Design a Wildlife Garden–Instalment Last

Design Your Wildlife Garden

We’ve had an overview of the Wildlife Garden with “How to Design the Wildlife Garden”. That covered a lot about Birds.

Next were a bunch more B’s–Planning Your Wildlife GardenBees, Butterflies, Beneficials.


Pacific Chorus Frog. Photo Credit.

Painted Turtle, not to be confused with Slider Turtle, which is NOT native,.

Painted Turtle, not to be confused with Slider Turtle, which is NOT native. Photo Credit.

Long-Toes Salamander, smaller than my palm.

Long-Toed Salamander, smaller than my palm. Photo Credit.

Finally, let’s look at ponds and bogs. I’ve linked to NatureScape BC several times, and this is no exception: here’s a great quick primer on designing your pond.

(And lest I forget to mention, never release store-bought frogs, snakes, tropical fish, turtles, or any other critter into your outdoor pond. There is always a risk that it can become an invasive species and/or spread disease among native species. Remember the snakehead fish story!)

Back to designing our wildlife garden:

To get a mixture of wildlife enjoying your pond, you’ll need a variety of quite a number of things. A variety of water depths, of sun exposures, of textures, of plantings. I’ll go over each of these.

Birds will want shallow and moving water, frogs will want shallow and deep still water. So when you plan out the shape of your pond, design it with 2 sections; one is dug to about 0.5-1 metre deep, the other only 0.25 m deep. It’s particularly important to have a shallowly sloped edge–like a beach–so that nothing ends up drowning because it can’t get out. And birds like to frolic in toe-deep water, even underneath dripping water.  Have a little waterfall positioned on the shallow side, which of course will flow over to the deeper side.

As for sun exposure, at least 4 hours of direct sun is recommended. It’ll be dang hard to dig a pond under an older tree, so you’ll have to locate it more in the open. But all your little guests will appreciate some shade, as will some of your plants, so plan to plant some taller shading flowers, grasses, shrubs, even small trees around the periphery.

(The above picture is in Seattle (thanks to Houzz). I love the overall look of it, but would add more tall and overhanging plants to cast shade on the water. A lovely little Japanese maple would do the trick.)

Since we’re going for inviting our native species to this pond, include both native plants as well as others that will appreciate the same environment with no added water, fertilizer, pesticides or herbicides. Goes without saying (yet everyone dos go on to say), pesticides and herbicides are going to kill off the very wildlife you want to attract. Include bog and moisture-loving plants right along the edge of the pond (a nice spot for Pussy Willow–Salix discolor), and dry soil-lovers like sedums and sempervivums (hens and chicks) among the rocks. And you’ll want to include actual water plants which will both aerate the water, and keep it clean. They in effect become a “filtering system”. Along the edge that will be your own “viewing spot”, have minimal plant growth, but along the back side, have nice dense growth with lots of layers/heights.

Along the edges and even in the water itself you’re going to want different sorts of rocks, from very flat rocks like flagstone, to rounder rocks/boulders that will add contrast to some of the plantings, to pea rock or small scale river rocks along the “beach” side. Again, the more variety you offer, the more varied will be your inhabitants.

About fish. Having a few comets or mosquito fish will increase the diversity in your pond garden because they’ll help keep the ecosystem balanced. The little problem is keeping them. What with racoon, herons, skunks and neighbourhood cats, their lives are pretty precarious. If you can keep them from becoming lunch, then by all means add them to the pond. And don’t feed them–they’re there to serve a function–eating debris and mosquito larvae not least. Oh, and being entertaining!

Now clearly, this is not a treatise on how to build a backyard pond. There are lots of details, from how to construct the waterfall to what kind of products to use to where to position your pump–none of which I can address here. My purpose is just to get you thinking about how you can increase the diversity in your property, even in your region. Your neighbours will inevitably like what you’re doing (creating your wildlife-friendly garden), and want to do likewise. And now you may have the beginning of a “habitat corridor”.


How to Design a Wildlife Garden

“If You Build It They Will Come”

First of all, why should you bother with a “wildlife garden”? Providing habitat for native critters will not only benefit them, but you as well. The more diversity you have in your garden the more you’ll appreciate it and get out into it. Which as you know from reading my first post of the year, is very good for your mental and physical well-being. Then of course there’s what you learn from co-habiting with lots of different species, and what your children will learn. But for me, it’s the entertainment factor that motivates me to develop the micro-habitats in my small urban yard.

Food Water Shelter.

That’s really all you need to encourage beneficial and entertaining wildlife to consider your home their home. Not talking raccoons or skunks or rats or even squirrels. But birds, bees, butterflies, frogs, toads, even little lizards if you live in the right place.

Bees and butterflies like a little mud. Birds will be happy with some bugs that you didn’t kill. Frogs and toads will be attracted to some fresh water.

It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of work or money, but it does take planning and commitment. Here’s a short article by Doug Green. 

First Things First

In order to have a wildlife-friendly garden, you’ll need to think in terms of balance: everything serves something else. You’ve heard me mention my aquarium before (the only pets in my family); my aquarium is balanced.

My aquarium

My aquarium

I seldom have to do any remedial care except for small water changes: I feed the fish small meals. The fish feed the plants, the plants aerate the water and use up all the nutrients the fish don’t need, and the water quality is nicely balanced.


In future posts I’ll get more specific, but for now, let’s cover the foundations. To welcome a wide range of native guests, you’ll want to have at least a selection of native plants, varieties of plant heights, minimal added fertilizers, and ZERO pesticides and herbicides, with the exception of organic treatments for food crops. Again, when I get to the different species, I’ll explain in more detail, but at this design stage, I’ll just cover generalities.


Plan to have at least a few tall trees, some short trees/tall shrubs, planted quite densely, short shrubs, and a variety of perennials, tall and short. This is called layering, and altho’ in some pictures the layers are often stacked like a grandstand, they don’t have to be, and in my opinion give a lot more interest when they are more “randomly” positioned (ie, designed to be that way). After all, your view of the garden depends on where you are–you’re not always looking at it from the living room window. I was surprised to hear a neighbour comment on how much she loves the look of my garden from her front window.

layering of vegetationThis picture (thanks to NatureScapes BC) shows the tallest at the back (that would indeed be the most logical) and then a variety of tall and short in the mid-background (shaded), finally more varied heights in the foreground. The purpose you can see on the left: different birds and beasts will fly, eat, sleep and nest at different heights.

At the lowest level, i.e. ground level, you’ll want to have an area that is left relatively undisturbed, perhaps some uncut native grasses, a bit of brush cut and left, or a section of lawn that is left to grow taller. It doesn’t have to be a large area, just a few square feet will do, and probably not where your neighbours and passers-by will see and exclaim over the mess. 


Of course, every living thing needs water. You may be afraid of providing a breeding ground for mosquitos if you have standing water, but remember, this is a balanced garden. Some of your invited guests will find mosquito larvae just the thing for breakfast; they’ll never last long enough to actually grow to maturity.

Water provides not only liquid to drink, but a play-space for birds, breeding area for frogs and toads, a place to grow bog-side plants, and of course the delight of sight and sound for you.


One of the most important elements here is to not KILL the food before it becomes a snack for your critters. Keeping your garden healthy will minimize the number of insects it attracts (unhealthy plants practically scream “come and attack me!”) , but will not eliminate them. The birds on the other hand will be quite grateful for the remainder, as will many beneficial insects. Did you know that parasitic wasps are so small they lay their eggs inside an aphid? So leave a few aphids for the beneficial parasitic wasp. And for the ladybugs, the larval stage of which is a big aphid eater.

Providing a wide variety of tasty morsels will increase the diversity of wildlife that come a-callin’. And again, at least a few of your plants should be native. For those that aren’t native, have some that are as little hybridized as possible. For example, many new cultivars of your favourite flowers are actually sterile–no seeds, no seed eaters. So that beautiful ‘Cherokee Sunset’ Coneflower I bought last fall won’t do anything for the chickadees and juncos. But they’ll love the sunflowers.

It’s early in the year, so you’ve still got lots of time to plan your wildlife garden. Stay tuned for more detailed information about bird, bee, butterfly, beneficials-friendly gardening. in the meantime, ask questions, make comments, and click the follow button.

Until next time…