For more information on the Living With Wildlife series, contact the WDFW Wildlife Program




Landscaping for Wildlife
in the Pacific Northwest
The Department of Fish and Wildlife and University of Washington Press have just published Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest. Homeowners, property owners, professional wildlife managers, landscape architects, and garden designers will all find it invaluable.

How to Design a Landscape for Wildlife

Landscaping your yard for wildlife involves a bit more than adding plants with berries. It means considering other aspects of the environment such as water, soil, climate and sun.

Don’t be discouraged if you have never designed your own landscape, and don’t worry if you don’t have a degree in wildlife science. Landscaping can be fun, especially with a bit of planning.

Every good landscape starts with a plan that will help you establish priorities and guide the development of your yard over the years.

Many of us “plan” by trial and error. In our living rooms, we move couches and chairs about in an effort to find the right look. It isn’t easy, though, to move trees around to find the best landscape arrangement. That makes planning all the more important. Sketch out alternative landscape arrangements before beginning any work. It will help prevent costly mistakes and wasted time. Planning also helps you identify ecological relationships in your yard that you may not have noticed.

The Four Basic Steps of Landscape Design

Creating a landscape for wildlife involves four basic steps:
1. Outline needs
2. Inventory existing conditions
3. Evaluate conditions
4. Design a plan

Figure 4.
Base Map and Existing Conditions
Base map and inventory
Click to enlarge

1. Outline Needs

Your needs: Think about how you like to use your backyard. Do you like to eat or visit with family and friends in a shaded area? Do you like to read in a quiet, secluded area? Do your children like to play in a sandbox?

Your backyard can accommodate these and other activities while providing for the needs of wildlife. Wildlife enhancement doesn’t mean giving up the activities you enjoy, but rather being sensitive to the needs of wildlife.

You might separate your high-use areas, for example, from those for wildlife. In defining your needs, make a list of the kinds of activities, features, space, and qualities you want in your yard. Garden design books are good sources of ideas and are available at your local library.

Wildlife needs: Wildlife will only visit your backyard if it has the proper combination of the four habitat needs

Meeting all the requirements for varying wildlife species may seem overwhelming, but don’t despair. Vegetation is the key to attracting most species of wildlife. Providing an abundance of trees and shrubs meets the survival requirements for most small wildlife in residential areas of Washington.

2. Inventory Existing Conditions

The second step in designing a landscape for wildlife is to inventory and map the existing conditions in your yard.

The information obtained during the inventory must be put on a base map of your property. Making a base map isn’t difficult, and it will help you create an effective habitat. The purpose of the inventory base map is to help you know what you already have in your yard and what you need to add to make it better for wildlife. See Fig. 4 for an example of a base map.

This base map will be used in the last two steps: evaluating your yard and designing a habitat site plan. You will be adding different ideas and possibilities to your base map so either use tracing paper over the map or make several photocopies of it.

3. Evaluate Plans

Now that you have made an inventory of your backyard, you can evaluate its present and potential effectiveness as a habitat.

An easy tool for evaluating your yard is the “bubble diagram.” Bubble diagrams are preliminary sketches drawn on tracing paper or photocopies of the base map. Sketch only broad areas of interest and potential. Avoid details that will probably change later anyway. Draw circles around areas as if they were “blobs” of space, ignoring details of shapes. Use heavy arrows to show views and heavy lines to show walls of vegetation or structures. An example of a bubble diagram is shown in Fig. 5.

Figure 5.
Designing with Bubble Diagrams
Diagram of existing conditions
Click to enlarge
An evaluation of existing conditions and future possiblities is sketched in bubble diagrams to outline preliminary ideas for the landscape.

4. Design a Plan

While having the right habitat features is very important, the way in which you put it all together could add to the success of your habitat. Wildlife may not use the area you set aside for them if, for example, the area is crisscrossed by busy paths. Little wildlife will venture into your quiet viewing area if it is surrounded by a basketball court and driveway.

How to Inventory and Map

Step 1: Determine the dimensions of your property. Then decide on a scale for your map - how big you want the map to be and how much detail you want to show. For example, a map drawn at a scale where 1 inch on paper equals 4 feet on the property will be larger and show more of the small features than a map drawn at a scale of 1” =16’. For personal use, a sketch with estimated measurements is generally fine.

Your base map will be easier to make and read if you use a ruler or or other straight edge, colored pencils, grid paper, and templates for drawing circles, squares, and other shapes.

Step 2: On the base map, indicate dimensions and show the location of your house and other buildings, including outside doors and windows, decks, patios, sidewalks, driveways, utilities, and other structures listed on the checklist. See Checklist Show underground pipes, sprinklers, utilities, etc.

Step 3: Show locations and approximate spread of existing trees, shrubs, lawn, and other vegetation features. Note any plants that affect energy conservation and comfort in your home (summer shade, winter sun, shelter from wind, etc.)

Step 4: Mark the locations of special wildlife features on your base map. These include tree cavities, nesting areas, popular perches, drinking and feeding area, and travel corridors.

Step 5: Outline areas of full sun and full shade. Record drainage patterns (where rainwater falls and collects), wet areas, ponds and streams, slopes, and wind patterns.

Step 6: Show neighboring trees, buildings, roads, and other things on adjacent property that affects your yard.

Step 7: Examine your soil and note areas where soils may be different. Is it rocky, sandy, clay, or organic? If you want, you can test the soils in each of these areas for soil composition, acidity, and nutrients. Test kits can be purchased at garden supply stores, or you can obtain a soils test kit from your local WSU Cooperative Extension Office. The Extension Office will provide instructions and the address of a soils laboratory where your soil can be scientifically tested for a modest fee.

Things to Consider When Evaluating Your Yard

Structures, hard surfaces and people areas
Consider your space requirements for access, entertainment, outdoor play, and security. Screen and buffer busy driveways and play areas. Where might tree roots interfere with septic or sewer systems? Screen bare fences with dense shrubs.

Does your present landscape provide much food, cover, and safe travel corridors for wildlife? How many of your plants are native to the Washington? Are there unused lawn areas that could be replanted with native trees and shrubs? What areas have low diversity and need a better mix of plants? Where can edges be increased by modifying planting borders? Are there solitary trees that could have shrubs and groundcover put under them? Where would a screen of plantings improve outdoor privacy? Could a portion of a vegetable garden be “given” to wildlife? Where are the most important wildlife trees? Where could you plant specialty gardens for hummingbirds and butterflies?

Wildlife Features
Where does wildlife concentrate now? How could these areas be preserved? Are there dead trees or limbs that can be safely preserved for perching or nesting? If a tree has to be removed, could you leave a 6-foot to 10-foot stump for a nest cavity? Where would be a good spot for a feeder, birdhouse, or birdbath? Do you have a corner where you could build a brush or rock pile for wildlife?

Environmental Conditions
Where are the sun and shade areas? Do you need shade from the hot summer sun, and do you need to preserve valuable winter solar radiation? Where do cool summer breezes come from and where might you want buffers from cold winter winds? Would a low, wet area be a good place for wetland plants? Does an existing stream or pond have adequate shrub cover?

Adjacent Conditions
Will a neighboring building shade out your planned vegetable garden? Will a busy road pose a danger to any animals you want to attract? Will your new pond kill the roots of a valuable neighboring tree? Will your neighbors cooperate in your landscaping efforts or do they plan to clear vegetation? Will your habitat cause any problems for a neighbor?

Soil Conditions
Are there “problem” soils (e.g. poor nutrients, water-logged)? Could you use those problem conditions to create special habitats with plants? Where do you need to improve the soil? (Consult with a nursery or landscape specialist, county extension agent, the US Soil Conservation Service, or other plant and soil experts.

Visual/Spatial Qualities
Where are the desirable and undesirable views from different parts of the yard, deck, or windows? How can these be saved or changed with plantings? What are your outdoor spaces like: open/enclosed, small/large, varied/uniform, formal/natural, smooth/rough, colorful/plain, comfortable/uncomfortable? What feelings do you want? How could different plantings enhance these feelings?

How much yard work do you want to do? Where are good areas for outdoor play, entertainment, and relaxation? What are the best pathways for moving around in the yard? Where do you want outdoor privacy? Is there a bare, noisy area that would be better for a driveway, swimming pool, or entertainment area than for wildlife plantings?