Managing Your Backyard Habitat

Maintenance Ideas For All Landscapes
  • Lawn: Convert some of your open lawn to a "meadow." Mow prudently--just two summer mowings will control tree and shrub invasions in your meadow (check local mowing ordinances). Wildflowers, butterflies and bees can flourish in even a small wild meadow.
  • Hedges: Select and encourage a variety of plant heights, but maintain a minimum of 3-1/2- to 8-foot high hedges. The best hedges for bird cover and nesting are evergreen with dense or thorny branches. From the viewpoint of a bird or rabbit, blackberries are ideal!
  • Thorny hedges also discourage human intruders, and all dense hedges give you privacy and protection from noisy streets. Remove large tree species that sprout and grow in your hedges.
  • Pruning: Birds prefer unclipped, informal hedges. Remove old growth selectively to assure that the plants don't overcrowd one another. Avoid pruning during the nesting season. Azaleas and other early flowering shrubs that bloom from buds formed during the previous summer should be selectively pruned or cut back every few years.
  • Small trees: Be sure orchard and some flowering trees receive full sun. Check light requirements--dogwoods, for example, prefer light shade. Avoid toxic sprays; instead, choose fruit varieties that will thrive in your area without poisons. Don't prune all the dead wood and be sure to mulch well. Leave tent caterpillar nests in your wild fruit trees-yellow-billed cuckoos or other birds can control them for you. If caterpillars really get out of hand, spray carefully with bacillus thuringensis (contact your local nursery or Cooperative Extension Service for instructions).
  • Large forest trees: Control seedlings beneath large trees, but leave a few young replacements. Allow one or two selected vines to climb each tree. You may want to mow once a year in your forested area. Maintain standing dead trees and limbs as "snags" that don't pose a safety hazard to your house or people in your yard.
  • Paths: Add mulched or stonework walkways to your landscape. Paths can make visiting your yard more enjoyable when vegetation is wet with rain or morning dew, and provide a familiar route through your backyard habitat.
A Caution about Nonnative Invasive Plants

Nonnatives are plants and animals imported and introduced into a new environment. Most every Florida yard has an nonnative hibiscus or azalea. Although these plants won't do wildlife any harm, their benefits to wildlife may not be as high as those of native species.

Many nonnatives have no natural enemies to suppress their spread, so they tend to upset the balance of nature and crowd out the native species. These pest plants are known as invasive nonnatives. South Florida's landscape has been visibly and negatively altered by three invasive nonnative trees: melaleuca or the paperbark tree (Melaleuca quinquenervia), Australian pine (Casuarina spp.) and Brazilian pepper, sometimes called Florida holly (Schinus terebinthifolius).

In north Florida, the worst naturalized invasive nonnative is kudzu (Pueraria lobata) which can turn a small pine forest into a green "desert" for wildlife in only a few years. Other problem plants in north Florida include Chinese tallow and the aquatic pests hydrilla and water hyacinth.


Do your best to eradicate these aggressive misbehaving invaders everywhere you can. Educate yourself about invasive nonnative plants that are prone to be a pest in your area. When buying a new plant variety, take the responsibility to observe it to make sure it doesn't spread rapidly or begin to pop up in natural areas.

Select Pest Plants:

Brazillian Pepper

Brazilian pepper: These fast-growing shrubby trees have long arching branches that eventually form impenetrable thickets. Bright red berries are produced in abundance in the winter months. Crushed leaves have a turpentine odor, and sap can cause skin irritation similar to poison ivy, a close relative. The seeds are widely distributed by robins and other birds, germinate in almost all ecosystems, and smother existing vegetation.

Austrailian Pine Australian pine: This is not a true pine. Several different species are planted, persist or have escaped from cultivation. Seeds are produced in small woody fruits; some species spread mainly by root suckers. All are fast-growing and reach great heights. Old branchlets are constantly shed and produce a thick layer of litter under the trees. This litter suppresses all other vegetation by physical smothering and chemical inhibitors that leach from the leaf litter.
Melaleuca Melaleuca: A large, upright evergreen tree with flaky white bark and dark green leaves which give off a strong aromatic odor when crushed. Flowers cover branch tips in a bottlebrush arrangement, and produce pollen that causes severe allergic reactions in many people. These trees grow quickly and thickly from the tiny seeds released. This tree is the most serious threat to south Florida because it invades all wetlands and surrounding areas, crowding put all other species as it spreads. It is also creating a severe fire hazard in some areas, and has resisted all attempts at control.
Cavity Trees, Lawns and Soil

More than one-third of all forest-dwelling birds and mammals require a hole or cavity in a tree for nesting or shelter. Most cavity-nesting birds are insectivorous, and play an important part in the control of forest insect pests. The scarcity of nesting and roosting cavities seriously limits numbers of woodpeckers, nuthatches, wood ducks, screech owls, bluebirds, flying squirrels and many other desirable backyard dwellers. People are the problem - we harvest mature and dead trees for firewood and remove dead trees and limbs merely to keep our yards neat. Under natural conditions, a woodland recycles everything. It does not become "dirty" and never needs "cleaning"!

Recommendations: One of the greatest services a landowner can do for wildlife is to leave at least one or two dead trees (snags) standing per quarter-acre lot. If you have few cavity trees on your property, set out home-built nest boxes to encourage cavity-nesting birds and mammals. Obviously, snags that present a safety hazard should be removed. See "There's Life in Dead Trees" to read a bit more about snags. dead tree

Although a well-kept lawn may provide a grassy snack for a rabbit or a worm for a robin, to qualify as good habitat it must be close to cover and food plants. Most people like to maintain mowed grass for outdoor play and entertaining, but remember, manicured lawns extending from property line to property line will be nearly as devoid of wildlife as asphalt!

Recommendation: Think carefully about which lawn areas you don't use and replace them with beds of trees, shrubs, meadow and natural ground cover for your wildlife neighbors.

Most people have a mental image of what makes a rich soil: it's dark and smells fresh; it's fluffy, not lumpy or loose like beach sand; and moist, not dry or muddy. These qualities are, in fact, ideal for most plants. If you improve your soil to match your mental image, your plants will mostly take care of themselves. Healthy soil will grow healthy plants, and healthy plants will produce lots of food and cover for wildlife.

Recommendation: You have to start with topsoil. If you are trying to garden on soil that was dug out of a pit to fill your lot, you may have to haul in some topsoil before you do anything else. Assuming you have topsoil, the most important thing you can do for your garden is to mulch, which means to spread some type of plant material over your soil. On the poorest fill, and even without the addition of topsoil, mulching begins the process of soil formation and allows a wide range of plantings to flourish.

Don't discard leaves or grass clippings if you rake. After they have dried, spread them thickly (at least three inches deep) between your plants and shallowly around their bases. Mulch should not touch tree or shrub trunks directly. Pull the mulch back about an inch to provide airflow around the back of the tree and to prevent the growth of harmful fungi and colonization by problem insects.

Mulching will keep your soil moist, inhibit weeds, and the clippings will eventually break down and enrich your soil. If you going to by mulching materials, you can Mulch With Melaleuca or other invasive nonnative plants and avoid mulching with pulped native trees like cypress.

FWC Facts:
Like all North American terns, the least tern has long, pointed wings and a deeply forked tail. It is the smallest of Florida's terns.

Learn More at AskFWC