Many people want to support wildlife populations, or at least attract songbirds and butterflies to their yards. At the same time, homeowners don’t want their landscapes destroyed by deer and rabbits.
Creating a landscape with wildlife in mind is more than just consulting a list of butterfly-favorite plants. Animals need food, but they also need water and shelter. Certainly plant things that animals can eat, but remember that feeding butterflies means feeding caterpillars, too. Educating homeowners not to panic at the first sight of a caterpillar eating foliage may be the single most effective way to help butterflies and songbirds.
Nectar feeders will be attracted to Buddleia, Caryopteris and Diervilla. These plants will tolerate dry conditions well. If you have an area in the landscape where water pools in rainstorms, though, you will need different plants.
While plants don’t produce water, they can support clean water sources. For all of the interest in bioswales and rain gardens, if the result isn’t attractive and properly maintained, it won’t last in the landscape. (This is true of all wildlife habitat gardens.) Low maintenance doesn’t mean no maintenance; if the client isn’t going to take care of the space, they’ve just bought a fancy ditch. Red-twig dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) can help stabilize banks as well as provide fruit for birds.
Shelter is another element that often doesn’t get the attention that showier flowers and fruit do. A windbreak or evergreen shrubs can help wildlife survive harsh weather. Physocarpos and Diervilla, while not evergreen, are durable plants that can survive in challenging areas.
The edges of a space, such as the boundary between lawn and forest, are valuable to wildlife, especially for shelter and breeding. They are also appealing to humans; most of us appreciate a soft boundary between our patio and the neighbors’ backyard. This is the ideal spot to plant some specimens with wildlife appeal. Mix in tall and short evergreens and deciduous plants—this is a great place to show off your skills at combining textures and colors.
Then there’s the wildlife that people don’t want—or at least they don’t want too much of. There is no such thing as a deer-proof plant. Rabbits? The same. The best we can do is select plants that are less appealing than others and hope that the neighbors have gone big into hostas. Many plants do double duty as being unappealing to both rabbits and deer: Buddleia, Viburnum and Buxus. A good reference is Rutgers University: njaes.rutgers.edu/deer-resistant-plants/. If you’re in an area with heavy browsing, consider offering repellants as a service to your clients.