Backyard Habitat
A Dozen "Must Have" Plants for Backyard Habitat

by Karen Williams

Creating a wildlife garden is something many people interested in nature have embraced. It is an easy, positive step that increases (even if only by one small lot) the space available for wildlife. As we watch more and more of nature fall to the strip mall, each small addition to available food and shelter takes on greater importance.

Plants for wildlife gardens cannot be considered in isolation. Plants are part of an interwoven web of soil, water, plants and space called habitat. Wildlife must gather all it needs to survive from its habitat. Food for young, shelter from the storm, raw materials for nests, and more, all must come from the habitat. Plants provide many of these needs. They are a critical component of a habitat's value. In a garden, choosing the right palette of plants is critical. The various types of plants work together to provide food and shelter.

The categories and plant species listed herein are chosen to represent all components of backyard habitat. If a garden is to attract a sustainable population of wildlife, it must provide all of the above, plus water. A butterfly bush or red cedar tree isolated in the middle of a lawn will be hardly more attractive than the lawn itself. These plants will be most effective working in concert.


Placement of these plants is as important to wildlife as the plant species. Tree and shrub areas planted to mimic natural areas will be more attractive than plants placed in isolation. Under-plant trees with shrubs. Plant shrubs so that they will grow together when full size. This arrangement provides the quiet areas birds need to nest and provides refuge from predators.

Black Cherry, Prunus serotina

This tree is so prolific in this part of the country that it is considered a weed by many. To a wildlife gardener, the fact that it appears everywhere is a testament to its wildlife value, since its seeds are spread by the birds that feed on its abundant fruits.

Black cherry's value to wildlife is not limited to its fruits. The insects attracted to its spring flowers feed insectivorous birds. Foliage is food for caterpillars of many species of butterfly and moth, including cecropia moth, red spotted purple and eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies.

This tree's major drawback is the messiness of the fallen fruits. The fruits stain sidewalks and shoe bottoms and subsequently floors and rugs. This problem is easily solved by placing the tree at the back of a planting, with shrubs and/or flowers in front. Then the fruits drop where they are in no one's way.

Elderberry, Sambuccus canadensis

This native shrub's primary value is its early fruit. Elderberry fruit ripens in late June to early July in southern New Jersey when no other fruits are available. This, coupled with its showy white blossoms in late spring, merits its inclusion in your garden.

Elderberry grows rapidly if given fertile soil and adequate moisture. Fruiting will be heavier if two plants are grouped together for cross-pollination. Two plants from the same cultivar do not qualify as two individuals, since, as they are propagated from cuttings, they are genetically identical.

Cut elderberries back severely after fruiting to encourage the growth of new canes; this increases bloom and fruit the following year.

Arrowwood Viburnum, Viburnum dentatum

Widespread in the northeast, arrowwood viburnum produces dense clusters of dark blue fruits in September, just in time for avian migrants. The author's plants are quickly stripped of their berries, a testament to their attractiveness. Many plant species time their fruiting to coincide with this wave of migration. In return for their meal, birds distribute the plants' seeds throughout their migration route.

Arrowwood also contributes to the backyard habitat during the rest of the year. Its spring bloom provides nectar before most annual and perennial flowers, feeding insects and in turn birds. Planted in thickets it will also provide nesting space and shelter for many animals.

Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana

This easily grown tree provides food and shelter to a multitude of animals. Female trees produce crops of berries which linger into winter, sustaining robins, bluebirds and other thrushes, cedar waxwings, and other fruit-eating birds that spend winters in our area. It is also the caterpillar food plant for olive hairstreak butterflies. If this were not enough, the dense evergreen foliage is an excellent windbreak, making the trees an important provider of shelter from wind, rain, snow, sleet, etc. At the author's property in Woodbine, New Jersey, cedars provide a regular winter roost for mourning doves, and a colony of common grackles nests in various cedar trees around the property. These are the regulars; most of the birds that visit the site throughout the year use the cedar trees at one time or another.

Red cedar trees are easily grown in full sun and are quite tolerant of dry conditions once established.


Nectar is the primary food source for many butterfly species. Their inclusion in the garden feeds many more animals than butterflies. Hummingbirds, bees, moths and numerous other insects take advantage of this high carbohydrate food source. These critters are in turn food for others.

New England Aster, Aster novae-anglia

It's September, the monarch butterflies are migrating, and the New England asters are taking advantage of it. By timing bloom to coincide with monarch migration the asters are assured of a ready supply of pollinators to fertilize flowers and create seed. Gardeners with New England asters in their garden get the pleasure of watching butterflies on gorgeous flowers in shades of purple and pink.

There are many cultivars of New England aster available. Most grow vigorously on minimal moisture once established. Pinching back growing tips prior to the Fourth of July will stimulate branching and result in more (although somewhat smaller) flowers.


The current interest in meadow gardening has created an interest in native, warm season bunch grasses. These grasses, because they grow in clumps and do not produce a dense sod, are ideal companions for many native "wild" flowers. The flowers flourish in the spaces between the grass clumps.

Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium

This grass is a caterpillar food plant for many species of skipper (you may find it listed under its old scientific name, Andropogon scoparius). It is also a vital component of meadow-type plantings. Without grasses as a backbone, meadows would be continually plagued by weedy species that would choke flowers. The grass provides a matrix for the wildflowers, keeping weeds to a minimum and supporting the stems.

Little bluestem can be grown in a meadow-type situation or as a specimen plant similarly to the ornamental grasses that are common in landscapes everywhere. Once established it is very easy to maintain. Simply cut it back each spring to four to six inches. This can be accomplished through mowing in a meadow, or manually as borders are cut back.

Switch Grass, Panicum virgatum

Loosely branching seed heads grace this grass each fall. It has many of the same benefits as little bluestem, plus its seeds feed sparrows after they fall to the ground. (Little bluestem's seeds are distributed by the wind.)

This plant can also be used in meadows and as specimen plantings.


Butterflies have a four-phase lifecycle. One phase, the caterpillar, eats leaves. Each butterfly species lays its eggs on a specific plant or small group of plant species. Butterflies are more abundant where their food plants are found. Including them in your garden will increase the number of butterflies in your garden.

Milkweeds, Asclepias sp.

Milkweeds are food plants to monarch butterfly caterpillars. The population of monarchs in a garden with milkweeds will grow throughout the summer, peaking usually in late August when migration begins. Milkweeds are also a good nectar source when in bloom.

Four species are easily grown in New Jersey. Common milkweed, A. syriaca, is a good choice for meadows and other naturalized areas. Its habit of spreading by underground runners makes it awkward in formal garden borders. Butterfly milkweed, A. tuberosa, grows well in meadows and borders. Its long taproot prohibits moving the plant once established. Swamp milkweed, A. incarnata, is a good choice for borders and wet areas. Scarlet milkweed, A. curassavica, is a tropical plant grown as an annual in our temperate climate. Its primary advantage is the extended bloom and growth period, making it attractive to butterflies and caterpillars right up to frost.

Dill, Fennel and Parsley

These culinary herbs are also the caterpillar food plants for black swallowtail butterflies. The caterpillars, with their black, yellow and green stripes, are as striking as the adults. Many gardeners complain that the caterpillars get more of the herbs than they do. A solution that works for many is planting plenty, and planting a species they do not eat. Then caterpillars can be moved to the variety not favored in the kitchen.


In addition to traditional lawn and flower borders, wildlife gardeners should consider managing portions of their property in these novel ways.

The Weed Patch or Meadow

All gardeners interested in wildlife should consider allowing nature to cultivate a portion of their yard. Plants brought in as seeds by the animals using your yard will predominate in a natural patch, the ultimate in supply and demand. The two easiest forms of these gardens to incorporate are the "Weed Patch" and the "Meadow."

If you till the ground and do nothing else, a wide variety of plants will spring up, some planted by birds and others that have been lying dormant in the soil, often for decades. Tilling exposes them to light and breaks dormancy. Most of these plants are what scientists describe as early successional species; they are the first plants to move in after the ground have been disturbed. These plants are annuals. They grow, produce immense quantities of seed, and die in one season. The immense quantity of seed is what attracts birds. A "Weed Patch" will mature into a mix of herbaceous perennials over several years. Tilling will reset the clock.

A "Meadow" is a mix of herbaceous grasses and flowers, mostly perennial. A first step toward creating a meadow is to simply stop mowing a portion of your yard and see what comes up. Subsequently, gardeners can add seeds and small plants (plugs) to supply reliable color, or simply let wildlife plant the garden on its own. A meadow will need periodic mowing to keep it from succeeding into a forest. A late-w9inter mowing works well. Occasionally, a summer mowing may be needed also.

The Clipped Meadow

Unless you tell them otherwise, people will call these areas of your garden "lawn." The difference between a clipped meadow and a lawn is more philosophical than visual. The clipped meadow approach shuns chemical herbicides and pesticides and welcomes a diverse array of plants and soil invertebrates. The dandelions, clover, and chickweed in a clipped meadow will provide nectar for many spring butterflies. The worms, grubs and other small animals living in the soil will feed robins, grackles, and other ground feeding birds. You can even roll around on the grass with your kids without getting chemicals all over you.

While a clipped meadow may not be the uniform carpet of green touted by chemical companies and lawn care businesses, it has a subtle interest of its own. The many plant species create an ever-changing tapestry as seasons progress. Time taken to examine the tiny flowers of forget-me-nots or chickweed can be very relaxing, as can the knowledge that you are not adding any toxins to the groundwater.

Mow your clipped meadow as it needs it. Its growth is closely related to the amount of water it received. Relax as you enjoy your chemical-free environment.

Use this list to create a strong base for your personal wildlife refuge. Once a base is in place, experiment with additional species to customize your garden to your location and taste. Watch birds and butterflies in your area, taking careful note of plants they use. Armed with this knowledge, you can easily create an oasis that will sustain wildlife and give you countless hours of enjoyment.

Happy gardening!

--Karen Williams

Karen Williams is the owner/operator of Flora for Fauna, a nursery specializing in backyard habitats, located in Woodbine, New Jersey. This spring she will be selling plants through the Cape May Bird Observatory's Center for Research and Education in Goshen, New Jersey. She can be reached at the nursery: Flora for Fauna, 1209 Friedriechstadt Avenue, Woodbine, New Jersey 08270, (609) 861-5102.