How to Design Your Native Plant Wildlife Garden

As I travel around the country speaking to various groups about Ecosystem Gardening, and how people can garden sustainably, conserve natural resources, and create welcoming habitat for wildlife in their gardens, the most frequent question I am asked is how to design a garden with native plants that will attract the most wildlife.

This question seems to come up a lot for many of us here at Team Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. Recently Susan J. Tweit was asked to create a “landscape concept plan. One that featured her passion for birds and wildlife habitat in urban places, and did not include any lawn, but would “wow” the McStain people.”

Designing a wildlife habitat garden with native plants is not that much different than designing any other garden, with a little bit of homework to get to know the native plants of your area.

In order to make this as easy as possible for you, I’ve gathered together some of the best tips to get you started.


Our team member Debbie Roberts has this to say about using structure in designing your wildlife garden, and gives a few suggestions for evergreens, most native to the eastern United States, that you may not have considered for adding structure to your garden:

Structure. It was agreed that the foundation of every garden, regardless of whether it’s style is formal, naturalistic or somewhere in between, is the balance, proportion and symmetry provided by the use of strong geometric shapes to provide year round interest and structure.

Hmm…the perfect opening. You see, there are plenty of native plants with distinct geometric shapes to add structure to your garden, regardless of your design style. Gardeners who prefer a more formal look will often take their pruners to the same plants that, left to ‘do their thing’, are also quite at home in more naturalistic gardens.

Plant in Masses

Genevieve Schmidt, a landscape designer in northern California, is writing an excellent series on design principles for the wildlife garden. Her first tip: plant in masses:

By using plants in drifts or masses, we set a scene that draws the eye through our landscape in an organized way and makes our home seem more in tune with the surroundings.

Drifts or masses of plants:

  • Give natives instant design appeal
  • Lead the eye through the garden
  • Create a sense of flow and enhance the shapes in the landscape
  • Have a billowing effect which is more like a grand, far-off view of nature than a close-up
  • Move with the wind in a graceful way that is fun to watch
  • Reflect the scale of the architecture
  • Integrate home and garden

Use a Lot of Plants

Hand in hand with planting in masses is to use a lot of plants. Vincent Vizachero tells us to ignore the spacing information on the plant tag, and instead space your native plants closer together:

The farther apart you space your new perennials, the more you will find yourself battling weeds. The two feet that Walmart or White Flower Farm wants you to put between your Black-eyed susans is two feet of prime territory for weed seeds: lots of light, plenty of water, and no competition for soil nutrients.

Planting your perennials more densely has additional benefits: the garden or meadow will look “filled in” much more quickly and, more importantly, will begin supporting wildlife much more quickly. Many of the mammals, insects, birds, and amphibians that wildlife gardeners want to encourage depend on having relatively dense cover. These animals much prefer the cover of your carex or goldenrod to empty exposure of mulch that would result from placing the plants two feet apart.

Choose a Simple Color Palette

Also from Genevieve Schmidt, practice some restraint in your color selection when designing your wildlife habitat garden:

a simple color palette of no more than four colors works so well in pulling together the look of a garden. You can have a terrible eye for texture, make impulse purchases at the nursery, and do a one-of-this-one-of-that planting style, and as long as you stick within the same color family, your garden will look like it was designed by the most discerning of professionals. A garden with a defined palette also feels more like an extension of your home, because you can echo some of the themes you love indoors, in your outdoor setting.

Get Inspiration from Other Gardens

Debbie Roberts was inspired by visiting an “11-acre sanctuary, formerly used as a dumping ground by the city, has been transformed into an oasis for both native plant and native wildlife lovers.”

What she learned:

  • Mix it up
  • Plant in multiples
  • Add some berried treasure

Focus on Shape

Genevieve Schmidt thinks that focusing on shape is critically important to wildlife gardeners:

When we’re gardening for wildlife, we’re often thinking about planting specific plants to host caterpillars/ butterflies or providing a certain type of shelter or habitat. Sometimes, we can get so focused on the details of attracting wildlife that we lose track of the bigger picture, design-wise. The shapes you use throughout your garden give it a sense of structure and beauty that allows even disparate garden elements to feel like they “fit”.

The shapes of what, you might ask? Well, when thinking about shape, I start by focusing on the “negative space” – the lawns and patios which work to highlight and create a staging place for our garden features and plants. Positive space is anything that could be considered a focal point- plants, fire pits, sculpture. Those are elements that by their very nature attract attention. In contrast, lawns and patios are usually noticed for their ability to make the things around them look good. Because of the role they play in enhancing the other elements of the garden, their shape plays an important part in how well your overall garden functions and looks.

Use the Best Resources

If you want to apply these principles of landscape design to your wildlife garden, one of the best resources I have found is Carolyn Summers’ Designing Gardens With Flora of the American East.

Carolyn Summers shows you how to choose native plants that are beautiful and also play a role in the local ecology for wildlife. Don’t limit yourself to non-functional plants, but work to choose multi-purpose plants which better support a wide diversity of wildlife.

Is your favorite garden style a formal garden? Did you know you can create this using native plants?

No matter what style of garden you are most comfortable with, you can design it using indigenous plants, including Italianate, knot, cottage, and even Japanese-style gardens.

I did a recorded interview with Carolyn Summers about the principles of design for wildlife gardeners, which you may find as fascinating as I did, so click through to listen now.

Carole Sevilla Brown is available to speak to your organization about Ecosystem Gardening for wildlife, creating welcoming habitat for wildlife, and other topics. 

© 2012, Carole Sevilla Brown. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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About Carole Sevilla Brown

Carole Sevilla Brown is a Conservation Biologist who firmly believes that wildlife conservation begins in your own back yard. Carole is an author, educator, speaker, and passionate birder, butterfly watcher,  and naturalist who travels around the country teaching people to garden sustainably, conserve natural resources, and create welcoming habitat for wildlife so that you will attract more birds, butterflies, pollinators and other wildlife.. She gardens for wildlife in Philadelphia, zone 6b, and created the philosophy of Ecosystem Gardening. Watch for her book Ecosystem Gardening, due out soon. Carole is managing editor of  Beautiful Wildlife Garden, and also  Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. Follow Carole on twitter, @CB4wildlife and on Google+


  1. Ellen Folts says:

    Excellent article Carole. People comment to me that they don’t know where to begin when planting a garden for wildlife. You put that all together in your article. It really does help to give people confidence that they are doing the right thing and that what they plant does make a difference. Thank you.

  2. Jeavonna Chapman says:

    Nice how-to article. Great tips on where to start. Design is key. Having a plan makes for a better outcome. Do a little research on what you are seeking to attract and what grows best in your area that will attract these creatures. “To fail to plan is to plan to fail.” I am amazed by the insects and birds that visit my 2nd story urban back porch.

  3. Kybrdplyr says:

    Excellent ideas as pointed out in the article not that much different from good landscape design of any stripe. Desiring “instant coverage” by planting close together or closer than recommended is a mistake, however, at least in the Northeast. It leads to overcrowding and disease and a lot of transplanting in future. I would recommend mulch which, with good coverage, decreases the amount of water and weeding required. As they say about perennial plants here in the Northeast, they “sleep, creep then leap.” Patience is required but rewarded with proper spacing.

  4. Mary Pellerito says:

    Thank you for the great post. There are so many talent people willing to share there knowledge.
    Mary Pellerito recently posted..Rainy Day Musings

  5. Becky Young says:

    Great one, Carole! I particularly like the advice to ditch the spacing recommendations on tags. What I would add to that would be that when tucking in perennials around shrubs, just be mentally prepared to toss them later as the shrubs grow, or use them to start the next lawn-removing bed!
    Becky Young recently posted..Listening To Other Species

  6. Vivian says:

    Hi Carole, My strata building (in Canada), and council was great to allow me to plant a small area of native plants in the native plant inspired landscaping of our building. It is such a difference to have plants rescued locally. We have new mid rise development in our neighbourhood and our stewardship group is tasked to go in prior to a forest being cleared. Neighbours rescue plants to be used in replanting projects in the Burnaby Mountain Conservation forest or taken onto a balcony or townhouse garden. I planted bleeding heart, rattlesnake plantain, ferns, and huckleberry and false lilly of the valley in a raised bed in our courtyard. It started to looks a little overgrown with the saxafrass and the bleeding heart which had started out only a few. It is mid summer, and I’ve started to see that the plants are balancing each other out!

    I am glad, in a sneaky way to see that the plants are moving out into the commercially planted… and as you note, filling in between the plants a bit. We are not allowed commercial pesticides in Burnaby, so weeds are a continuous project. Here is a solution that will help balance out the project of clearing weeds.

    We’ve got some great designers working in our community. UniverCity is a sustainable community at SFU, Burnaby, BC. One of the recent ideas was to replace grassy boulevards with wildflowers. It was a lovely seeding choice. The only thing is that I noticed the local grocer reducing his selection of flowers. Residents could pick their cut flowers on the boulevard!!!! And the flowers are good for bugs, birds etc.!!!

    Thanks Carole, I liked the comments on shape. I find all ideas feed into a continuous project of adapting urban life to a zero footprint life. Vivian
    Vivian recently posted..Spawning Habitat Improvement Project on Stoney Creek



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