Floridata Article

Creating Backyard Habitat

Listen to my podcast: Stibolt's yard is Certified as Habitat #59063

Ginny's backyard habitat sign. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
Ginny's backyard habitat sign.

Since moving into our house in the spring of 2004, we've been working on many projects to make our property more attractive to wildlife and to increase its environmental sustainability. I've written about many of these projects including: rain gardens, rain barrels, native plants in your landscape, reducing our lawn, creating and maintaining meadow areas, and more.

I decided it was time to apply for a Backyard Wildlife Habitat certification from the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). Our yard is now officially NWF habitat #59063. I urge everyone to do this: it's not difficult and you don't need a large lot like ours. If you have children at home, certification is a great family project.

There are four features that you must provide to have sustainable wildlife habitat.


A large worm devours leaves from a bushy seedbox. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
Interesting and colorful hornworms have come to eat the leaves of my bushy seedboxes (Ludwigia peruviana).

1) Food

You need to provide a minimum of three types of food: seeds, berries, leaves, nuts, nectar, etc. Food is best supplied by plants and animals in a balanced ecosystem, but you may supplement the naturally-occurring food with feeders. This is more important in colder environments.

See What's Been Eating My Bush Seedboxes? and Meadows for more information on what we've done to create food for wildlife.


Cooter turtles next to our front pond. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
Two Cooter turtles bask on the pond's edge.

2) Water

You need to provide at least one source of water for drinking and bathing. We used to love to watch orioles, cardinals and blue jays use the bird bath on our deck in Maryland, but found that here in Florida, the water in a bird bath got too hot and birds wouldn't use it. But we have a pond in the front of our house and Lake Asbury is at the back of our lot, so we qualified. If you don't have a pond, you could create a small water feature with a solar pump, to keep the water flowing and cooler.

We've replaced the lawn at the edge of the pond with ferns and other water-loving native plants to provide more interest and to reduce the maintenance of a hard-to-mow area.


Amimals find cover in odd places sometimes. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
This little toad found cover under a potted bromeliad on our front porch.

3) Cover

Wildlife habitat requires shelter from weather and predators. You need to provide two types of cover such as: wooded areas; dense evergreens, shrubs, or bramble; brush piles; meadows; ponds; and even potted plants.

Our lot includes a number of these features, but you don't need a big space to provide cover.


Baby Carolina wrens nested in one of our pots. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
Carolina wrens nested in one of our pots.

4) Places to raise young

While much of the cover and food features above double for this category, the emphasis is different. This category also includes nesting sites such as meadows, mature trees and dead trees or snags, plus food for larvae and other young.

Three Carolina Wrens hatched from this nest in a plastic pot where I was storing Sago pups on a rain barrel. Not what we'd planned because for several weeks we stayed away from this side our our garage so the birds would have some privacy, but we can always use three more insect eating birds around here.

Sustainable gardening

In addition to the four habitat features, NWF requires that you practice at least two sustainable gardening practices such as installing rain gardens, mulching & composting, reducing lawn areas, reducing erosion, reducing chemicals, and more. We've been working from the beginning to minimize environmentally negative conditions and to also reduce maintenance for our property.

Create a plant list.

I've been paying attention and have identified most of the plants on our lot, but I decided to use the www.Floridata.com plant database to create my plant list in an organized manner. The plant list on our property included more than 100 species including the several invasive species that I'm working to eradicate.

It was a great feeling to get the NWF package in the mail and to post the sign on an oak tree at the front corner of the yard.

Schools can get certified, too.

Schoolyard Wildlife Habitats are like the backyard habitats and need to attract wildlife by providing the four elements crucial to wildlife survival: food, water, cover and places to raise young. To get certified, a Schoolyard Wildlife Habitat also needs to include learning opportunities for all ages across the curriculum. A Schoolyard Habitat will:

  • provide areas for teaching and learning about nature

  • restore habitat for wildlife
  • decrease mowing maintenance costs
  • provide alternative classroom setting
  • create beautiful places on campus
  • enhance biodiversity

Boring and hard to maintain drainage ditch between parking areas. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
A boring, high-maintainence drainage ditch between parking areas. The trees' surface roots are being skinned with each mowing.

Commercial landowners can be greener and save money

Forward-thinking commercial and municipal land managers are changing the way "things" are done. Native plantings are used along roadsides, in drainage ditches, and other hard-to-maintain areas. It saves water & money, enhances the water quality, and it makes us all feel better. What better way to celebrate National Wildlife Week and Earth Day than to have whole communities work together to enhance the environment?

This NWF article describes some of the history of the program and how it has been applied to areas in cities, suburbs, and rural spaces, from backyards to schoolyards to commercial spaces.


Reducing the ongoing maintenace costs. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
By planting native water tolerant vegetation in drainage ditches, this commercial property is slowing down water flows into storm drains, providing habitat for wildlife, and is reducing the ongoing maintenance costs.

Resources for further information:

- The National Wildlife Federation has been spearheading the backyard and schoolyard habitat certification since 1973. As of Feb. 2006 there are 60,000 certified habitats: their goal is to reach 70,000 by the end of the year to celebrate NWF's 70th anniversary. Spread the word.

- Wildlife Habitat Council helps large landowners manage their unused lands in an ecologically sensitive manner for the benefit of wildlife and the environment. It also has projects for backyard habitat preservation as well.

- USDA's resource page includes tip sheets for backyard conservation.

- Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission's website with many how-to articles, lists of native plants by region, and recommendations like removing bug zappers that kill many more beneficial insects than mosquitoes.

- Audubon's website provides descriptions, plans, guidelines, kids activities for creating and maintaining bird-friendly backyards.

Certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat.
Certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat.

Ginny Stibolt moved to northeastern Florida in 2004 and even though she's a botanist and lifelong gardener, Florida gardening was a shock. She started writing The Adventures of a Transplanted Gardener columns for the Times Union newspaper in Jacksonville. This is one of those columns archived here on Floridata.com for your enjoyment. Now she's written three Florida garden books published by University Press of Florida: Sustainable Gardening for Florida, 2009; Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida with Melissa Contreras, 2013, and The Art of Maintaining a Florida Native Landscape, 2015. Check out her blog for the latest news and articles: www.GreenGardeningMatters.com

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