A backyard habitat is not difficult or expensive to create or maintain. With an ever-changing palette of colors and textures, along with the watchable wildlife you will attract, this garden will be a fantastic landscape addition. It will bring beauty and joy to your yard.
Key to designing a Habitat Garden is including a diversity of plant species and layers of plant structure – designing for vegetation that grows from the ground (grasses and forbs) up to shrubs and trees. These key concepts combine to not only create beauty, but will successfully encourage a diversity of life on your property.
Another advantage to maintaining and creating natural diversity: the yard will have very few pests. Allowing natural predators such as spiders, garter snakes, gopher snakes, lizards, preying mantis, and native wasps will help maintain a natural, healthy balance.
It is also critical to minimize soil disturbance on your property. With little disturbance of the naturally occurring conditions, comes little problem with weeds. Where weeds do grow, do hand work to remove them and seed natives grasses or forbs in their place. Many native grasses and forbs are now also available in containers. If your soil has been disturbed, adding native grass and wildflower seed and a light layer of native chippings will help the area heal, and retain needed moisture for plant establishment.
Avoid the use of pesticides or herbicides of any kind. Pesticides remain in the tissues of insects and rodents, and can poison other members of your natural system unintentionally when these are ingested. Many of these chemicals also remain in your yard and soils and can contaminate you and spread unintentionally to other areas with rainfall.
Some other important considerations for your Habitat Garden:
- Include perennials with different flowering times (late winter to late fall). You will have a lovely array of native insects, and will have a great hummingbird population without maintaining feeders. If you want to add feeders, that is fine. Be sure to keep them very clean. Check with the Audubon Society or local birding stores for more details.
- Retain and plant a variety of natural grasses for seed sources and shelter. The flowering stalks with set seed should be left into fall for cover and food for birds. Cut dry grasses down after seeds have dropped and before the spring fire season. In summer you will not have to feed birdseed as often, since much seed is already present on the landscape!
- Do your research or buy plants from knowledgeable Local environmental education organizations or Cooperative Extension are your best options. Many plants are called native that are not. Why does it matter? Native animals and native plants have adapted with each other to life in the southwest. In many cases our native animals will not tolerate a yard that has lost all the native plants, diversity and layers of cover. You lose habitat you lose your wildlife. Quail, towhees, and other ground nesters must have cover at the ground level, birds like bushtits and titmice need cover as they move through in feeding flocks. The caterpillars of many butterflies and moths are very species specific. If you have that food source in your yard or nearby you will help maintain that population of insects.
- Retain, enhance or create boulder outcrops and rock walls. These act as shelter for reptiles and other small animals. In the Prescott area you can support a fantastic population of lizards including: Arizona Alligator Lizards, Striped Whiptails, Clark’s Spiny Lizard, and Plateau Lizards. Collard Lizards may still be found in some areas.
- Maintain natural leaf mulch and add other native organics. Native chippings can be added in a 1” layer. Organic materials help plants and also encourage a variety of life including predatory insects and spiders, the lizards and their prey. In coniferous zones, retain 1” of needles on top of the natural dark decomposing zone below the needles. This will hold moisture in your soil, and discourage erosion. Your trees and shrubs will be much healthier, and will not be as stressed in late spring and early summer. In the Prescott AZ area, native chippings are available for no cost at our City dump site.
- Minimize fertilization. Fertilizers are not necessary in most cases when you use regional native species for your landscape. These plants are well adapted to our soils.
- Keep water available for wildlife – this is critical. An irrigation emitter can very simply be secured in a large water dish. This not only provides a water source, but it helps keep wildlife from chewing into your irrigation system to find the water they can smell. Creating a small waterfeature with moving water in a small, recycled design is ideal and will attract a wide variety of birds. Designing for this in a shaded area reduces water loss to evaporation.
- Be aware of the heavy impact that domestic cats and dogs have on our native wildlife. If you have dogs or cats that attack birds and lizards, consider creating your habitat in a area away from your backyard. Cat yards are a great way to help protect wildlife (and your cat) as well. In any case, be sure to place water in areas that domestic cats or dogs cannot easily attack the life you are attracting.