5 Ways to Garden for Wildlife

Having wildlife, from birds to elk or deer, in the garden can be a source of pleasure or a major frustration. Although you want to help deer, birds and pollinators, you want to protect your plants and family.

In urban and rural areas of the Southwest, wildlife visits can mean dealing with unwanted guests. For many, it’s squirrels or rabbits. For us, it’s mostly gophers. And deer or elk quickly feel more like pests when they trample, eat or rub antlers on a favorite plant. My mantra is that the deer were here first, so we do our best to protect our plants while enjoying these animals. Here are 5 ways to work with nature in your Southwest garden for your pleasure and the safety and health of wildlife:

Birds eat seeds, nuts and berries or use native plants for shelter. This Apache plume stays pretty in winter, too.

Include Native Plants

Animals and insects have basic needs – food, water and shelter. Most need food for energy and shelter for protection on cold winter days and during early spring, when natural vegetation has not yet provided food, but birds and animals might be nesting and having young. These creatures have survived before we came along on native plants, insects or smaller animals. Providing native plants in your landscape helps feed birds; hummingbirds love tubular flowers and birds and other critters flock to plants that bear berries, such as currant, serviceberry and hackberry, or fall seeds.

Shallow pools of water help birds and other wildlife, even in winter.

Water Sources

Birds need water even in winter. Roadrunners get their fluids from the natural foods they eat, but most wildlife needs water. You can help with bird baths and puddles for butterflies and bees. Baths in the desert dry out quickly. Our backyard habitat has a river, which provides a natural water source for animals. A rain garden that pools some water after rains can help nearby wildlife, as can a fountain or container water garden.

Thorny native roses provide a hiding place for birds, especially in winter, when there are fewer places to go.

Trees and Shrubs

In the low desert, shade is at a premium for wildlife. It’s hard for anything larger than a lizard or rattler to bask in the cool shade of a Saguaro. The trees you plant can provide important shade and shelter from predators. Thorny shrubs protect our birds from hawks and other predators, and it’s important to have trees and small shrubs near feeders. Rabbits need safe spaces for nests and their young, often in shrubs that grow on the ground in a thick, spreading habit. Barberry, ocotillo, wild roses, and Chuparosa are excellent Southwest shrubs for food and shelter.

Deer like the buck above can destroy plants by rubbing or eating them. We protect our edible garden with two fences — a high one to keep deer out and a buried one (stucco or roof panel) buried 24 inches or more for gopher exclusion.


I have decided there is no such thing as a deer-resistant plant. It only takes one tasting session to ruin a small perennial or break a tree branch. The most annoying? when they clearly break off a piece of a plant and then spit it out. It’s like adding insult to injury! Here are a few tips for exclusion; read more on my other blog:

  • Exclude rabbits, squirrels, gophers, deer and other wildlife with selective fencing. It’s less expensive and friendlier to wildlife to fence around plants they can harm than to fence an entire yard.
  • Make sure the fences have the right mesh sizes and are the right height (or depth) for the critter you want to exclude. That means small or tight weaves for squirrels, 6 to 8 feet of height for deer and nearly 2 feet of depth for gophers and other underground varmints.
  • Improvise with objects you have at home, such as leftover pieces of fencing and 5-gallon buckets (cut out the bottom).
  • Briefly cover shallowly planted seeds with a fabric that lets sun and water through but keeps birds from lifting them right out of the ground.
The more chemicals we throw out there, the more we hurt helpful critters.

Use Natural Practices

Native plants are even more helpful if you let them grow and seed out as they would in the wild instead of cutting back in fall. When possible, we try to use the most natural ingredients first to fight pests. Neonic insecticides (neonicotinoids) are proven harmful to bees and butterflies. Even some organic choices such as insecticidal soaps can harm pollinators as well. We use them sparingly and try to hand-pick as many pests as possible. Practices that keep plants healthy and less infested, like avoiding overcrowding of plants, can prevent some trouble.

The best way to prevent problems between humans, plants and wildlife is to pay attention. The more you walk through and enjoy your garden, the more likely you’ll spot insects before they eat a plant and critter damage so you can take preventive steps to protect the plant. Plus, you can stop and smell the flowers!

Teresa Odle, Southwest Gardening contributor

Teresa Odle is the editor of African Violet Magazine, a freelance editor for BobVila.com, and author of a blog on low-water gardening in the Southwest.  Teresa trained as a Master Gardener in Albuquerque, N.M. She grew up in the Phoenix area, and has lived in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Teresa and her husband now attempt to manage four acres of land in zone 6B of southeastern New Mexico. The land includes a large xeric garden, herbs and vegetables, and a small orchard that borders the Rio Ruidoso in Lincoln County. Teresa’s blog, Gardening in a Drought, won a 2016 national award for best writing in digital media from the Association for Garden Communicators.

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