one-gallon container covered with pin pricks and filled with water will drip, making mud puddles or depressions for pools where rainwater will also collect.

By using native plants (those species that were here before Europeans began to settle Michigan in the 1700s), the natural beauty provides appropriate food for native wildlife.

Some of the native plants the Gardens staff recommend are American Beech, White Cedar, Flowering Dogwood, Redbud and Sassafras. Among the shrubs recommended are Chokeberry, Gooseberry, Michigan holly, Spiecbush, Sumac and Witch-hazel. Some native perennials that will attract wildlife include Asters, Beebalm, Columbine, Goldenrods, Milkweeds and Sunflowers.

There are some plants to avoid, the exotic and invasive species that will crowd out native vegetation. Do not use Autumn Olive, Barberry, Common buckthorn, Crown Vetch, European Alder, Honeysuckle, Multiflora Rose, Norway Maple, Oriental Bittersweet, Periwinkle (Myrtle), Privet or Purple Loosestrife.

“With natural landscaping,” says Elling, “comes the need to become tolerant of weeds and holes in plant leaves. Butterflies start out as caterpillars, so you can expect some raggedy looking plants.”

For more information on turning your back yard into a wildlife sanctuary, Elling and the Gardens staff recommend contacting the Michigan Chapter of Wild Ones (313-763-0645), or by consulting Sara Stein’s “Noah’s Garden” and the Ann Arbor Department of Parks and Recreations‘ “Your Landscape and Our Natural Areas.”

Matthaei Botanical Gardens also offers adult education classes that include “Butterflies in the Field,” June 29 and July 6, “Bird Nest Cycles” on June 28, “Summer Hiker” on July 9 and 16, and “Edibles of Summer” July 10 and 12. For more information on the classes, call

E-mail: mjnesbit@umich.edu

Wild Onesmjnesbit@umich.edu