Create a habitat that will draw animals to your yard

Editor's note:  This is the Part I of a two-part series on wildscapes.  Beth Ellis is a Master Gardener who works at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in Goliad.

January 21, 2010

by Beth Ellis,
Victoria County Master Gardener

edited by Charla Borchers Leon,
Victoria County Master Gardener
Natural surroundings with native plants are best suited to meet the needs of wildlife. This wildscape with wildflowers has the essential food, water and shelter that provide a home to wild things thriving in nature.
The older I get, the more I realize this old world is shrinking.

More people, cars and development - and less woodlands, water and wild places.

Critters once commonplace, aren't so common anymore, and even those that are still around can be hard for city folks to find.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in the country, so the ebb and flow of nature was a normal part of my life.

A true wild child, I spent those long ago hot summer days playing with horny toads, box turtles, bugs, butterflies, and the occasional snake - serenaded all the while by mockingbirds, bob whites, scissor tails and meadow larks.

The starry evenings had their own mysteries, and after being tucked into bed, I was often lulled into gentle sleep by the beautiful sounds of night birds, the whispering of the wind in the trees and the mournful songs of coyotes floating through the darkness.

It Comes Naturally

Wandering the fields and groves by day, and communing quietly with the mysteries of the night, allowed me to develop a profound kinship with the natural world that I nurture to this day.

Now, I seek to recreate the wonder of those long ago times by making my landscape into a place of refuge for the plants and animals with which I share this world.
The Texas horned lizard is a wild critter that seeks a safe and secure place for protection. Its natural markings blend together with its wildscape surroundings to help camouflage it from harm.
Food for wildlife is essential in wildscaping. Like most pollinators, these Gulf fritillaries are attracted to vegetation like flowers, shrubs and trees.
What Is Wildscaping?

At its most basic, wildscaping is about creating habitat for wild things that are losing their homes due to human development.

Just as importantly, it's about maintaining the human connection with nature - a connection that is becoming endangered by our ever-increasingly electronic and urbanized world.

Children are especially at risk of becoming disconnected from the natural world, but parents can help kids maintain their link with nature -and spend some quality family time together - by creating a family wildscape.

One of the attractive aspects of this type of landscaping is there are no size barriers - whether you have a big yard with giant-sized planting beds or simple containers on a tiny apartment balcony, you can still make nature a part of your life.

Wildscapes Basics

Ideally, there are three basic elements required to create a wildscape - food, water and shelter - but you can get by with even less if your space is limited.

Food - Provide food for wildlife, and they will come.

Hummingbirds, butterflies, moths, and other pollinators are drawn by flowers, shrubs and trees.

Birds and small mammals are drawn by nuts, berries and seeds - preferably those provided by vegetation rather than feeders.

Rely mainly on native plants since they are best adapted to meeting the needs of wildlife.

Natives are also hardier, require less water and are easier to maintain than non-natives.

Include non-invasive exotic plants as well as feeders if you wish, but remember that these are simply side dishes - the native plants in your wildscape provide the delicious main course.

Water - In times of drought, water will draw wildlife to your yard faster than food.

Birdbaths, shallow pans and the like are the easiest way to provide water.

Change water a couple of times a week to discourage mosquitoes and scrub containers using a 10 percent bleach solution - just remember to rinse thoroughly before refilling.

If installing a pond, slope the bottom to create a beach at one end - this provides birds with a shallow place for drinking and bathing, and turtles, frogs and toads will appreciate having an easy way to enter and exit the water.

If including vegetation, like non-invasive species, make the other end of the pond 18 to 24 inches deep. The plants will flourish and give tadpoles, pollywogs, minnows, frogs and turtles a place to hide.

No matter what your water source, one sure way to attract birds is to create the sound of moving water.

This can be as elaborate as a fountain or as simple as a drip kit or a bucket with a small hole punched in the bottom.

If using a bucket just fill it with water and hang it over a basin - birds will hear the plink, plink, plink of the water droplets and come to investigate.

Shallow water-filled pans are also great for inviting those wonderful bug eating toads into your yard. Just place a pan in a shady protected spot and very quickly toads will get into the habit of using it to take nice, long, luxurious soaks.

Shelter and Nesting - Food and water will get the attention of wildlife, but shelter and nesting sites are what convince them to hang around for the long haul.

Just like us, critters need a safe, secure place to raise young and provide protection from predators and the weather.

Trees, shrubs, ground covers, ponds, houses and brush, wood and rock piles all provide good shelter for different types of wildlife. Snags - dead trees - are especially important for cavity-nesting birds such as bluebirds and woodpeckers as well as for many small mammals. So if you have a dead tree in your yard, resist the urge to chop it down unless it poses a safety hazard. Wildlife will thank you for it.

Time to Start

Armed with the basics given above, you can start your very own wildscape immediately - it's that easy.

Or if you prefer a more systematic approach, next week's column will address wildscapes landscaping based on four key elements - resources, space, maintenance and attracting specific types of wildlife to your yard.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD)
www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/wild/wildscapes - Information on wildscape certification programs, workshops, and other opportunities through TPWD.

"Texas Wildscapes: Gardening for Wildlife," by Noreen Damude, Kelly Bender, Diana Foss and Judit Gowen - published by TPWD.

National Wildlife Federation
www.nwf.org/backyard - Information about wildscapes and creating a habitat for backyard wildlife.

When: Noon to 1 p.m., Monday
Where: Dr. Pattie Dodson Public Health Center, 2805 N. Navarro St., Victoria

Subject: "Roses and Their Care," presented by Victoria County Master Gardener Jerome Janak

Bring: your lunch and drink
Cost: Free to the public
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.