Gardening for a wildlife habitat

I heard him first — a high-pitched chirping sound that I didn’t recognize. When I looked up from weeding, I was stunned by the zooming creature that was enjoying the nectar from the Sunset Hyssop. He was a tiny, fast flyer, and had an iridescent green color on his back, so was probably a broad-tailed hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus). My flower garden is in a low area of the foothills and doesn’t seem to attract hummingbirds and I’ve planted numerous flowers with red colors, or long shapes and nectar to bring these tiny birds to my home and finally achieved success. Gardeners who are interested in attracting hummingbirds or other wildlife may consider the requirements outlined by the National Wildlife Federation (www.nwf.org). To become certified as a Wildlife Habitat, the gardener must be able to show they have provided food, water, cover, shelter for the wildlife to breed and raise their young, and use sustainable gardening practices.

By Kathie Hopkins
Colorado State University Extension Master Gardener in Larimer County

The National Wildlife Federation requires the gardener to have three different food sources from plants of feeders to be certified as a Wildlife Habitat and this food can be provided by native plants which provide berries, leaves, pollen, seeds, nuts, or nectar. A list of Colorado native plants is available at from the CSU Extension website www.ext.colstate.edu. Native Plants (Fact Sheet #7.242; http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/garden/07242.html) includes suggestions such as the Mirabilis multiflora (desert four o’clock), with its bright purple flowers and Gaillardia arisata (blanketflower) with an abundance of yellow and orange blooms. A list of native grasses for Colorado gardens is available at http://www.ext.colostate.edu/mg/gardennotes/581.html and has information about the grasses that complement the garden and offer food and shelter for the wildlife. Many of our native shrubs have attractive qualities for wildlife and can be viewed at http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/garden/07422.html. Some examples of native shrubs include Sambucus racemosa (red-berried elder) or Prunus virginiana melanocarpa (western chokecherry)—both of these shrubs offer berries that are used as a food source by wildlife.

Butterflies and moths require different foods at the larval stage then the adult stage. The swallowtail larvae enjoy milkweed, celery, carrot, dill, and parsley, while the adult butterflies will be attracted to nectar-rich flowers and even over-ripe fruit. Some examples of plants that offer nectar for the adult butterflies include salvia, cleome and zinnia or the well known Monarda and Buddleia which offer double duty as an attractant for butterflies or hummingbirds!

The certified Wildlife Habitat must also include at least one water source for wildlife. The type of water source is variable and even a log or rock with a shallow depression which holds water will be attractive to butterflies and birds. Other water sources include dripping or misting water or a bird bath, fountain, or pond. If using a bird bath, the water must be changed frequently so mosquito eggs don’t hatch and in our Colorado environment; a heater will keep the water from freezing in the winter. A rough surface gives better footing and the bird bath should be located away from cover areas to help the birds avoid lurking predators.

Another component of a Wildlife Habitat is to provide two types of cover for wildlife. The cover may include brush piles, shrubs, trees, a bat house, bird houses, or toad homes. The gardener may consider replacing turfgrass areas with trees or other cover plants and can make a decision to mix evergreen and deciduous trees for a wide variety of food and cover. A list of native trees for the Colorado gardener is available at http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/garden/07421.html. Shelter for birds and mammals is also provided from dead or decaying trees and these can make attractive additions to the landscape.

The National Wildlife Federation requires two types of shelter that is specific for wildlife to raise their young. This shelter may be provided by trees or shrubs or by the addition of nesting boxes. When choosing a nesting box, consider the size of the entrance hole which helps prevent predators from entering the nest and eating the eggs or young chicks. You can also offer materials for nesting such as string, twigs, or lint spread around the garden or in a mesh bag hung from a tree.

Gardeners with a certified Wildlife Habitat is also required to show two types of sustainable gardening practices. These gardening practices include items such as mulching or using drip irrigation. And the gardener can also demonstrate the use of organic practices with compost and eliminating pesticides or herbicides to meet the requirement for sustainable gardening. There are numerous options to entice wildlife into your garden and I’ve planted more of the Sunset Hyssop and eagerly await my next hummingbird visitor.

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