We always kept the birdfeeder full in winter, put out a birdbath, and did other little things to make critters welcome in our yard when I was growing up. When we moved into our current house, I started making lists of trees and shrubs and perennials to plant, keeping the local birds and butterflies in mind. I've been reducing my use of pesticides and allowing some "wild" looking areas to grow up in the yard. As a result, every year we see more birds, butterflies, and other wildlife out there. We've really been enjoying the transformation of sterile suburban grassy yard to cottage garden wildlife refuge.

Occasionally, I have to explain certain aspects of our yard using a standard computer programmer explanation - that's not a bug, it's a feature! view from above into a robin's nest with three newly laid eggs For example, I have some storm-felled branches and brush piled along the back of our fence row of trees, at the edge of the adjacent farm field. I think it's better to put it there than to drag it to the local landfill, and it helps direct the kids to ride their bicycles down the other side of my yard rather than through my lily bed. But more importantly, the brush piles provide shelter for all the little songbirds that frequent our yard. Since I've stopped putting my brush on the curb, we've got uncountable birds singing in the trees, foraging for bugs in the garden, and nesting in the bushes.

When I came across the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) program for certifying Backyard Wildlife Refuges, my first thought was that my yard would probably need a lot of improvement to qualify. My second thought was that if I could get certified, I could stop explaining things like my brush piles. I could just say, "oh, I need those brush piles. Our yard is a Certified Wildlife Habitat." To my surprise, when I read over the requirements, I already had most of the necessary components in place. crepe myrtle seed pods with a little snow on them against a brilliant blue skyThe lists of possible features also gave me a number of suggestions for ways to improve my yard, making my garden even more wildlife-friendly.

Any size and type of property can be certified as a Wildlife Habitat, whether urban, suburban, or rural. NWF will certify city apartment balconies, "green space" next to office buildings, and elementary school gardens. Depending on your location, fulfilling some of the requirements may take a little more creativity, but don't give up. Look through the links on the NWF website for suggestions, or see if somebody on our own Gardening for Wildlife forum might have a solution for you.

Food Sources are the first consideration. Plants can provide food in many forms: the foliage and sap of their leaves and twigs, the nectar and pollen of their blooms, and the berries, fruits, nuts, or seeds they produce. Some plants continue to provide food during the winter months, also. Food can also come from supplemental seed, suet, and nectar feeders designed for birds, hummingbirds, and squirrels. I've got a lot of seed and berry producing plants, and we also put out many types of feeders to lure the birds close to the windows where we can see them.

raspberries ripening on bramble branches bright purple clusters of beauty berries alpine strawberry fruit, bloom, foliage

Water Sources for drinking and bathing are next on the list. Providing clean water for wildlife isn't limited to birdbaths. You might live by a stream, ocean, or other water feature. You might consider adding a rain garden, water feature, or simple butterfly puddling area to your yard. I've got a couple of water garden pots that the birds use, and I added a butterfly puddling area this summer. I want a pond, but that's still in the planning/dreaming stage, so it doesn't count yet.

Places for Cover provide shelter from bad weather and protection from predators. trio of baby bunnies hiding in an overgrown spotI found my yard excels in this category. In addition to my brush piles, I've got a patch of raspberry brambles I'm growing on purpose and a patch of wild brambles I can't quite manage to kill off. I've also got a very small wooded area in the fence row along the back of the yard, a couple of big groundhog burrows, some dense shrubbery, a wildflower meadow-under-construction in my little orchard area, thick ground cover in several garden beds, a rock pile waiting to become a stepping stone pathway, and a few evergreens. The only boxes I didn't check on this list were "cave," "pond," and "roosting box."

Places to Raise Young are needed to complete your habitat. Some properties may have mature trees, dead trees, meadows, dense shrubs, burrows, even wetlands or caves. But even on an apartment balcony, you can provide a nesting box, a water garden in a big pot, and host plants for caterpillars.

Sustainable Gardening Practices are important considerations for the good of the human community as well as for native wildlife. NWF's suggestions for soil and water conservation, controlling exotic species, and organic practices will get you thinking beyond the question of "what can I check off in order to get certified?"

Fewer pesticides = more critters in my yard
nifty little wasp on white bloom of garlic chives Monarch on dried agastache stem, background of golden Heliopsis blooms huge fat green caterpillar on branch of filbert bush

One of the best things about the whole certification process for me was the opportunity to sit down and re-evaluate my garden from a wildlife-friendly perspective.tiget swallowtail butterfly on tip of Buddlea bloom I discovered any number of things I was already doing "right," but I also found a bunch of simple suggestions for improvements I could make to make my yard even more welcoming to wildlife.

Whether you decide to become officially certified or not, please take a moment to look over the NWF Backyard Wildlife Refuge page. Attracting wildlife to your garden will add another entire dimension to your backyard experience!

Thanks to Diana Wind for the thumbnail photo of the certification sign she installed in her yard.

Other photos in the article were taken in my yard.

Move your mouse over the photos for additional captions.