certified wildlife habitat

How to Turn Your Yard Into an Amazing Certified Wildlife Habitat and Botanical Sanctuary

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certified wildlife habitat

Today I’m going to share what is needed to turn your backyard into a certified wildlife habitat and botanical sanctuary.

Like many gardeners and landowners, we used to think of our property as a place to show off our perfectly manicured and weed-free lawns and our garden as a place to grow food for ourselves.  We viewed weeds and wildlife as intruders and competition to be eliminated. 

But somewhere along the way, our perspectives changed.  We realized we had to stop thinking of our yard as a mere monoculture of turfgrass intended to act as an ornament and purely aesthetic space. It should be a living, breathing ecosystem with multiple layers of biodiversity, where plants, humans, and wildlife can thrive. 

We realized that as humans, it is completely possible to coexist with wildlife while being more responsible land stewards.  We decided to let nature be our guide by welcoming natural processes and seasonal changes and allowing them to dictate the direction of our gardening efforts. 

We now understand that our property is part of nature, so we work hard to protect botanical resources and wildlife and make sure other species can thrive.  Through our efforts to coexist with nature, our property is now a certified wildlife habitat and also a botanical sanctuary certified by both the National Wildlife Federation and United Plant Savers.

Today, I’m going to share how we did this, and how and why you should too!

certified wildlife habitat
The Vegetable Garden & Wild Grape Arbor

Why the Need?

As I’m sure you are aware, our activity as humans has eliminated much of the bird’s, butterfly’s, and wildlife’s natural habitat, pushing them into ever-shrinking wilderness areas. 

So, how can we help? We can start by inviting wildlife back to our yards and neighborhoods by planting gardens full of native plants that provide habitat. We call it “native gardening” because you surround yourself with plants that wildlife depend on. Adding water sources and other habitat features brings the habitat value of your yard to the next level. You can even have your yard designated as a certified wildlife habitat, which is exactly what we did. 

certified wildlife habitat
A Spot to Sit and Enjoy the Garden

Becoming a Certified Wildlife Habitat

To designate your yard as a certified wildlife habitat, you need to prove to the National Wildlife Federation that the wildlife habitat you created meets the 5 key standards that they have set.  Don’t worry, it’s easier than you might think.

Below are the elements your wildlife garden should include, and then let’s dive a little deeper into how exactly you can incorporate each of these elements into your yard. 

  • food
  • Water
  • Cover
  • Places to Raise Young
  • Sustainable Practices

Here’s a handy checklist to help you to determine if your property meets the standards to be deemed a certified wildlife habitat. 

Watch the Video: Bumblebee on my Azalea

Bird Feeder

Food for Wildlife

A Certified Wildlife Habitat is required to provide at least three varieties of food sources for wildlife.

Plants in your wildlife-friendly garden or landscape should provide food to wildlife in a variety of ways, like berries, nuts, and nectar. Some plants also support insects that can feed other animals.

In our garden, we have several bird feeders, squirrel feeders, and hummingbird feeders.  We have planted lots of pollinator plants that provide nectar and pollen along with plants, trees, and shrubs that provide seeds and nuts. 

Must have at least three to qualify:

  • Seeds from a plant
  • Berries
  • Nectar
  • Foliage/Twigs
  • Nuts
  • Fruits
  • Sap
  • Pollen
  • Suet
  • Bird Feeder
  • Squirrel Feeder
  • Hummingbird Feeder
  • Butterfly Feeder
certified wildlife habitat
certified wildlife habitat

Water Sources for Drinking, Bathing, and Living

Birds need a clean, reliable source of drinking water in order to survive, and other species such as amphibians, insects, and other animals need water to live in.

To qualify as a certified wildlife habitat, you need to have at least one water feature. We currently have two birdbaths and a fountain, with plans to add more! 

Any natural water source on your property can count. If you live in a coastal, river, or bay area, that body of water counts as your habitat’s water source if visible and adjacent to your property. Living adjacent to a woodland, meadow, or prairie that has seasonal or vernal pools also counts as a water source.

Must have at least one of these to qualify:

certified wildlife habitat
A Woodland Trail
A Place to Hide


In addition to providing food and water sources, wildlife also needs shelter from the elements and places to find protection from predators. 

On our property, we have many opportunities for wildlife to take shelter and/or escape predators. We have lots of heavily wooded areas, ground cover, woodpiles, rock piles, evergreens, and shrubs. We have also erected many bird and bat houses around the property. 

To qualify as a wildlife habitat, you will need to demonstrate that you can provide at least two of the following:

  • Wooded Area
  • Bramble Patch
  • Ground Cover
  • Rock Pile or Wall
  • Cave
  • Roosting Box
  • Dense Shrubs or Thicket
  • Evergreens
  • Brush or Log Pile
  • Burrow
  • Meadow or Prairie
  • Water Garden or Pond
certified wildlife habitat
A Place to Raise Young
How to Turn Your Yard Into an Amazing Certified Wildlife Habitat and Botanical Sanctuary
A Place for Wildlife to Hide

Places to Raise Young

Creating a wildlife-friendly garden or landscape is all about helping wildlife survive. Species as a whole need to reproduce, so providing shelter and food will help keep the species in your area thriving.

Our property consists of nearly 7 acres of hardwood forest with many hundreds, if not thousands of mature trees, as well as many trees in various stages of decay. Another cool feature of our property is that we abut a rocky hillside that has many small caves that wildlife can use for protection as well as for raising young. We also plant many native plant species such as milkweed that act as a host for caterpillars and other pollinator insects. 

You need at least two places for wildlife to engage in courtship behavior, mate, and then bear and raise their young:

  • Mature Trees
  • Meadow or Prairie
  • Nesting Box
  • Wetland
  • Cave
  • Host Plants for Caterpillars
  • Dead Trees or Snags
  • Dense Shrubs or a Thicket
  • Water Garden or Pond
  • Burrow
certified wildlife habitat
My Studio with Rainwater Collection System
Aged Compost Pile

Sustainable Practices

If you provide wildlife with food, water, shelter, and breeding ground, the area will soon be teeming with wildlife. But how you manage your garden is also important. Managing a landscape in an environmentally friendly way ensures that the soil, air, and water stay clean and healthy.

To qualify your yard as a certified wildlife habitat you need to employ at least two practices from the three categories below. 

Soil and Water Conservation: 

  • Riparian Buffer 
  • Capture Rain Water from Roof 
  • Xeriscape (water-wise landscaping)
  • Drip or Soaker Hose for Irrigation
  • Limit Water Use 
  • Reduce Erosion (i.e. ground cover, terraces)
  • Use Mulch
  • Rain Garden

Of these conservation methods, the ones we use are rain barrels to capture rain for garden watering, we limit our water use as much as possible by taking short showers (easier now that we don’t have any teenagers at home lol), only using appliances that are water-saving and efficient, and mulching to eliminate the need for more frequent watering.  We hope to start a drip irrigation system in the near future. 

Another thing we have been doing the past few years is permaculture gardening.  If you’re not familiar with what this is, simply put, it’s a sustainable practice in a garden, underpinned by a series of ethics and ideas and rooted in a philosophy of harmony with nature.  Permaculture is all about making sure that what we do today does not have a negative impact on the world of tomorrow. 

Controlling Exotic Species: 

  • Practice Integrated Pest Management
  • Remove Non-Native Plants and Animals
  • Use Native Plants
  • Reduce Lawn Areas

We have worked hard to eliminate invasive and damaging species from our landscape.  We have successfully gotten rid of the Japanese barberry and Winged euonymus that were growing here and replaced them with native fruit trees, elderberry, and blackberry.  We have also cut the size of our actual lawn to just a small amount of grass along three sides of our house.  The rest of our cleared yard is vegetable gardens, a small orchard, herb gardens, and pollinator gardens.  

Organic Practices: 

  • Eliminate Chemical Pesticides
  • Eliminate Chemical Fertilizers
  • Compost
We only garden organically and do not use any chemicals whatsoever. We compost all year long and usually have three piles going at once. 

Becoming a Certified Botanical Sanctuary

Becoming a certified botanical sanctuary through United Plant Savers was not very difficult since we were already employing many of the practices needed through our efforts to qualify as a certified wildlife habitat. 

pollinator gardens

What is United Plant Savers?

The United Plant Savers (UpS) is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to preserve, conserve and restore native medicinal plants and their habitats of the USA and Canada while ensuring their abundant, renewable supply for future generations. To this end, United Plant Savers established a very important project: The Botanical Sanctuary Network, a network of sanctuaries dedicated to restoring and preserving habitat for wildlife, both plants, and animals.

Our property has been deemed one of these sanctuaries, and we couldn’t be more proud of this designation.  The Outdoor Apothecary believes that everyone should have access to the healing herbs that grow around them. There is no need to buy expensive supplements when you already have a powerful apothecary in your own kitchen, garden, or even in your yard. We demystify herbal medicine. It’s what we do, and we have a lot of fun doing it.

What Do I Need to Do to Become Certified?

You don’t have to have a large plot of land to register your land for certification as a botanical sanctuary with United Plant Savers. Just the right practices and dedication to supporting the cultivation and habitat of native medicinal plants are necessary. 

A few of the things we have done to achieve this was to research the native medicinal plants of our region and protect the native plants that are already growing here such as ghost pipe, mullein, and goldenrod and plant/reintroduce ones that were not.  We now have common milkweed, the ONLY plant that supports the monarch butterfly, echinacea, elderberry, pignut hickory, oak, sassafrass, goldenrod, maple-leaf viburnum, and countless other native plants.  

If you would like to designate your yard or property as a botanical sanctuary you can find out more information and get started on your application by visiting the Botanical Sanctuary Network application page, here.  

pollinator gardens

Concluding Thoughts

Before we started this project, our yard was not at all wildlife-friendly. In short, we had created a lot of work for ourselves and a lot of stress as we attempted to control nature in a way that was completely unnatural. Now we welcome whatever native plants decide to grow on their own and we have slowly begun letting nature take its course. Our yard is now wildlife-friendly because it no longer has us constantly trying to impose our will upon it.

We hope that you will find inspiration from our journey and consider making a few simple changes that will help protect wildlife and allow native plants to once again thrive. We think you’ll find that it’s easier than you might think, and who doesn’t love less work while doing more good?

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