How to Make a Wildlife Garden

By Arlene Correll 


The first light snow has set in and at this age it makes for careful walking and mostly staying indoors.  It gives one time to view the garden and see all the things one forgot to do before this quiet time.  Also time to think of the gone by days of this year as it ends.  It also gives one pause to think about what one can do for next year.  It is a gardener’s thing!

I love all kinds of wildlife and watching their antics.  However, there are some I just as not see in my garden such as deer, moles, squirrels, rabbits, white-footed mice, short-tailed shrews etc.  However, they are there and we tolerate each other and I do nothing to deter them and I do nothing to encourage them.   

I try to plant perennial flowers that they do not like and that seems to work.  My daughter-in-laws 3 cats who live on the edge of our garden and who stalk the “jungles” of the garden seem to deter the smaller critters.  For me, butterflies and birds are most welcome, along with the frogs.

When we first moved to Kentucky and I started to make our garden, we put out 4 hummingbird feeders and they were always loaded up with hummingbirds.  This past summer they did not seem to frequent them as much and I wondered why until I saw that they would rather have the real stuff. Our flower garden had flourished so well with the kind of flowers that they like, that they rarely needed to use the feeders
If you are trying to attract humming birds and are not having any luck with your feeders, perhaps it could be because they are not sparkling clean. Hummers will not feed from a feeder if the nectar is moldy. Clean your feeders, and, refill with fresh nectar every three days. It is also a good idea to have more than one feeder. These little birds are very territorial and often will not let another bird feed from “their” feeder.  Hummingbirds are beautiful and interesting to watch. Capable of very long migratory flights, those spending summers in eastern North America fly all the way to Mexico to winter there.  Amazing!  I love it when someone on our patio has on a red shirt or something with red in on it and a hummingbird will come right up and hover with their wings going a mile a minute until 

they realize there is nothing there for them.  They are also quite acrobatic when they are mating. Hummingbirds feed almost continuously all day. Their metabolism is higher than most warm-blooded vertebrae animals. Besides flower nectar, they eat small insects and spiders from flowers. Males are quick to establish feeding territories and aggressively chase away other hummingbirds, both other males and females. They may also be seen defending their territory against bumblebees and hawk moths.

As they become quite tame around you, and they will, remember they are protected by law and one cannot capture and cage one without a permit.  The males are more brilliant than females and the females are larger than the males. Some have straight bills and others curved bills, all designed to get deep into the flower for the nectar.

We have two small ponds in the main part of the Cottage Garden, but on the sides I keep small “artsy” type containers that I use as bird baths.  If the birds aren’t bathing in whatever you use as a bird bath, check the location of the birdbath. Birds like to have an elevated area close by that they can fly to quickly. Clean, fresh water is also a must. Be careful not to overfill the bath. Placing a rock in the middle of the birdbath will encourage smaller birds to bathe.

We have a lovely large clay fish that spurts water from one pond to the other and it is such a pleasant sound.  We have it on a timer from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m.  We also have an automatic water leveler that turns on once the water falls below a certain level, thus keeping us from losing the water pump.  Water pumps are costly and the automatic level purchase was the result of having a pump burn out because the water got down during a real hot spell and we were not paying attention.

Once winter is on the way, I clean all leaves and other debris from the pond bottom because decaying vegetation will consume precious oxygen.  Remember to replace from 1/2 to 2/3 of the water.  If you have fish, snails, tadpoles and other aquatic life then fill a 2 gallon bucket (new) with water from the pond, and use this as a holding tank when you are cleaning your pond.   Pump out the old water using your pond pump, and replace with fresh water.  Don't forget to use a de-chlorinator to remove chlorine.  Replace the fish, etc.  If your potted plants are hardy it is alright to leave them in place during this process.  It is not necessary to remove the pots. 

If you have tropical plants, including lilies, and you expect below freezing (32°F) remove them entirely from your pond. Place pots of hardy plants in the deepest part of your pond.  Prune back foliage blackened by frost.  Remove your pond pump if the air temperature will go below freezing (32°F).  If you have a pond you might want to consider investing in a small heater just big enough to keep the ice from freezing solid.  We do not have one

If you don't have a heater, and your pond freezes solid on the surface, don't break the ice!  You can place a saucepan containing boiling water on top of the ice until it melts through.  Keep hanging onto the pan. You do not want it to fall into the pond.  Repeat as necessary until you have an opening in the ice. I just let my pond be as I have no fish in it and no water plants.  The frogs come back each year. 

While building up my wildlife garden, I discovered that different colors of flowers attract different types of butterflies.  It was amazing to learn that butterflies are attracted to the color, of flowers,

as well as the nectar they seek. Whenever I buy new seeds or plants I always try to buy perennials that are nectar rich flowers. Often the modern hybrids are beautiful, but have little or no nectar. If they have a wonderful scent chances are they are rich in nectar. Bees and other nectar loving insects will also appreciate your effort to provide nectar rich flowers in your garden.

Consider bloom time when you are making your selections.  I try to have several varieties

blooming throughout the growing season by either choosing ones that bloom progressively at certain times of the season or by planting them a few weeks later than each other in stages.

When I made my butterfly garden, I chose an area that received at least six hours of full sunlight daily. This is generally listed as one of the requirements for most annuals and perennials that butterflies prefer as a nectar source. The butterflies also favor sunny locations.  Please don’t worry if your garden does not meet those requirements, you might achieve some success with as little as two hours of direct sunlight a day, but you will have to choose flowers with a nectar source they love, such as native wildflowers, or cultivars of the native species that don’t require a lot of special care if you have properly prepared your soil. Seldom bothered by pests or diseases, wildflowers are an excellent choice for your garden.

Keep your butterfly garden pesticide free.  I do not like weeds any more than most people, but a weed is merely an unwanted flower and I pull them out by hand.   It is about the only exercise I get nowadays and a good excuse for spending more time in the garden. Insect pests seldom pick on

healthy plants and I keep mine that way by picking up plant litter on a regular basis.

I water my garden only when flowers and plants are showing signs of stress. Over watering causes many plant diseases, and it is not good for the plant’s root system. I leave it to the birds and beneficial insects to rid my garden of unwanted pests.

Remember that butterflies like birdbaths also. It is easy to add a butterfly hibernation box to your butterfly

garden. The addition of that and a birdbath are both useful and pleasing to the eye. Butterflies need water, especially on hot summer days. I place a flat rock placed in the middle of a birdbath to give butterflies a place to drink. Hibernation boxes provide some shelter from the elements even though very few species of butterflies actually hibernate. Butterflies also love large, dark, flat rocks placed about the garden for sunning.

Here are some flowers that will attract hordes of butterflies to your garden.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias) is a tall orange perennial that is a good host* plant with nectar.

Medium and tall, pink, purple and blue asters are good host* nectar perennial to attract butterflies

Thistle (Cirsium) pink, purple, and yellow are good tall host* nectar perennials that do well in attracting butterflies.

Of course, no garden should be without one or two Butterfly Bushes. (Buddleia)  Pink, purple, yellow or red.  Put them where they can spread out as they grow quite tall and wide. 


They are good nectar perennials, but not a host* perennial. 

The common white daisy (Chrysanthemum) is a good hardy perennial that is a nectar, but not a host* plant. Again these will spread though-out your garden if you do not mind. But they are glorious and the butterflies love them.  Plus they are always perky on your kitchen or dining room table.
Don’t forget Yarrow, (Achillea) Yellow is a good nectar, but not a host* perennial.  Other nectar, but not host* perennials are Phlox, Black Eyed Susans, Blazing Star (Laitris), Bee Balm, and Violets

Another must for the butterfly garden is the wonderful Butterfly Weed that is both a host* and nectar perennial.  

Some great annuals are Marigolds and Zinnia. My word, I do not know who
loves zinnia more, me or the butterflies. Both are nectar, but not host flowers
Last, but not least, a true butterfly garden cannot be with out the queen of the butterfly gardens, the perennial Purple Cornflower. (Echinacea) Pink or Purple, medium or tall are all nectar, but not host* flowers.

*A host plant is one upon which a caterpillar feeds.  For instance, host plant for the Monarch Butterfly would be milkweed.  When you provide host plants for butterfly caterpillars, you increase your chances to see the butterfly emerging from the cocoon. 

Whenever I am outside in my yard picking up sticks after a storm, I start a small brush pile. Small mammals and a variety of birds enjoy the features this element provides, including cover and a good place for them to find insects.

I try not to use marble chips, lava rock, or any other type of inorganic mulch in my flowerbeds and borders, and underneath my shrubs simply because insect eating birds depend a great deal on large areas of leaf litter or decomposing bark mulch, rich with insects and their larva. Wrens and Song Sparrows especially enjoy this type of area. Any type of organic mulch is very good for your plants and helps to enrich the soil.

Once the winter sets in, you will discover a great many of your winged visitors have flown south,

that is if you live in the north.  The ones that remain, will depend on you greatly, especially if you have been feeding them all summer.  Our goldfinches remain with us all year long. The males are brilliantly colored in the summer, but become a little drab in the winter and the females are more drab than usual. We indulge ourselves with the goldfinches and have several special thistle feeders just for them.  It seems thistle seed becomes more expensive each year.

Make sure your feeders are clean. Submerge your feeders in a solution of 1 part household bleach to 9 parts tepid water for two to three minutes.  Scrub them with a stiff bristled brush, and rinse thoroughly.  Dry  well before refilling with birdseed.  Warm, sunny, fall days are ideal for this chore. Clean up the area around your feeders.  Clear away old seed and droppings with a broom or shovel. Check feeders for wear and tear being careful to notice sharp or rough edges.  Repair any damaged areas.

Winter feeding has different requirements. Warming sunny days can mean moldy and decaying seed in your feeders. Birds eating spoiled seed may become sick or die, or they may avoid your feeders entirely. Inspect your feeders frequently and discard (don't compost) spoiled seed. Raw suet (the type purchased at grocery meat counters) will become rancid in warmer weather, so replace it with suet "pudding" blocks that you find at feed and other stores. These will remain fresh provided they are hung in the shade.

For those of you with bird baths, scrub bird baths with a solution of 1 part household bleach to 9 parts tepid water.  If the bath is made of a material other than plastic, store for the winter inside a garage or basement.  Freezing water may break the bird bath.  One may want to consider purchasing a heated bird bath, or invest in a heater. 

Because I keep my birdseed in the garage, I like to store it in tightly sealed containers because it keeps both moisture and rodents out.  Moisture will cause seed to mold and render it useless.

I have a hard time with my daughter-in-laws 3 cats that roam free in my garden.  They are always stalking something. Either birds or frogs! We have learned to put the feeders up high enough that these guys can not get at the birds.  So if you have cats, you may want to consider them to be inside pets if you are indeed a bird lover.

It is never too late to start a wildlife garden. You may have one all ready and may not even realize it.  These gardens are not only a joy, especially for me in my old age, but are a great living, learning center for young children.  


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