Biodiversity in Your Backyard

Transform your yard into critical habitat


Let your backyard go wild! It's easy to support biodiversity by supplying staples such as water, food and shelter. With habitat loss being the greatest threat to biodiversity in the world, backyard and neighbourhood habitats are crucial pieces holding together an increasingly fragmented natural landscape. They hold the potential to create critically needed bird and wildlife habitat.

Methods of making your yard supportive of biodiversity could include the following:

  • Naturalize your lawn: Lawns are unnatural habitats. Creating a naturalized area in your yard will reduce the size of your lawn and decrease the amount of mowing and watering required. Start with the sections that are not well suited for grass, such as shady areas. Plant a variety of vegetation types (grasses, flowers, shrubs, trees, etc.) and group them in clusters to attract insects, birds, butterflies, hummingbirds and other animals. If you would like to attract a certain species to your garden you will need to provide for their unique food, water, and shelter needs.

  • Create a pond: Ponds provide habitat for a variety of species ranging from insects to frogs and fish. If you are concerned about mosquitoes there are numerous natural predators which can be introduced to your pond, including native back swimmers and water boat-men. (Just be sure you don't introduce Gambusia, also known as the "mosquitofish", an invasive species from the southern and eastern USA that threatens native fish populations by nibbling off their fins!) If space is a limiting factor, a bird bath will attract not only birds but pollinating insects and even chipmunks.

  • Create other types of habitats: Supply wild food by planting perennials such as fruit and nut trees, nectar-producing flowers and berry bushes. The trees and bushes also provide natural shelter. Dead trees are an important habitat for birds, insects, squirrels, chipmunks and other mammals; they can become a unique element of your yard if left standing. Rock, log, mulch and compost piles provide places for rabbits, shrews, mice, snakes and salamanders to lay their eggs and raise their young.

  • Plant native species: Regardless of whether you have a flower, vegetable, rock or natural garden, native species are an important element of biodiversity which create a natural habitat for local wildlife. They also require less water and maintenance and fewer chemicals than exotic species as they are adapted to the specific conditions of the local environment. For more information on native plants in your area visit your local arboretum or native plant society.

  • Remove exotic plants: Plants that are not native to an area, such as purple loosestrife, can become invasive and take over your garden and surrounding natural areas, threatening the survival of native species. Their removal will create space for native plants which have developed as part of the local ecosystem and provide habitat for other species.

  • Grow heritage varieties & save seeds: Planting heirloom varieties which are rare or endangered is crucial to maintaining the diversity of species native to Canada and preserving their genetic resources for the future. Heritage species are threatened by the current focus on producing a very narrow selection of species, and by recent progress in biotechnology and the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They often have unique qualities such as unusual flavours, shapes and colours which you won't find in the grocery store.

  • Don't use chemicals! (fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides and pesticides): The chemicals used on our lawns and gardens are harmful to us as well as the environment. They contaminate the soil and water in addition to poisoning insects, birds and fish. The House of Commons Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development's report Pesticides, Making the Right Choice for the Protection of Health and the Environment, released in 2000, notes that studies have demonstrated that pesticide exposure is particularly harmful to children, and has been linked to various forms of cancer and to brain and nervous system problems. The report expresses particular concern about organochlorines and other insecticides which can disrupt the endocrine system and have repercussions on fetal development.

  • Garden Organically: Organic gardening maximizes soil, plant, animal and human health by using sustainable agronomic practices and non-chemical, natural ways to control pests and weeds. It involves building healthy soil which will grow strong plants that can successfully compete with weeds, discourage pest infestations, and resist disease without the use of petrochemicals. Soil is improved through such methods as incorporating compost and planting cover crops.

  • Compost: Rather than using chemical fertilizers, compost your fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grinds, tea bags, egg shells, leaves and grass clippings to create decomposed organic matter (compost). Adding compost to your garden will enrich your soil by encouraging micro-organisms and worms to thrive, improving soil drainage, increasing the soil's ability to hold moisture, and providing nutrients for plant growth. This is also a great way to reduce the amount you send to the landfill.

  • Keep your cat inside at night: Because cats are nocturnal predators and a threat to birds, mice, frogs and other animals that may be attracted to your garden and yard, it is best to shut your cat in the house at night. To help keep wildlife safe during times when your cat is outdoors, attach a bell to their collar and predator-proof feeders and birdhouses.

Don't have a yard? Even if you live in an apartment building in a large city there are numerous ways in which you can contribute to conserving biodiversity:

  • Urban Gardening: Every plant counts - you can make a difference by adding vegetation to your living space, balcony or roof. Be creative with the types of containers you use; for example, plastic wading pools can be transformed into a creative urban garden. Reuse miscellaneous household containers when possible. Another possible option is to obtain permission to plant native species of plants around your building where there are currently patches of mowed lawn.

  • Indoor Composting: In an apartment you can compost by vermi-composting, which involves feeding waste products (fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grinds, tea bags, and egg shells) to worms in order to break them down. You can make your own composter or buy one ready made. The book Worms Eat my Garbage, by Mary Appelhof, is an excellent resource on how to get started vermi-composting.

  • Join a community garden: You can make a difference by joining a community garden. There are two main types: allotment/plot style, where you grow your own produce in an allotted area, and Community Shared Agriculture gardens, where the farmer grows the produce for you. This is a great way to become connected with the source of your food!

  • Buy from a local producer at your Farmer's Market: Small, local producers are most likely to be open to developing a relationship in which you can encourage their efforts to sustain biodiversity.

  • Turn off unnecessary lights: Birds are injured and killed by windows they cannot see. This problem is most severe in the spring and fall during migration. Guided in part by the constellations, birds are attracted to lights shining from skyscrapers, broadcast towers, lighthouses, monuments and other tall structures. They either flutter about the light until they drop from exhaustion, or actually hit the object. If not killed on impact, these birds then become easy prey for predators.: Birds are injured and killed by windows they cannot see. This problem is most severe in the spring and fall during migration. Guided in part by the constellations, birds are attracted to lights shining from skyscrapers, broadcast towers, lighthouses, monuments and other tall structures. They either flutter about the light until they drop from exhaustion, or actually hit the object. If not killed on impact, these birds then become easy prey for predators.