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Landscaping Practices That are Bad for Wildlife

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Gray Squirrels are common in urban habitats., Image by Vizetelly, pixabay

Poor landscaping practices cause problems for wildlife. Most suburban landscapes are designed to be attractive to people and to suit their lifestyles. Generally, wildlife habitat needs are not considered. Suburban, manicured landscapes often lack the plant diversity and complex vegetation structure important to wildlife. The typical suburban yard is a grass lawn with a few plants representing only two or three species, most of which are non-native. These landscapes offer poor-quality wildlife habitat and harbor only the most common wildlife species, such as the American robin, northern mockingbird, gray squirrel, and the common buckeye butterfly.

Here are several examples of landscaping practices that are BAD for wildlife.

Poor Plant Selection

Choosing non-natives over natives. When attempting to improve their landscape for wildlife, homeowners often choose non-native plants. Although some non-native plants may benefit birds and butterflies, others may become invasive, harming native animals in the long term. Further, non-native plants often do not meet the nutritional requirements of wildlife as well as native plants. Native plants are better.

Not considering plant needs.  Often, the soil types, moisture regimes, and light conditions available within a landscape are not considered when choosing plants. For example, the installation of sun-loving plants under the heavy shade of a tree canopy or moisture-loving plants on a droughty ridge will lead to planting failure. Make sure to put the right native plant in the right place.

Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) caterpillars feed on a variety of native host plants. Image by Dean Morley CC BY-SA Flickr

Not considering specific wildlife needs. Usually, the needs of target wildlife species are not considered when choosing plants. For example, gardeners often include only nectar-bearing plants in their yards to attract butterflies. However, caterpillar host plants are essential to provide for the entire butterfly life cycle. Know what native plants your target species need.

Poor Establishment Practices

Soil is not properly prepared before planting.  Urban soils are often compacted and have low organic matter content, making them difficult for plants to establish and grow. Improper soil preparation may lead to planting failure. To minimize failure, collect a small soil sample from your yard and have it tested for nutrient content. Specific recommendations from the test will help you properly amend your soil before planting. Contact your local Cooperative Extension Center for instructions. Test and prepare your soil first.

Plants are planted too deep.  Planting too deep can cause oxygen deficiency in the root system and expose the stem to soil organisms and moisture. Make sure the root ball of a shrub or tree is level with the existing grade, and the root collar (where the tree trunk flares out into the roots) is above the soil. Most of the roots of a newly planted tree will develop within the top 12 inches of soil. If the flare of the root collar cannot be seen in the container, choose another plant or remove the excess soil prior to planting. Make sure you can see the root collar.

Plants are over-mulched. Too much mulch (called mulch volcanoes) can decrease oxygen circulation, increase soil and trunk moisture, and provide habitat for voles and other plant pests. Spread 2-4 inches of mulch over the entire planting area.

Volcano Mulch damages trees and shrubs

Mulch piled against the trunk can increase moisture, resulting in fungal growth, disease, and insect problems. Keep mulch a few inches away from tree trunks.

The planting hole is backfilled with amended soil. Amending the soil only within the planting hole creates a bowl effect, where the roots don’t extend outside the planting hole, causing root girdling. Use the same soil removed from the site.

Plants are not allowed growing space. Large-maturing trees and shrubs should be planted where they will not interfere with overhead utilities or crowd homes or other structures. Shrubs and trees should be planted at least 6 feet away from all structures.

Limited amount and diversity of plantings in subdivisions Image by Erik Mclean, Pexels

Specimen Planting

Spaced-out, symmetrical plantings (or “specimen plantings”) have become the norm for landscapes in new suburban neighborhoods. The fragmented nature of plantings in these landscapes causes animals to move frequently as they search for food and cover. Too much movement exposes birds, butterflies, and other wildlife to predators and causes them to use a lot of the energy they need for survival. Cluster native plants together.

Low Plant Diversity

Most suburban landscapes include only a few common plant species like crape myrtle, Bradford pear, and red maple. Landscapes that lack plant diversity do not provide year-round food and cover for wildlife. Plant a wide variety of native plants.

Low Vertical Structure

drawing showing canopy, midstory and shrub plantings

Vertical structure provides habitat for a variety of birds.

Landscapes that do not include short and tall plants within the same general area lack the vertical vegetation structure that allows ground-dwelling, shrub-dwelling, and treetop birds to exist in the same horizontal space. Use native plants of varying heights.


Neat and Green

Pokeweed (Phytolacca Americana) berries, Image by Terragio67, CC BY-SA Wikimedia

Mowing, pruning, edging, weeding, and applying pesticides may lower the quality of wildlife habitat by removing food and cover. Birds and other wildlife prefer an untidy habitat. However, local ordinances, the opinion of neighbors, or your own need for a neat and green yard may prevent you from allowing your yard to look untidy. In this case, you might consider locating the more wild-looking plants like brambles, vines, un-mowed grasses, or large weedy plants like pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) in a hidden portion of your yard. Avoid the use of pesticides when possible and have a wild spot in your yard.

Pruning During Nesting Season

In the Southeast, the songbird nesting season generally lasts from mid-March through the end of July. Pruning activities during this period might damage existing nests or expose them to predators. Don’t prune plants during the nesting season.