Updated on March 21, 2024

By David Mizejewski, naturalist, National Wildlife Federation


There’s an easy way each of us can help wildlife, starting right outside our own door: We can plant a wildlife habitat garden! Habitat gardens help all sorts of wildlife, from birds and butterflies to bees and other pollinators. It’s one of the simplest and most rewarding ways to think globally and act locally.

Creating natural gardens is a fast-growing trend, but it’s one that has a long history. Over 50 years ago, the National Wildlife Federation kicked off the Garden for Wildlife movement, inspiring people to help wildlife on the local level. The idea is to restore natural habitat where people live and connect cities, towns and neighborhoods back to the local ecosystem. The wildlife benefit, but people do too by having access to the beauty of nature all around.

A yellow butterfly sitting on a bright purple flower with an orange center.

Credit | Randy Streufert

What’s in a wildlife habitat garden?

Wildlife habitat gardens provide four things: food, water, cover and places to raise young. It all starts with your plants, as what plant and how you plant it has a huge impact on wildlife.

For example, many lawns are made up of non-native grasses and offer no habitat for most species. They typically require pesticides, fertilizer and watering to maintain them. Additionally, pollutive mowers and trimmers are often used.

In contrast, a landscape made up of native trees, shrubs and beds of wildflowers requires much less maintenance and gives nectar to bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, as well as host plants for caterpillars. It supplies seeds, nuts and berries for songbirds to eat, places to nest and insects they need to feed their babies. It also provides the cover wildlife needs to hide, sleep safely and move about without being seen by people and predators. Add a birdbath or a garden pond to provide water, and supplement with a birdhouse or a feeder, and you’ll instantly have a living landscape teeming with life for you to enjoy.


A hummingbird drawing nectar from red flowers that are on a long, skinny stock.

Credit | Zhixia Shi


Joining the Garden for Wildlife movement

The beauty of this concept of food, water, cover and places to raise young is that there are infinite ways you can provide each habitat component. It doesn’t matter where you live or even how much space you have. You can choose for a formal design or a more naturalistic design.

It’s also a great way to celebrate regional diversity. A wildlife habitat garden in Arizona will look very different from one in Ohio, and both will differ from one in Oregon. It can be done on large rural property, an average suburban backyard or even in containers on a patio or urban rooftop. If you plant native plants, you help wildlife.

When you provide these four habitat components and commit to maintaining your garden or landscape in a natural way, you can join the movement and the National Wildlife Federation will recognize it as a Certified Wildlife Habitat.


A "Certified Wildlife Habitat" sign from National Wildlife Federation in front of some greenery.

Credit | David Mizejewski


5 ways to get started on your wildlife garden

  1. Start small

Don’t feel like you need to completely tear out your existing garden or landscape. Use this checklist to assess what habitat you already have. Then, decide what things you’re missing that you’d like to add, and make a plan.

  1. Plant one thing

Commit to planting one native tree or shrub or creating one new garden bed for native wildflowers. You’ll be surprised how even a small area of native plants supports wildlife, especially when it replaces barren lawn. You can add more each year. Gardens with 50 to 70% native plants support 50% more wildlife than the surrounding areas with just lawn and ornamental non-native plants.


Fall leaves filled into a garden bed at the base of a white ash tree.

Credit | David Mizejewski


  1. Spring cleaning

Conventional gardening rules say you need to get rid of all your fallen leaves and prune old flower stalks back to the ground — but that’s all habitat for wildlife. Wait to do cleanup until after temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees, which gives beneficial insects a chance to emerge from winter hideaways in the leaves and stems. Use fallen leaves year-round as natural mulch and fertilizer where it will also be habitat for insects, amphibians and birds. Don’t cut old flower stalks down to the ground. Leave about a foot standing to be nesting spots for native bees. New spring growth quickly covers the old stems.

  1. Don’t spray

Commit to going organic: Don’t spray insecticides, herbicides or other pesticides. Natural gardens rarely have pest problems and there are many tried-and-true organic gardening techniques that don’t require toxic chemicals. Hiring companies to spray insecticides to kill mosquitoes also kills bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects, even if they use “natural” sprays. There are better ways to prevent mosquito bites.

  1. Make a place for you

Habitat gardens are for people too! Be sure to include a seating area where you can just relax and enjoy watching the habitat you’ve created and knowing that you’ve done something good for wildlife.


Want to learn more? Check out these other tips on how to build your wildlife garden and why it’s important to leave the leaves in the fall.

Plus, check out these ideas for bee-friendly plants.

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