Wildlife Gardening: Don’t Forget the Neighbors

Certified Wildlife Habitat, Washington, DC
Defined beds of native plants, along with benches and a patio, made this Washington, D.C., wildlife garden more appealing to neighbors. Photo by Laura Tangley.
When I bought a house on a large corner lot a decade ago, I was in a hurry to convert the lawn as quickly as possible to a lush, plant-filled haven for wildlife. Too much of a hurry, it turned out.

Not only did I make some early bad decisions about cultivating nonnative plants—later corrected—I did not plan ahead to consider how my neighbors might react to the unconventional landscape. It’s too bad I couldn’t have read “Gardening With a Good-Neighbor Policy,” an article by Doreen Cubie published in the February/March 2013 issue of National Wildlife magazine. In the article, Cubie shares 10 “suggestions for redesigning your yard to attract wildlife while at the same time keeping neighbors and local authorities happy.”

Here are three of her tips:

Lay the groundwork: “Getting your neighbors on board is really important,” says Erin Cord, who manages Wildlife Austin, a project operated by that city’s parks department to promote neighborhood wildlife habitat. Cord suggests talking to residents who live nearby to explain what you are planning to do before you begin your project.

Start slowly: Don’t remove all or even most of your lawn at one time. Try putting in a small hummingbird and butterfly garden, then gradually expand it. Starting small gives neighbors time to become accustomed to your yard’s new look.

Don’t leave food on the ground for pets or other animals: The native plants you cultivate in your yard should provide sufficient nutrition to support insects, birds and other wild creatures.

backyard raccoon
How NOT to garden for wildlife. Just ignore those pleading eyes. Photo by Laura Tangley.
Did I follow these suggestions? No, no and no. Without speaking to a single neighbor, I plunged right in, tearing up most of the lawn all at once and turning it into what soon resembled a jungle that had swallowed up my tiny house. Worse, I made the mistake of feeding wildlife on the ground: a mother raccoon and her kits that had taken up residence in a crawl space above my front porch. The rapidly growing kits became so comfortable around me that, after learning to recognize the sound of my car, they’d rush out to the street when I came home from work, jumping up on my legs like puppies.

Neighborhood reaction was, understandably, less than enthusiastic, ranging from amusement to annoyance to worse. Beyond the aesthetic concerns, “my” raccoons became nuisances far beyond my own yard, approaching people much too closely and wreaking havoc with manicured lawns (digging for worms) and trash cans during the middle of the night.

But all was not lost. Miraculously, nobody reported me to animal control or any other city authority. Then, as I became better educated about wildlife gardening by working with NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitat® program, I began to change my ways. After that season’s raccoons dispersed, I refrained from feeding subsequent generations. I tamed my jungle by creating well-defined beds of mostly native plants interspersed with human-friendly touches such as walkways, fountains and benches. Most important of all, I began to communicate with the neighbors. Proudly displayed, my official Certified Wildlife Habitat® sign always helps get the conversation going.

Certify Your Garden as a Wildlife HabitatCheck out the rest of Cubie’s neighbor-friendly wildlife gardening tips, then learn how to help wildlife in your own yard by making it a Certified Wildlife Habitat® site.