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Creating A Habitat Garden


Part of Bird Friendly Gardening

A well-designed garden provides pleasure for humans and, if done with sensitivity, can simultaneously become a sanctuary for birds. Often times I hear people say that habitat gardens are messy and wild looking – this is not necessarily true.  Habitat gardens can be aesthetically pleasing to humans while also providing food, water, nesting and perching sites, as well as protection for wildlife.  I want to give you some tips for making your garden both a human and bird sanctuary.

As I have become more interested and committed to creating my gardens as habitats for a host of birds, frogs, insects, and other life I notice the garden has become much more dynamic, interesting, and I find I want to spend more time observing all the activity happening within and around it.

First I think about my own immediate region, living in the mid-Atlantic, along the Potomac River, and notice the kinds of plants that thrive, our soils types and rainfall patterns as this helps with selecting plants that will be happy in my own garden conditions.

I like to create layers of plants beginning with tall trees, mid-story trees, then shrubs, followed by perennials, biennials and annuals. Arrangements for the plants will depend on the amount of sun/shade, moisture levels, and plant compatibility.

First steps

The first step in creating a new garden is to decide where you want to create, enhance, or block the views.  If you have ugly buildings in the distance you want to block then select a series of hedge plants that will grow to form an enclosure.  Many evergreens are also great places for birds to nest and seek protection from weather and predators.  My favorites are some of the native junipers, hollies, and pines – selection of plants will also greatly depend on how much space you have since pines, for example, need a huge amount of room to grow.

Always decide on the placement and plant the large plants first because these will become too hard to transplant and the large and evergreen plants become the bones (structure) for the garden.

If you are lucky enough to have great views then you need to design around the views to maximize their potential.  Keep views open and if plants grow in the way of the view do not hesitate to prune them back. Part of the secret to keeping your garden beautiful is artful pruning, allowing the shapes, forms, and textures to be highlighted. If there are no great views then create one.

My garden has created views

The stream was built as a feature for creating water music, as a way to make the garden an oasis (and block the sound of overhead planes), as an element for viewing, while providing a favorite place for birds to play, drink, and bath.  Birds completely delight in this water feature, especially in the winter because the water keeps running even during snow and cold.

Viewed from the house, a moving water feature brings the garden to life in winter. Great window views allow year-round opportunities to observe birds playing, to see the layers of branching, to appreciate the textures of evergreens, and notice seasonal changes, plants changing color, buds swelling, leaves sparkling…



Photo by Neil Soderstrom

Here in the Shimizu garden you can see the stream created that is a favorite spot for birds throughout the year.  The surrounding garden is a combination of native and non-aggressive non-native plants where birds are able to nest.  Borders of the Garden are planted with mixed evergreens including the native juniper (Juniperus virginiana), also called Eastern red cedar.  The fruit is a staple for many birds and  the foliage provides sites for nesting and cover – the cedar waxwing gets its name from this plant.

Americna Robin

American Robin. Photo by Neil Soderstrom.


Birds are attracted to this stream for playing, bathing and drinking.  The water is clean, we have a bio-filter (no chemicals) and it keeps running throughout the year so that it has become a favorite spot for many birds.

About the Author

Holly Shimizu

Holly H. Shimizu is an American horticulturalist and writer. She is best known for her television appearances on The Victory Garden on PBS, and as the former executive director of the United States Botanic Garden.

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