Build a Backyard Habitat

Native Joe-Pye weed flowers provide food for all kinds of pollinators.

Design your yard to support local, native biodiversity, to feed and shelter small wildlife, and to enjoy nature, close-up, year-round.

Planting Guidance

Grow a variety of native plants in your yard (e.g., species, heights, fruits, flowers, leaves, etc.) to attract and sustain a variety of wildlife, year-round.

Aim to plant a variety of native species – especially those native-to-New England and adapted to the growing conditions of your yard. Choose species according to how much light the plants will receive in your yard, how much moisture there is in your soil, and even what sort of soil you have – the pH, whether it’s sandy, or clay-rich, etc.

Aim to produce a yard with diverse species and forms of wildflowers, shrubs, trees, grasses and vines.

Choose species that provide nutritious berries to sustain wildlife over fall and winter, and/or with flowers whose pollen and nectar attract species during the spring and summer. Still other plants will produce sap, leaves, buds or even bark wildlife use. Meanwhile, other plants are useful to wildlife because they attract prey species (e.g., think birds eating the insects drawn to pollinate flowers).

Incorporating native species into your yard means less maintenance is necessary to sustain your plants; they have had thousands of years to adapt to local conditions.

Be Smart About Outdoor Water Use

Summertime lawn watering uses almost 50% more water than indoor winter usage, and depletes the groundwater that sustains local streams and ecosystems.

Often, this water is wasted due to a general misunderstanding about lawn care. In fact, some experts estimate that more than half of the water used for irrigation is wasted due to evaporation, runoff, or over-watering.

Remember, a beautiful lawn does not require a lot of water.

Take Care of Backyard Water Resources

Maintain streams, ponds, lakes on your property and help to support fish, wildlife and plants.

Control Invasive Species

Each of us can help to control and reduce the spread of exotic, invasive species, and thereby help to protect native biodiversity, habitat, and ecosystems.

Useful links


Small Wildlife that Visit Native Plants in a Boston Yard

Wildlife who visit the native plants in our garden:


Hummingbirds and bees feed from the red, tubular flowers of Red bee balm (Monarda didyma). Although we’ve also planted a native Trumpet honeysuckle vine (Lonicera sempervirens) and native columbine flowers (Aquilegia canadensis) to attract hummingbirds, we haven’t yet spotted hummingbirds using them.

Butterflies feed from sunflowers (Helianthus sp.).

Robins feast on the small, dark fruits of our Black cherry trees (Prunus serotina).

Grey squirrels feed on the fruits from our mulberry trees (Morus sp.).

Later in the summer, goldfinches feed on sunflower seeds (Helianthus sp.), and bees feed from the flowers of Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium sp.) and Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).


In the fall, a variety of birds and Grey squirrels feed on the fruits of our crabapple trees (Malus sp.).

All manner of bees and other insects visit our New England aster flowers (Aster or symphyotricum novae-angliaea) and the white-petaled asters that also grow nearby, wild.

In nearby Arnold Arboretum, goldfinches and chipmunks feed on the seeds of the tall Jerusalem artichoke flowers (Helianthus tuberosus) growing along the banks of a stream.

In the late-fall and winter, goldfinches eat seeds from our dead Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea).



Conserve & protect water

A rain garden (bioretention cell), the first day it was planted, Milton.

Plant a rain garden.

Store rainwater with a rain barrel, then use it to water your garden. Buy and install the rain barrel beneath a downspout, outside your house. Connect the rain barrel to your gutter, and the rain barrel will collect rainwater and snowmelt. Using the faucet on the barrel, you draw that water to irrigate your lawn and garden. Think of it as water recycling.

Rules of thumb for watering your lawn or garden:

  • One deep watering one day per week is more effective at maintaining your lawn’s health than watering lightly several times per week. Watering to a depth of 4-6 inches encourages deeper, healthier root development, and allows longer periods between watering.
  • Water your lawn in the early morning or in the evening; avoid watering between 9AM and 6PM to waste less water from evaporation.
  • Keep track of how much water you apply to the yard, by placing an empty tuna fish or cat food can on the ground. Stop watering when the can is full, or if you notice water running off the lawn. It’s also useful to install a rain gauge on your lawn.
  • Let your lawn go dormant in the summer (e.g., don’t water the grass). However, if you feel you must water your lawn, use absolutely no more than 1″ of water per week, including natural rainfall.
  • Annually over-seed your lawn with drought-tolerant grass species such as fine fescues. It’s best to over-seed from late August through early September.

Start a rain garden.


Leave a buffer strip along a stream, pond or lake

Maintaining a buffer strip (a vegetated, non-mowed area) around any waterbody in your yard is a handy way to keep your environment healthy. Leave a buffer strip as wide as possible (the wider, the better).

The swathe of diverse plants in a buffer strip will:

Vegetated banks of Pine Tree Brook, Milton.

Vegetated banks of Pine Tree Brook, Milton.

  • Provide wildlife habitat. A buffer strip provides habitat for small wildlife, like meadow jumping mice, birds and butterflies. And, if it’s wide enough, the buffer strip even dissuades Canada geese from hanging around.
  • Slow down any water draining from your yard (e.g., “runoff”). This is significant because water that enters a waterbody at high speed can erode the banks. The eroded dirt then settles at the bottom of the stream, potentially killing fish eggs. When the dirt is still being carried in the water, it reduces visibility for aquatic animals.
  • Enable runoff to filter into the ground, before entering a stream or pond. This process will remove some pollutants from the water, such as chemicals you’ve used on your yard – like fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides, or your sidewalk or driveway (e.g., ice-melt). These pollutants can degrade aquatic habitat and injure aquatic wildlife.

Another perk to maintaining a buffer strip of diverse native plants along a waterway is that it discourages Canada geese from calling your property home and leaving behind their trademark waste.


Use fewer chemicals, or none at all

Instead of applying chemical fertilizers:

Use a mulching mower. Processed by your lawn-mower, cut grass and fallen leaves become a “green fertilizer” and nourish your lawn. Chemical fertilizers, on the other hand, often deliver too much phosphorous to your lawn. Also, chemicals may migrate; with a rain storm, they can drain into nearby streams, ponds and wetlands. They also can enter the groundwater and local wells, and hurt people’s health and the health of wildlife.

Plant nitrogen-fixing plants like clover or peas, in your garden. Because these plants harvest and store nitrogen, when they die, they release nitrogen into the soil. Your other garden plants will use the nitrogen to help themselves grow.

Create & apply compost, using your vegetable scraps and coffee grounds from the kitchen. Apply the compost to your garden; it will provide nutrients for your plants.


Instead of applying pesticides:

  • Incorporate a variety of native plants into your yard and garden to attract a variety of insects and their predators (i.e., insects and songbirds).
  • Remove individual pests by hand, if possible (you can use garden gloves).
  • Expect and accept sharing your plants with insects (and some potential visual evidence).
  • Learn which insects to leave alone – or even to attract to your garden: beneficial garden insects.
  • Learn more about beneficial insects, including how to attract them to your garden.
  • Learn more about more environmentally friendly ways to manage insect pests in the garden.
  • If you use chemicals on your yard, use them appropriately and carefully – learn more.