It started with a modest objective: save the monarchs — all of them. I wanted my backyard to look like the monarch wintering grounds in the oyamel fir forests of Mexico. If time and resources allowed, my secondary objective was to create a good place for other butterflies, birds, bees, and the occasional small furry or scaly critter to hang out.
The plan was to convert my relatively small, central Missouri backyard into a natural space for the benefit of wildlife and the enjoyment of friends and family. With access to MDC’s bird and habitat experts, turning my backyard into a 2,500-square-foot nature haven should have been child’s play.
Going Au Naturel
“That’s the big idea, right?” said State Ornithologist Sarah Kendrick. “If you can give up just a little bit of your lawn looking perfectly, immaculately manicured, you can help a lot of wildlife.”
There are three adjectives that have never been used to describe my backyard: perfect, immaculate, and manicured. It’s a bit of a mess to begin with, so why not put it to use attracting “a lot of wildlife.” With any luck, I would have the added benefit of relaxing and enjoying nature with my morning coffee.
Step Away from the Shovel
Apparently, the first step in converting your lawn to a nature haven is to get your shovel and all the rest of your garden tools — and lock them away. Even though a landscape designed for nature is not as structured as a traditional lawn, it still requires planning, said Norman Murray, habitat chief of MDC’s Wildlife Division.
“A lot of planning needs to go into that before you start randomly plopping down plants,” Murray said. “Otherwise you’re going to be very unhappy with the results.”
Norman was talking to me, which seemed odd because I already had a perfectly good plan. As it turns out, it was for someone else’s yard. Effective planning, he emphasized, starts with taking inventory of one’s resources and desired outcomes.
“What are their objectives? What do they want? What are they looking for? What kind of elements are they wanting in their backyard as far as wildlife,” he said. “What kind of feature-type plants are they looking for? What kind of landscape features are they wanting? And then, what do they have currently? What types of resources do they have in their yard? That determines what their possibilities are.”
Here Comes the Sun
When it comes to resources, the most important is the sun, Murray said. The amount of sunlight an area receives dictates what types of plants will thrive there.
“A lot of the native wildflowers … need at least six hours of sunlight,” he said. “If you’re in a woodland setting where you’re not getting that, you need to rethink your plan. There are some wildflowers that grow in a woodland setting, but that’s going to change what flowers you’re going to put in.”
Murray suggested keeping a sun diary to track how much sun hits each part of the yard during the peak growing season, which is roughly mid- to late- June. An hourly check of the yard would provide a good idea of which areas get sufficient sun for sun-loving plants and which areas require more shade-tolerant varieties. Such a formality seemed unnecessary to me, given my intimate knowledge of the backyard I’ve been mowing for 15 years.
Had I conducted a proper sun inventory, I would have learned that my planned planting area, which was so sunny on that October afternoon when Norman visited, would have been a better place to put a hammock than the sun-loving milkweed my monarch paradise required. My belated inventory, conducted 13 months after the first plants went in the ground, identified a sunny “sweet spot” about the size of my front doormat. In addition to being significantly smaller than expected, it was on the opposite side of the yard from where I had already planted.
Plants: Choose Wisely
Attracting native wildlife is a job best suited for native plants. Natives are adapted to Missouri’s climate and provide many animals, especially birds and pollinators, with important food and shelter, Kendrick said.
“Nearly all the birds you see in the summer are eating insects and feeding them to their young — that’s a lot of bugs needed to keep birds going,” she said. “Everything is connected — the more native plant diversity you can get in your backyard, the more insects and diversity you’ll have, which means more bird food and increased bird diversity.” In addition to choosing the right plants, it’s important to pick the right plant providers. Nurseries that are part of the Grow Native! network specialize in plants that are native to Missouri. Even plants promoted as native from some retailers may ultimately do more harm than good, said Kendrick.
“A lot of people don’t know that even some native plants they buy at a box store could be treated with neonicotinoids, which is in the seed,” she said.
Neonicotinoids are systemic insecticides, which are important in intensive agricultural operations.
“It grows in the plant, and if an insect eats it, the insect dies,” she continued. “A lot of people, who are just trying to do good and purchase plants from a store for birds and other wildlife, don’t know they might be hurting insects unintentionally, which, again, are part of a food chain and are very important to birds and other wildlife.”
When seeking the holy grail of plants for natural landscaping, Murray recommended identifying plants that meet several goals. Some nectar-producing plants prized by hummingbirds and butterflies have leaves that also serve as food for caterpillars and attract insects that become bird food. Some berry-producing shrubs favored by birds for their fruit also provide blooms for pollinators and shelter for nesting birds.
“When I do landscaping, I look for multiple benefits — both visually and for wildlife — from each of my plant species,” Murray said. “I can’t afford to just get one benefit out of them, because I have little space. I want beauty, and I want two or three wildlife benefits from them.”
Making room for these Swiss Army plants sometimes means removing existing single-purpose plants. For me, that involved ripping out all of the nonflowering, nonnative boxwood bushes and replacing them with shrubby St. John’s wort, a flowering native that attracts a variety of pollinators and, once mature, provides shelter.
Also, varying the selection of plants to include those that bloom at different times of the year will provide a constant nectar source for pollinators.
“Look at bloom seasons as you’re picking them so that you have something blooming at different times,” Murray said. “You want some early spring bloomers, some midseason bloomers, and some late bloomers.”
Beyond Plants: Water and Hardscaping
A thoughtful variety of plants is a must, but a yard well-balanced for nature should also include water, whether it’s a simple birdbath or a more complicated in-ground feature with pumps and filters, Kendrick said.
“A water feature is also very important,” she said. “It attracts a lot of birds, especially during migration. It doesn’t have to be big. A bird bath is great, but moving water attracts many more birds.”
Water features, such as small preformed ponds or ponds built with flexible liners, also provide opportunities for reptiles, amphibians, and mammals, Murray said. Varying the depths when using liners and creating access points when using preformed pools increase the feature’s usefulness.
“As you build your water feature, I would put a variety of depths in there. Have some deeper parts because that’s where your frogs are going to overwinter — deeper being 18 inches or a little deeper,” he said. “Put a slanted log in there so they can crawl out.”
Even a well-constructed water feature isn’t going to serve all nature, so a variety of sources is preferable. Hummingbirds respond better to misters, and butterflies have special needs as well, he said.
“A little container of damp sand is a good puddling place for butterflies,” he said. “They can’t drink standing water. They have to sip water up through sand or mud.”
While the right plants and water features can attract birds, butterflies, and other pollinators, several additional steps can make the area friendlier for small wildlife, Murray said. A simple brush pile or a decorative rock wall or pile can provide additional shelter for turtles, snakes, or rabbits, he said.
“That can be a good thing, depending on your objectives,” he said.
Patience is a (Natural) Virtue
I didn’t expect an overnight transformation, but I naively thought by the end of the first growing season, my spring-planted native plants, newly installed bluebird houses, and water feature would have resulted in a backyard busier than the nearby school playground at recess. Because I initially skipped the sun survey, what I got was a number of underperforming milkweeds, rose verbenas, and cardinal flowers — and a new planting plan for this spring. My water feature is popular with the birds and the occasional chipmunk, and one of my two bluebird houses was occupied for at least one fledging. To get those initially imagined results, Murray advised one additional resource — patience.
“The native plants are going to live 20, 30, 50 years. They’ve got to get that root established,” he said. “They’re all about, that first year or two, getting that root established. After they get that done, then they’re going to bloom and produce for the long term.”
Nature on Your Balcony
Can you “landscape” for nature without land?
Even apartment dwellers with little more than a balcony or patio can still make their area nature friendly, according to Norman Murray, habitat chief of MDC’s Wildlife Division.
“Containers are a great option,” Murray said. “The bigger the container the better. Rose verbena does spectacularly in a container.”
The same concepts apply to balcony habitats as to your yard — choose your plants to fit your needs and resources (especially sun), and the addition of water will improve your results.
“You can even grow a little wetland in a container,” he said. “You can put a lot of the wetland plants like pickerel plant or scouring rush in a container, and even get frogs reproducing in it.”
Nature in my Backyard Timeline
- September 2016 Begin project with early research from MDC publications, “before” pictures
- October 2016 Meet with subject matter experts to discuss site; research plants, and draw preliminary planting plan. Kill off existing grasses in planting area
- November 2016 Mark location of hardscape features; remove nonnative bushes; begin digging for water feature
- April 2017 Build Bluebird houses with neighbor, Ken
- May 2017 Lay landscape fabric on planting area; plant first round of natives; install water feature; mulch planting area
- June-September 2017 Wonder why plants aren’t growing; realize planting area isn’t receiving sufficient sunlight
- Spring 2018 Install bluebird houses and butterfly watering station; care for poorly placed and underperforming plants as best as possible.
- June 2018 Conduct sun survey (which should have preceded all other steps)
- Fall-Winter 2018 Draw new Planting plan based on results of sun survey
- Spring 2019 Prepare beds and plant natives based on new planting plan
- Summer 2019 Patiently await results of new plantings.
Even after determining the existing resources — sunlight, existing plants, and natural shelter — and determining your goals — attracting pollinators, birds, or small mammals, or reptiles — it’s still sometimes difficult to determine what plants and features to add to your landscape. MDC and the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s Grow Native! Program have a number of resources designed to help those looking to transform their yards. Visit grownative.org for a searchable database of native plants, a directory of native plant nurseries, suggested plant groupings, and sample landscape designs.
Native Plants for Your Landscape is free to Missouri residents. This 12-page MDC publication outlines the planning and installation processes, identifies plant groupings based on desired outcomes, and provides sample landscape designs. It’s available at most MDC nature or conservation education centers. Anyone can access it online at short.mdc.mo.gov/Zc8. To receive a free copy by mail, email firstname.lastname@example.org.