Gardening With a Good-Neighbor Policy

These 10 steps will help avoid misunderstandings about natural landscaping while encouraging other homeowners to try the techniques

  • Doreen Cubie
  • Gardening
  • Jan 14, 2013
ROXANNE PAUL REGULARLY RECEIVES PHONE CALLS from anxious natural gardeners seeking advice about attracting wildlife to their yards without alienating nearby homeowners. “We always tell them to plan ahead and keep their neighbors informed of upcoming yard projects,” says Paul, NWF’s senior coordinator for community outreach. “We also tell them to observe local laws.”

Many municipalities and housing developments have so-called “weed ordinances,” which are designed mostly to keep yards mowed and tidy, but they often place restrictions on certain types of plants. For example, until recently, Austin, Texas, did not allow homeowners to grow grasses taller than 12 inches, a measure that effectively prohibited people from cultivating many natives. But last year, the city council amended the ordinance for yards that are part of NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitat® program or Wildlife Austin, a project operated by the city’s parks department to promote neighborhood habitat.

Last summer’s severe drought in much of the country provided new impetus for homeowners to adopt natural-gardening techniques. “Native plants can survive long periods without water once they’re established,” says Erin Cord, who manages Wildlife Austin. “They can save people a lot of money.”

Tips for Managing a Wild Yard for Wildlife

In fact, there has never been a better time for a garden makeover. Following are 10 suggestions for redesigning your yard to attract wildlife while at the same time keeping neighbors and local authorities happy:

1. Lay the groundwork: “Getting your neighbors on board is really important,” says Cord, who suggests talking to them first and explaining what you are planning to do. Also look into local weed and fire ordinances. If you live in a neighborhood with a homeowners association, ask if it requires a minimum amount of lawn on each property or has a list of permissible plants. John Magee, who owns the landscaping firm of Magee Design in Middleburg, Virginia, and is also the owner of an NWF certified habitat, always studies local rules before he begins planning a yard. This allows him to work within the guidelines. “I rarely have any problems getting approval,” he says.

2. Develop a design: “Layout is so important,” says Genevieve Schmidt, owner of Genevieve Schmidt Landscape Design in Arcata, California. “Patios and pathways can have a huge impact,” she says. “They show plants off to the best advantage.” Well-designed borders, hedges, plant islands and fencing will help frame the features of a garden and provide a neat appearance that neighbors will appreciate. Whether you create your own plan or use a professional, “it’s important to work from a sketch,” adds Brent McCallister, a landscape architect for the Orange County Parks and Recreation Department in Florida.

3. Start slowly: Don’t remove all or even most of your lawn at one time. Try putting in a small hummingbird and butterfly garden, then gradually expand it. Starting small gives neighbors time to become accustomed to your yard’s new look.

4. Cluster flowers and ornamental grasses: When planning your design, group plants together for a bold impact. “They should be in masses,” says McCallister, who recommends using at least a half dozen of the same species in the same spot to avoid the “salad bar look.” Schmidt agrees. “One of this and one of that can look scattered and doesn’t contribute to curb appeal,” she says. Plus, plant clusters can help attract birds and butterflies, since the flowers will be more visible to them.

5. Use popular natives: If all of the plants in your wildlife habitat are “unusual,” it can cause concern for neighbors. Instead, include some trees and shrubs that nearly everyone is familiar with. For example, in the Southeast, some well-known possibilities include southern magnolias, American and yaupon holly, live oaks and flowering dogwoods—plants that also provide excellent habitat for wildlife. For help in selecting species appropriate to your region, consult a local native plant society or agricultural extension office.

6. Get creative with cover: Brush piles may not meet code where you live, but there are many alternatives. “You can put in a rock garden,” says Schmidt, or arrange neatly-stacked logs to make an artistic statement. “You could even put them in a metal frame,” she suggests. “Both will provide habitat for smaller creatures.” And for a different type of cover, Schmidt recommends leaving the mulch off one or more perennial beds. The bare soil will provide overwintering sites for native bees, but be careful not to do it near entrances to your home.

7. Don’t put up too many feeders: Instead, attract birds with the flowers, fruits and berries of native plants. Magee advises planning your habitat so natural food sources are available throughout the year. And clean up any spilled bird seed and hulls to keep the ground around your feeders tidy.

8. Don’t leave food on the ground for your pets or other animals: The native plants you cultivate in your yard will provide sufficient nutrition sources to support insects, birds and other wild creatures.

9. Be discreet with water features: You may not be able to put in a pond for wildlife, but there are a number of other options. Birdbaths are an obvious choice, with a decorative one in the front yard and more functional ones in the back. Another possibility: butterfly puddling pools. These shallow pans or trays filled with water and small stones can be placed unobtrusively in a couple of locations.

10. Manage your yard: “A wildlife habitat doesn’t have to look wild,” says Magee. “It can look like an orderly modern landscape, even though it uses natives.” Schmidt points out that you can prune native shrubs to make them look more formal. Also, your garden should look like it’s designed for people too. Add “human” touches such as benches and sitting areas throughout your property. And most important of all, don’t forgo the maintenance. “Even natural yards need some care,” says McCallister.

Welcoming Wild Visitors

NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitat® program provides gardeners with information about native plants and the elements needed to create year-round, inviting outdoor spaces for birds, beneficial insects and other wildlife.

Find out how you can create an NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat® site.>>

Writer Doreen Cubie maintains a 1.8-acre NWF certified habitat at her home in South Carolina.

Related Resources

Garden for Wildlife
Ten Steps to Drought-Resistant Gardening
When Carnivores Come Calling
NWF at Work: Habitat Loss

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