NC State University
House with native plants and animalsGoing Native: Urban Landscaping for Wildlife with Native Plants
Home > Why Go Native > Typical Landscaping Practices

Typical Landscaping Practices

Gray Squirrel
Gray squirrels are common in urban habitats.

Poor landscaping practices cause problems for wildlife. Most suburban landscapes are designed to be attractive to people and to suit their lifestyles.  Generally, wildlife habitat needs are not considered.  Suburban, manicured landscapes often lack the plant diversity and complex vegetation structure important to wildlife.  The typical suburban yard is a grass lawn with a few plants representing only two or three species, most of which are exotic.  These landscapes offer poor quality wildlife habitat and harbor only the most common wildlife species such as American robin, northern mockingbird, gray squirrel, and the common buckeye butterfly.

Here are several examples of typical landscaping practices that are BAD for wildlife.

Poor Plant Selection

Choosing exotics over natives. When attempting to improve their landscape for wildlife, homeowners often choose exotic plants.  Although some exotic plants may benefit birds and butterflies, others may become invasive, harming native animals in the long term.  Further, exotic plants often do not meet the nutritional requirements of wildlife as well as native plants.  Native plants are better.

Not considering plant needs.  Often, the soil types, moisture regimes, and light conditions available within a landscape are not considered when choosing plants.  For example, installation of sun-loving plants under the heavy shade of a tree canopy or moisture-loving plants on a droughty ridge will lead to planting failure.  Make sure to put the right native plant in the right place.

Tiger Swallowtail Caterpillar
A tiger swallowtail caterpillar feeds on a variety of native host plants.

Not considering specific wildlife needs. Usually, the life requirements of target wildlife species are not considered when choosing plants.  For example, gardeners often include only nectar-bearing plants in their yards when managing for butterflies.  However, caterpillar host plants also should be available to provide for the entire butterfly life cycle.  Know what native plants your target species really need.

Poor Establishment Practices

Soil is not properly prepared before planting.  Urban soils often are compacted and have low organic matter content making them difficult places for plants to become established and grow.  Improper soil preparation may lead to planting failure.  To minimize failure, collect a small soil sample from your yard and have it tested for nutrient content.  Specific recommendations from the test will help you properly amend your soil before planting.  Contact your local Cooperative Extension office for instructions on this free service.  Test and prepare your soil first.

Plants are planted too deep.  Planting too deep can cause oxygen deficiency in the root system.  Make sure the root ball of a shrub or tree is level with the existing grade and the root collar (where the tree trunk flares out into the roots) is above the soil. Most of the roots of a newly planted tree will develop within the top 12 inches of soil. If the flare of the root collar cannot be seen, it is recommended the excess soil be removed from the root ball.  Make sure you can see the root collar.

Plants are over mulched. Too much mulch (called mulch volcanoes) can decrease oxygen circulation and increase moisture in the soil, eventually leading to root death.  Spread 2-4 inches of mulch over the entire planting area.

Volcano mulch
Mulch volcano can damage trees and shrubs.

Mulch is piled around the trunk or base of plants.  This can lead to increased moisture resulting in fungal growth, disease, and insect problems. Keep mulch a few inches away from tree trunks.

The planting hole is backfilled with amended soil. Amending the soil only within the planting hole creates a bowl effect where the roots don’t extend outside the planting hole, causing girdling of roots. Use the same soil removed from the site.

Plants are not allowed growing space.  Large-maturing trees and shrubs should be planted where they will not interfere with overhead utilities or crowd homes or other structures.  Shrubs and trees should be planted at least 6 feet away from all structures. 

Typical Llandscaping
New neighborhoods are landscaped with symmetrical plantings of a few species.

Specimen Planting

Spaced out, symmetrical plantings (or “specimen plantings”) have become the norm for landscapes in new suburban neighborhoods. The fragmented nature of plantings in these landscapes causes animals to move frequently as they search for food and cover.  Too much movement exposes birds, butterflies, and other wildlife to predators and causes them to use a lot of the energy they need for survival. Cluster native plants together.

Low Plant Diversity

Most suburban landscapes include only a few common plant species like crape myrtle, Bradford pear, and red maple.  Landscapes that lack plant diversity do not provide year-round food and cover for wildlife.  Plant a wide variety of native plants.

Vertical plant Sstructure
Vertical structure provides habitat for a variety of birds.

Low Vertical Structure

Landscapes that do not include short and tall plants within the same general area lack the vertical vegetation structure that allows ground-dwelling, shrub-dwelling, and treetop birds to exist in the same horizontal space.  Use native plants of varying heights.

Pokeweed Ffruits
Pokeweed fruits and seeds are preferred by birds.

Neat and Green

Mowing, pruning, edging, weeding, and applying pesticides may lower the quality of your yard as habitat by removing food and cover.  Birds and other wildlife prefer an untidy habitat.  However, local ordinances, the opinion of neighbors, or your own need for a neat and green yard may prevent you from allowing your yard to look untidy.  In this case, you might consider locating the more wild-looking plants like brambles, vines, un-mowed grasses, or large weedy plants like pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) in a hidden portion of your yard.  Avoid the use of pesticides when possible and have a wild spot in your yard.

Pruning During Nesting Season

In the Southeast, the songbird nesting season generally lasts from mid March through the end of July.  Pruning activities during this period might damage existing nests or expose them to predators.  Don’t prune plants during the nesting season.


Back to top

NC Forest ServiceNC Cooperative Extension