Private Land Stewardship: Gardening for Wildlife in North Carolina

Certified Wildlife Habitat

In North Carolina, where more than 85% of land is privately owned, private land stewardship plays a pivotal role in wildlife conservation efforts. The concerning reality is that poor private land practices have the potential to negatively impact critical wildlife habitat and cripple the wildlife with whom we share our state. The largest cultivated “crop” in America is one that cannot be utilized by either people or wildlife: turfgrass and fescue. These expanses of close-cut and chemical-laden turfgrass lawns are no different than a barren desert for wildlife in search of food, water, and shelter… and are one of the most harmful features the majority of private lands have to offer.

Conversely, this network of private lands also provides a brilliant opportunity for a tapestry of wildlife-friendly habitats across the state – if private landowners step up to the task.

Whether you own a small side-yard plot in your neighborhood, vast acreage in the countryside, or just a few potted plants on your apartment windowsill, you can make a profound difference in providing food, water and habitat to the wildlife in your community.

The age-old adage holds true: if you build it, they will come. When wildlife is provided with the elements they need in order to survive – through providing native plants as food and cover, clean water, cover from the elements, and places to raise young – they will see your yard or garden as a safe place… and your natural space will reap the rewards of what wildlife has to offer: the joy of abundant life and the beauty of natural vibrancy. And there are plenty of non-regulatory, easily implemented practices that you can employ on your own land for the betterment of wildlife.

Not sure where to start? We’ve got you covered:

  1. Plant Native:

Planting native plants benefits all species of wildlife. Native annuals attract insects, including pollinators vital to environmental health. When these flowers go to seed, they provide a valuable food source for seed-eating birds and small mammals. Similarly, planting native trees such as white oaks fills a unique niche for all kinds of wildlife. Douglas W. Tallamy, author of “Nature’s Best Hope” and “The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees” notes that oaks support 897 caterpillar species in the United States – a critical high-protein food source for baby birds, who are not mature enough to eat seeds. Even more staggering, a single chickadee family requires between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars to rear a healthy brood of chicks – and that’s just one of the wildlife species that depend on these critical native trees!

  1. Eliminate Invasives:

Invasive plant species are one of the largest threats facing native plant and wildlife species – particularly due to their propensity to forcibly occupy the ecological niche naturally assigned to native plant species, upon which native wildlife depend. Learn to identify invasive species, and try to remove them early, before they become established and overwhelm the area. Removal methods vary by species, but most can be eliminated by uprooting or smothering with a weighted tarp or cardboard. Upon removing an invasive species, plant a native species in its place to keep more invasives from filling the vacant space. 

  1. Embrace the Mess:

    Though it may be tempting to neaten up your garden, nature thrives on messiness.

During the growing, flowering, and seeding season (typically April through October for most species), refrain from mowing your property. This allows grasses and wildflowers to flourish. Consider keeping dead trees, branches, and leaf litter intact whenever possible. These elements provide ideal habitats for a wide range of wildlife species; such as overwintering leaf-cutter bees in plant stems, and woodpeckers within the cavities of deceased trees.

  1. Ditch the Chemicals:

Many common herbicides can harm pollinators both by direct exposure or by eliminating crucial food sources, such as clover. For tackling plants such as poison oak and ivy, consider selectively uprooting the plants or cutting them at the base to starve their root systems.
Rather than fogging for mosquitoes or spraying for other pests, try planting an herb garden! Herbs like garlic, citronella, basil, rosemary, and catnip, repel mosquitoes and – upon flowering – attract pollinators, creating a win-win for both wildlife flourishing and human comfort.

  1. Certify Your Backyard:

In conjunction with the National Wildlife Federation, NCWF offers a Certified Wildlife Habitat program, allowing private landowners the chance to designate their own yards as a safe place for wildlife of all kinds. NC has the 4th highest number of Certified Wildlife Habitats of all time compared with the other states, and you can help lead the charge!

Creating a Certified Wildlife Habitat simply means providing the four key elements wildlife need in order to survive: food, water, cover, and places to raise young. Join other conservation-minded private landowners by certifying your yard, balcony container garden, schoolyard, work landscape or roadside greenspace into a Certified Wildlife Habitat.


Written by:

Bates Whitaker, Communications & Marketing Manager


– Written by Bates Whitaker, NCWF Communications & Marketing Manager

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