We have lived for long periods in State College, PA, Chincoteague, VA, Englewood, FL, Galax, VA, and now Boone, NC (in our 4th summer). Planting for the benefit of wildlife (especially birds, butterflies and bees) has become a passion which provides many hours of pleasure and is designed to benefit animals which are rapidly being driven from habitats that are developed in ways that are incompatible with natural ecology. A yard can be beautiful (but beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder !), but also useful to local animals, but we have to change our way of looking at yards as places where humans dominate nature, rather than live in harmony with natural processes.
This summer of 2021 is our fourth in our Boone property and we are beginning to make significant progress in improving the yard habitat. This house is about 30 years old and was built on the front edge of two acres on the side of a hill above an abandoned pasture, which was subsequently colonized by trees such as tulip poplars and birches. There is a 148 acre forest with some pasture next door, the north fork of the New River lies just below, and there is a very low density of houses in the neighborhood. You can see from a photo of the house taken in late April that we have a lot of open space nearby and there were dogwoods, azaleas and large rhododendrons already in the yard. With the addition of many natives and non-invasive exotics which are of benefit to wildlife, we now have about 126 species of plants just in the small front yard. The majority of the two acres is in a natural forest cover except for about 1/4 acre which we cut for a view scape; this has been beneficial in providing a clearing or gap in the forest yielding additional biodiversity.
In the relatively small yard space we have planted many flowers and shrubs that specifically benefit birds and pollinating insects. A roadside “pot garden” has 13 species, some perennial, some re-seeding and others replaced each year. These include zinnias, catmint, Brazilian vervain, speedwell, coneflower, milkweed, Gomphrena, jewelweed, lantana, red hot poker, yarrow, bee blossom, and azalea. Juniper, Japanese holly and a white ash border these plantings.
Two small “pocket gardens” are adjacent to the house and a stairway and a row of azaleas. One of these includes black eyed Susans, crocosmia, and asters. The other has beebalm and coral honeysuckle with some large butterfly bushes nearby.
A steep slope to the west of the house has been converted to a wildflower garden that is not mowed, as it was by the previous owner. This has too many species to mention but the concept is to place many plants in the dense grassy cover and maintain weed control by hand pulling and very occasional point spraying of herbicide on oriental bittersweet, multiflora rose, poison ivy, and some other nasty invaders. Tall plants (such as dog fennel and cup plants) obviously are better choices than low growing species that are over-whelmed by competition. A recent addition to the design is a series of stone steps leading up to a look-out point which can be used to watch sunrises (see photo), count nighthawks during migration, or just generally enjoy the view.
I strongly recommend watching for volunteer plants that appear in the lawn and elsewhere. For example some strange leaves appeared in the grass/moss “lawn” under some old dogwoods and these turned out to be unusual green ragged fringed orchids (Habenaria lacera). I placed some rocks around the orchids to avoid mowing them and have enjoyed watching them grow, flower and set seeds.
The woods behind our house are somewhat of a “terra incognita” in which I have developed a series of trails to allow access and placed benches for quiet contemplation of nature. Many discoveries remain to be made here- I recently observed a red eft (terrestrial larval form of the red spotted newt), listened to wood thrushes and scarlet tanagers sing, admired a large volunteer elderberry in bloom, and found a brilliant red fungus, the cinnebar polypore growing on a piece of rotten wood. I look forward to many years of discovery in this tiny yet diverse patch of nature.
I encourage you to do something similar with whatever small or large natural area you have available. The animals will benefit and you will find a great degree of pleasure in the process.