Habitat for Harmony

How to garden the way nature intended.

A habitat garden

We’ve taken such a lot of meadow and forest to use for suburban houses and second homes that we’re losing the birds and insects and critters that used to live there. It seems only right to give some greenery back.

So here is a modest proposal to consider as you plan what to have in your garden this summer. Every Slate reader with a yard should plant a small tree, a couple of shrubs, and a few plants that provide food and shelter to birds, insects, toads, and other creatures. Start small. We’ll do this in a back corner area about the size of a queen-sized mattress. (I do mean we. I’m going to take a corner of my niece Nell’s Brooklyn, N.Y., garden.)

With bird and butterfly species dropping like flies (a comparison they wouldn’t appreciate), making a haven for creatures seems like an obvious good idea. Why aren’t more people doing it already?

Look at houses along a suburban road, and you’ll see that most homeowners accept what the developer has given them. Usually, this consists of a few evergreens close to the house’s foundation, a lawn, and a lonely tree plunked in the middle of the lawn. To a weary migrating songbird, hungry honeybee, or wandering butterfly, this looks unpromising, sterile. There’s little shelter, not much food on offer, and a marked lack of mating material—no bird or butterfly party going on at which to meet a mate. (Butterflies look languid and aimless, but they’re in a desperate hurry to reproduce.)

I was struck by a news photo, back when John Roberts was being vetted for the Supreme Court, of our future chief justice walking to the street through the front yard of his Bethesda, Md., home. It was a very bare yard, painfully tidy; you could call it socially conservative. From the looks of things, many homeowners from Bangor, Maine, to San Diego, Calif., have a similar fear of looking different from their neighbors or being a little freed-up, generous, or, dare I say, liberal in their planting. (At one point, I considered photographing the front yards of each of our Supreme Court justices to see if the garden plots reflected their different temperaments and likely decisions. I’ve been holding off on this for fear of being apprehended as a security risk.)

A habitat garden has to have a variety of plants, densely planted. (Think of what a mourning dove looks for when it’s trying to get away from a cat.) The effect, I admit, could seem scruffy. But don’t think unkempt; think cottage garden.

Another fear some homeowners have is that by welcoming birds and butterflies, they might also be inviting caterpillars and beetles and garden snakes. The conservative gardener might think, “I just want to avoid being a disgrace to the neighborhood; I didn’t sign up to be part of the ecosystem.” Face it, we were all signed up at birth. The preferred organic strategy is to invite everyone (except deer) in and let the birds and the insects and the spiders and the (nonvenomous) snakes fight it out among themselves.

If you want birds nesting in your trees, you have to have bugs. Most birds (except sea and shore birds) raise their young on an insect diet.

In those suburban yards where you do see color and variety, sometimes the garden is intended to please and impress other people rather than wildlife. Many visitors might say, “I love your big pink roses.” Not so many will note the variety of birds enjoying your yard. Fewer still will get excited about the butterfly cocoons or the wasps disposing of the eggs and larvae of garden pests.

Habitat gardens, though they can be pretty, are not what you usually see in Architectural Digest or even Fine Gardening as models to emulate. In addition, it is the rare nursery owner who is knowledgeable about native plants, though that is changing.

If you’re willing to join me in this experiment with natural and native rather than super-tidy or super-showy, here’s how to do it. Choose small trees and shrubs that provide berries to eat and a dense network of branches to conceal a nest. Add nectar-rich flowers for butterflies, honeybees, hummingbirds, and beneficial insects. A little shallow water would be appreciated; it can be no more than a concave stone that you’ll splash with a bucketful of water every once in a while to prevent mosquito larvae.

Why should the plants be primarily native? For one thing, you’re trying to create a distillation of the original landscape that is (or was, before the bulldozers) around your plot. That landscape will consist of the plants that co-evolved over thousands of years with native birds and insects. You need not join the native-gardening crusade; keep your pink roses and peonies and tomatoes, preferably closer to the house. This postage stamp of habitat can be at the back of your yard or along part of an edge.

From this list of 10, choose one small tree, a few shrubs, and a couple of flowering plants for your wildlife experiment.

The immediate benefit of such a planting is that you’ll have your own little wildlife preserve to watch. Once planted and watered attentively for the first year, these plants take little watering, no grooming (just cut off dead stuff if necessary), zero pesticides, and, given not-terrible soil to start with, no fertilizer.

Perhaps seeing hummingbirds will be so thrilling that you’ll put some red sage in with your milkweed, then you’ll go buy Alabama Crimson honeysuckle or trumpet vine to grow up a pole near the front door. You may be perceived by your neighbors as eccentric; then again, you may be seen as a leader in the next wave.

If the 40 million or so gardeners in the United States each were to plant at least one of these mattress-size plots, there would be not quite a quilt, but at least a pattern of welcoming green dots across the country. (The plan will work for city gardens, and even a container planting can attract wildlife.)

So, Justice Roberts, I’m available for a consult on your front yard. Picture the native wisteria Amethyst Falls over your doorway and a grove of three river birches, native to Indiana, where you grew up, shielding the house from the sidewalk. We’ll talk native plants and a little First Amendment on the side.

Send your habitat gardening tips to, and discuss  this article in Slate’s readers’ forum, “The Fray.”