Building a backyard habitat

Nature in your outdoor space

By Kristen Wicker

Photo: Five Rivers MetroParks Director of Conservation Dave Nolin in the suburban wildlife sanctuary he has created in his yard

Dave Nolin’s yard may look a bit rowdy to some people, but to wildlife, it’s a sanctuary.

During the past 11 years since he purchased his home, Nolin has created prairie gardens in his front and back yards featuring plants native to Ohio. Three prairie gardens adorn his front yard; the back yard, with its tree seedlings and native plantings, gradually blends into adjacent Grant Park. Nolin even removed invasive honeysuckle in the park area leading to Hole’s Creek, to create an even more seamless and pristine transition from yard to park.

“This creates a diversity of life,” Nolin, Five Rivers MetroParks director of conservation, said of his yard. “It’s amazing the number of butterflies, skippers and other creatures who find their way here. I also love the variety of textures, forms and shapes that change throughout the season.

“And it sends a good message,” he added. “The chemicals and equipment needed to maintain a manicured landscape are very destructive. Fertilizers eventually make their way to our rivers. The machines used in yards pollute more than cars do. In this age of climate change, it makes sense to look at an alternative. I think this is more beautiful, and it has a lot less impact on our environment.”

Today, with human activity munching up so much nature, wildlife face an ever-growing struggle to find the resources needed to thrive. And it’s the tiniest creatures that often are the most important: Pollinators such as butterflies, bees, moths, beetles, birds and bats are critical to the health of ecosystems because they move pollen for many flowering plants. These creatures are needed for the reproduction of 90 percent of flowering plants and one-third of human food crops.

“In the name of improvement, we’ve pretty much stripped our soil and gotten rid of native plants because many didn’t fit our sense of what’s ‘pretty,’” Betty Hoevel, Five Rivers MetroParks education supervisor, said. “We have to also look at all the functions soil and roots and plants provide.”

There is good news: The prairies and woodlands Five Rivers MetroParks protects serve as valuable habitats to pollinators, and the gardens at parks – including the pollinator garden at Cox Arboretum MetroPark and monarch waystations at Germantown MetroPark and the Wegerzyn Children’s Discovery Garden – are planted to improve the population of pollinators. The best news: Whether you have an expansive outdoor space or a balcony with room for a few containers, you can do something to help — and you can do it this summer.

“Our parks are only a tiny fraction of our landscape in this region, but wildlife depend on all the land,” Nolin said. “So, the more people do as individuals, the better off wildlife will be.”

Nolin and Hoevel offer these tips, and encourage you to research online for photos and additional resources:

1. Determine your goals.

2. Start small.

3. Avoid use of toxic chemicals.

4. Be sure you know what is a pest, and what is not. Such bugs as bees, praying mantis and ladybugs are great garden guests.

5. Assess the amount of sun your outdoor space receives and at what times of day.

6. Assess the soil to determine how dry it gets and how rich it looks. Healthy soil is critical to healthy plants, although one advantage of native prairie plants is they can still thrive in poor soil and can even improve it.

7. Know how water- or drought-tolerant the plants are and their sun requirements, and plant accordingly.

8. Know the growth pattern of the plants, including how large they’ll get and if they’ll spread.

9. If working in a suburban yard, do some research to make sure you’re not violating any zoning codes or ordinances.

10. Plant for variety: Focus on planting native perennials, with some annuals in the mix, all in different shapes and sizes that bloom at different times in the season. Some examples to get you started include aster, coneflower, daisies, lobelia, marigolds, phlox and verbena.

11. Plant varieties of milkweed, which are critical to monarch butterflies.

12. If you have space, plant some deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs to provide winter shelter for wildlife.

13. Include water in your outdoor space, such as a small tabletop fountain or a shallow pan filled with sand and a little water, a necessity for male butterflies.

14. Include some flat, dark stones to provide a spot for butterflies to warm their bodies.

15. Be comfortable with imperfection in your garden. Caterpillars will eat holes in your leaves, but the presence of these creatures means you can soon welcome butterflies.

16. Visit the Cox Arboretum MetroPark Butterfly House or local nurseries to see what plants you like the most.

“When you’re planting, you want to think about providing animals with the same things people need: shelter, food, security and water,” Hoevel said. “But it’s your habitat as well, and you’ll be getting beauty and maybe food from it while witnessing nature doing its thing. So, be sure to plant things you enjoy.”

Indeed, Nolin takes great pleasure in his suburban wildlife refuge.

“This can be done in a way so it’s obvious you’re doing it on purpose and you’re not abandoning your yard,” he said. “There’s a lot of joy associated with seeing all the life in the yard all summer long.”


June 10, 6 – 7 p.m. 

Learning from the Landscape: Plants to Attract Butterflies

Cox Arboretum MetroPark


June 18, noon – 1 p.m. 

Lunch and Learn: Insects in the Garden

Cox Arboretum MetroPark


June 21, 10 a.m. – noon

Insect Day: Bugs, Bees and Butterflies in the Garden

Wegerzyn Gardens MetroPark

Reach DCP freelance writer Kristen Wicker at

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