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Creating a successful wildscape is comparable to baking a chocolate cake – you may be able to bake what appears to be an appetizing treat, but without all the right ingredients, it just won’t taste the same. Successful wildscapes likewise involve certain necessary ingredients. You may have wildlife visiting your yard, but unless you meet their sometimes-unique food, water, cover, and space requirements, they won’t live in your wildscape. Learn more about four habitat components to consider while creating your wildscape plan. 


The first step in designing your wildscape should be an initial evaluation of your property. What wildlife and plant species do you already have present? What do you want to add? If you’re starting with a bare lot, you’ll have to invest more time, money, and energy in your design than if you simply want to modify an existing landscape. More likely you can design your whole wildscape around existing trees or structures.


A base map graphic of a property's landscaping


Evaluating Your Wildscape

After you have evaluated your yard, you should design a wildscape that will require minimal mowing and pruning, although over the years you may need to remove some plants to make room for new growth. You should expect to complete your landscape over a reasonable time, but it may take several years before the wildscape resembles your original plan. Also, be considerate of your neighbors. Make sure your developing wildscape does not interfere with their yard.

Step 1: Begin by taking an inventory of your property. Use a base map to note your property’s dimensions and all structures above and below ground, including house, garage, fences, water pipes, septic tank, and other items. This step can prevent costly problems later, such as roots tangling in underground plumbing or wiring, or limbs interfering with power lines or buildings.

Step 2: Look for sunny and shady areas in your wildscape and notice how they change during the day or over the seasons. Sketch these areas on your base map. Also examine your soil. Is it primarily fill dirt, sand, clay, sandy loam, topsoil, or some other type of soil? Ideally, it should not have a loose or lumpy texture but should be dark and moist. If your soil has these qualities, your plants will mostly care for themselves.

Step 3: In evaluating your wildscape, consider your space requirements for work, entertainment, security, and comfort. If your lifestyle includes outside dogs or cats, you should expect less wildlife to visit your wildscape. Decide realistically how much and what type of space you will need for each activity, and sketch these areas on your base map.

Step 4: List the trees, shrubs, vines, and herbaceous plants that are already growing in your wildscape. Also note their size, age, health, whether they are exotic or native to your area, and what maintenance requirement they may have. How does your vegetation interact with the physical characteristics of your yard to from habitats? These characteristics will influence the options you have for developing your wildscape.

Step 5: Finally, list the wildlife currently visiting your wildscape. Notice how well your property provides cover, water, and space for visiting wildlife. Check for plants that produce food. Look for areas where habitat can be improved. Does your present landscape provide adequate cover and safe travel corridors for small animals and birds? Mammals especially require connected shrubs and hedgerows or larger wooded areas to move about.

Now that you’ve inventoried your property, it’s time to prepare a master plan to guide your wildscaping efforts in the coming years. You may wish to use an already designed plan; however, try to customize your wildscape by choosing native plants that thrive in your natural community. Remember, with a wildscape, you are working with nature and watching natural processes take their course. Don’t plan a clipped, artificial garden that will burden you. Your primary jobs will include pruning and pulling out some plants from time to time to give the garden more room to grow.

Wildscaping is a long-term investment, not something that will take place overnight. By developing your wildscape in several phases, you’ll spread expenses over time, and lessen your annual workload.

Steps for Creating a Wildscape Plan 

Starting from Scratch or Planning Major Alterations

The following steps serve as useful guidelines if your property has no current landscaping or if you wish to make significant changes in what your wildscape offers.

Step 1: Plant overlapping tall native evergreen and deciduous tress along the perimeter of your wildscape; use as many food-producing varieties as possible. These will eventually provide food, nest sites, and protective cover for wildlife. They also will screen your property from streets and other properties. Plant deciduous trees on the west and south sides of your house for summer shade, and plant evergreen trees on the west and north sides to block cold winter winds. Consider how wide the crowns of these trees will be when mature, and don’t plant them too close together.

Step 2: Plant smaller native flowering trees in curving clusters, not rows, near the tall trees to begin an understory; curving borders are more wildlife-friendly by mimicking natural habitats and are aesthetically pleasing to us. Mix several species of varying shape, height, and density to create an abundant selection of nest sites. Select trees that fruit at different times of the year to stagger food production for year-round feeding opportunities.

Step 3: Plant native food-producing shrubs and ground cover around the smaller trees. These will provide shelter areas for ground-feeding birds and mammals.

Step 4: Although you may wish to retain some lawn for recreation use, large sprawling lawns are labor and energy intensive. Consider letting unneeded lawn areas develop into wildflower meadows. Remember to consult local mowing ordinances and your neighbors regarding grass and wildflower heights.

Modifying an Existing Landscape

If you simply wish to add wildscaping features to your property, the following guidelines will provide information on how to modify your existing wildscape.

Step 1: Begin by planting overlapping trees and shrubs around the edges of your wildscape. Remember not to plant in rows and to use curving, irregular boarders to create more wildlife edge. Be sure solitary trees are surrounded by small shrubs to create ground cover.

Step 2: Mulch by spreading dried leaves and lawn clippings about three inches deep between plantings and around their bases (but not directly against tree or shrub trunks, to reduce damage caused by rodents and decay). This keeps soil moist and inhibits weeds, and eventually the mulch breaks down and begins the soil formation process. It also provides additional ground cover in your yard. Don’t put mulch directly against your house’s foundation if you are wary of snakes.

Step 3: Replace exotic plants with species native to your region. Native plant species are adapted to the area’s temperature, climate, and rainfall and often are more disease resistant. It’s okay to have plants that are pretty, but if you have a small property, try to have plants that provide two or more positive attributes. For example, flowering dogwoods are native to the eastern United States, provide berries that are relished by birds, and sport a gorgeous spring bloom.

Maintenance Ideas for All Landscapes

Once you’ve begun creating your wildscape plan, you need to consider how you will maintain the property in the future. The following guidelines provide maintenance ideas for different elements of your wildscape.

Shrub Layer: Encourage a variety of heights and species to increase plant diversity. Evergreen shrubs with dense or thorny branches are ideal bird cover and nesting areas. Thorny shrubs also discourage human interference. Group fruiting shrubs together for the best pollination and fruit production.

Pruning: Remove old growth selectively to be sure plants do not overcrowd one another. Birds prefer somewhat unkempt informal hedges. Do not prune large branches during the nesting season, but wait until fall or winter when the young have left the nest.

Small Trees: Use native fruiting varieties that thrive without toxic sprays. Also, don’t prune all dead limbs; leave some for the woodpeckers and other insectivorous birds.

Large Trees: Mow once a year below large trees to control unwanted seedlings. Leave dead trees and libs standing if they are not hazardous to users of your property or adjacent areas.

Paths: Maintain mulched or stonework paths as walkways through your yard to minimize compaction of soils and vegetation. 

This content originally appeared in the Wildlife Department’s “Landscaping for Wildlife” guide. The full guide can be viewed here