Home & Garden

Create a backyard nature habitat with your kids

By: Cynthia Reynolds

Author: Canadian Living

Home & Garden

Create a backyard nature habitat with your kids

By: Cynthia Reynolds

Bring kids back outside
Imagine a home where instead of playing virtual adventures on the computer, the kids are out in the yard turning over logs to hunt for ants, running around chasing butterflies or sneaking up on an unsuspecting toad.

True, it might sound like crazy talk to modern parents, but there once was a time when kids actually did these things, before safety concerns and electronic entertainment moved childhood decidedly indoors. And it's not just a matter of nostalgia. A growing body of research exploring the disconnect between kids and nature says being outside among natural and wild things helps children develop the emotional, mental and physical skills they need to become happy and well-adjusted adults. So if you're struggling to figure out how to reintroduce your children to nature, you might want to start by inviting nature back into your yard.

Make your backyard a bastion of biodiversity

A backyard wildlife habitat filled with bright-coloured birds eating seed, butterflies resting on flower blooms and dragonflies flitting about will be an instant hit with kids – especially if it also contains belching frogs, or even spooky bats for more adventurous parents. Not only will a habitat draw children outside, but the process of setting one up is a wonderful way to bring the family together, and it's great for the animals, too. Don't worry – it's not as hard as it sounds. So many people are building habitats on their properties that the Canadian Wildlife Federation will even certify your backyard if you meet their key requirements. You'll receive a certificate and window decal, tangible acknowledgments that help give kids – and parents, too – a sense of accomplishment and pride.

So how do you transform your average yard into a paradise literally buzzing with activity? Well, whether you're a novice or a pro, start with providing the basic needs of wildlife, then toss out the chemicals and bring in the native plants. Here are the essentials.

Animal needs
The Canadian Wildlife Federation breaks down the needs of wildlife into four categories: food, water, shelter and space.

Birdfeeders are great, but to attract a diversity of wildlife, try planting trees, shrubs or simple wildflowers that supply seed, nuts, fruits, berries or good-quality nectar.

Propping up a birdbath is a cinch, and a sure thing when it comes to wooing these cheerful creatures. But remember to change the water every other day to prevent mosquitoes from breeding and to scour it with a brush every few days. If space allots, consider a simple pond – it's easier than you think to install, and once it's set up, it requires very little upkeep.

When scoping out suitable habitats to visit or raise their young in, animals always make sure there are places to hide, whether from predators or from inclement weather. They're looking for trees or shrubs (even the dead ones), piles of rocks or brush and old logs. Ponds, too, apart from providing water, meet aquatic creatures' shelter and family-rearing needs.

Birds don't see square-footage, they see in 3D, so think layers when constructing your habitat. Strive for a combination of tall trees and short, bushy shrubs, along with an array of wildflowers and groundcover.

Page 1 of 2 – Learn more about earth-friendly gardening and find online resources on page 2.

Chemical-free zone
A great wildlife habitat means the animals there not only survive, but thrive. So once you've thought about how to meet their basic needs, you need to think about ways to garden in a sustainable, earth-friendly way. This means doing your best to avoid chemical pesticides, both insecticides and herbicides – after all, unlike us, animals don't wash off their food before they eat it. And besides helping animals, abstaining from pesticides can boost the health of the soil and keep local waterways clean.

Some other earth-friendly practices:

Choose natural fertilizers, such as compost and – yes – well-aged manure.

Embrace mulch. Not only does it help your soil retain water, which means reduced watering time, but as it breaks down it too can help with soil fertilization.

Plant native species, the next requirement for a wildlife-friendly backyard habitat.

Choose native plants
Sure, palm trees and mangoes in the Great White North might sound neat, but there are reasons why certain flora grows in some places and not in others. Native vegetation – those species that have grown wild in your region for thousands of years – generally thrives in its natural environment, requiring less fertilizer, water and pest-control measures. It also stabilizes the soil, diminishes erosion and does a better job at filtering storm water. And, of course, many local wildlife species depend on native vegetation to survive. When creating your backyard habitat, make sure to include trees, shrubs and perennials native to your area.

If you get stuck, remember, there are plenty of books, community organizations and websites to help answer your questions. And if you want to keep adding to your habitat, they also have plenty of project ideas – how about building a toad abode, or a bird nesting box? – to encourage your imagination to run wild.

Online resources
The Canadian Wildlife Federation provides a simple guide for setting up a certified backyard habitat. Plus, they offer books for everyone from novices to experienced gardeners filled with projects and information on sustaining ecosystems.

Wild About Gardening In association with the CWF, this site offers one of the most comprehensive guides to identifying native vegetation in your planting zone. It also provides tons of information on what to plant to attract specific wildlife, from birds to bats.

Evergreen, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving green space in Canadian cities, offers a comprehensive guide to identifying native plants in your area. Depending on where you live, Evergreen can advise you on naturalizing your yard.

The National Wildlife Federation, while American, has tons of applicable information on creating backyard habitats, with in-depth, easy-to-read information on everything from planting a tree and creating ponds to organic gardening.

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Create a backyard nature habitat with your kids