Gardening for wildlife in the city – Creating a healthy habitat

The American toad is a welcome addition to any garden, they eat slugs and other pests. Photo by Alyssa Murphy.


This article was written by Amy Chapman

We enjoy seeing butterflies, bees and birds in our yards. And our gardens benefit when birds, insects and amphibians are in balance. Unfortunately the issues that led to the decline of honey bees and monarch butterflies are similar for birds and other beneficial insects and amphibians. Habitat loss and the use of insecticides are two of several factors leading to decline.

Fortunately we can make a difference by how we garden and landscape. And each individual effort makes a big impact in our urban environment.

Three events led me to look at changes for my Northside yard. One was last year’s April snow storm that left some migrating birds without a food source or shelter.

The other event was the annual invasion of Japanese beetles that hatch in the early summer and eat many plants for approximately six-to-eight weeks. Since they are an introduced pest, Japanese beetles have few natural predators.

Lastly an aphid infestation of a boulevard linden tree indicated something was out of whack. Aphids produce a sticky residue called honeydew (aphid poo) that collects on cars and plants.

Last summer I became dedicated to creating better habitat when I heard a crunching sound in grape vines. Cardinals were eating Japanese beetles — a nesting pair was hunting for food for their baby birds. With the goal of a healthy balance and healthy plants these are important factors to consider:


Focus on native plants that provide a good variety of bird food throughout the year for nesting, migrating and wintering birds. According to Kaitlyn O’Connor of Prairie Moon Nursery, using native plants is important because birds evolved with native plants and need the insects that have co-evolved with them. She said preliminary research has shown planting a cultivar that changed the shape or form, or improved the disease-resistance of a native plant should provide similar benefits. However choosing a cultivar that changed the bloom form or bloom time of a plant is not beneficial.

Provide seasonal foods for birds and insects:

Bugs – A necessary source of protein since 96 percent of birds feed insects to their young. Native trees and shrubs such as oaks, willows, birches and ninebark, and perennials such as asters, Joe Pye Weed, milkweed and sunflowers host many caterpillar species (asters host 112 different species). Learn what the larval-stage host plants are for the butterflies you want to attract. For example the monarch caterpillar will only feed on milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.) so monarch butterflies only lay eggs on milkweed.

Fruit – Plant shrubs and small trees that provide berries that ripen at different times for seasonal variety; serviceberry and dogwoods for birds during the breeding season and summer, mountain ash and crabapple for songbirds flying south, and cedar and juniper trees for winter food and shelter.

Nuts and Seeds – Oaks have acorns rich in fat and protein that birds hide for food through the winter. Native sunflowers and coneflowers produce tiny seeds that are finch and sparrow favorites.

Nectar and Pollen – The red tubular flowers of penstemon and honeysuckle have nectar for hummingbirds and pollinators. Flat-headed flowers like dill and yarrow have a lot of pollen, plant these near plants infested with aphids because ladybugs love to eat aphids.

When planting, cluster plants in masses — group quantities of the same plant together since pollinators prefer to feed from the same flower species.


Birds need water year-round so use heated bird baths in winter. The sound of running water attracts birds and may bring them flocking during migration. Place clean and shallow water sources in several places on the ground near trees and shrubs for protection from predators.

Shelter and habitat

Attempt to create layers starting with large canopy trees that provide nest cavities and roosting spots. Plant shrubs and small trees for protection and nesting spots for songbirds — cardinals like to nest in evergreens or hedges.

Allow leaves to collect in your beds so birds can forage for food — and logs or branches to decay — toads will live in those moist spots and eat slugs and other bugs.

Don’t use insecticides – they kill all insects and some also affect birds. Keep cats indoors.

To learn more attend the workshop Gardening for Wildlife in the City on Saturday, April 13 at the Webber Park Community Center, 4400 Dupont Ave. N. Doors open at 9:30 a.m., with the presentation from 10-11 a.m. Theresa Rooney, a Hennepin County Master Gardener and author of Humane Critter Control, will discuss how we can support pollinators, birds and animals in our yards while still allowing plants to thrive and people to get a harvest from the vegetable or fruit garden. Local gardening, bird and nature experts will be available to answer questions and provide resources. The workshop is sponsored by the Victory Neighborhood, and is free and open to all.