227-The Humane Gardener-How to Nurture a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife

| Care, Podcast

We gardeners, whether we grow ornamentals or vegetables, often run into conflict with wildlife that wants to eat what we grow. To share methods that we can employ to overcome critter issues in a humane way, my guest this week is Nancy Lawson, the founder of The Humane Gardener as we discuss how to nurture a backyard habitat for wildlife.

Nancy blogs at and her book is “The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife.” She previously worked in animal protection for the Humane Society of the United States, and it was during that time that she became interested in gardening and native plants. She continues to write a column on ways we can be friendlier stewards of land for the Humane Society’s magazine, All Animals. 


Nancy Lawson

Nancy Lawson is the founder of The Humane Gardener. She writes on how gardeners can reduce conflict with wildlife. (Photo Credit: Ken Koons)


Nancy says a humane gardener is someone who goes beyond just trying to attract butterflies or certain birds. A humane gardener realizes that all the animals in the ecosystem are playing a role. Those animals could be predator, prey, pollinators, or dispersers of seed and fungi. And those animals have been here long before civilization. “It’s important to think about the fact that it’s the only home they have,” Nancy says. When we move into their space — as small as two acres for a box turtle — we should respect their space and their home.”

Bridging Native Plant People & Animal People

Nancy says she noticed that animal protection people were interested in protecting wildlife from afar, but not really interested in protecting the wildlife in their own backyards. Meanwhile, native plant people were into their plants and caterpillars but not thinking about wildlife more broadly. Nancy says she created The Humane Gardener to bridge that gap and bring people together. 

In addition to providing food for caterpillars — which, in turn, are food for baby birds — native plants provide foliage and berries for mammals and other wildlife. For example, Virginia creeper provides food for the Virginia creeper sphinx moth as well as food for rabbits, which eat the leaves, and birds, which eat the berries. 

Pokeweed is a native plant that is often thought of as a weed, but Nancy points out that it provides food for deer in spring and fall and is an incredible berry source for migrating birds along the eastern corridor. American burnweed is another native that even native plant enthusiasts often have no love for. Nancy says if both pokeweed and burnweed are left alone and allowed to grow, gardeners will see just how much wildlife they feed.

Because of Nancy’s book, I have decided to allow some pokeweed to grow on my property to feed bluebirds. Nancy notes that pokeweed will spread out and take over if grown in a constantly disturbed area, such as a vegetable garden, but if grown among other native plants, its spread will be limited.


Pokeweed tree

Pokeweed is a native plant that is often thought of as a weed, but Nancy points out that it provides food for deer in spring and fall and is an incredible berry source for migrating birds.
(Photo Credit: Nancy Lawson)


Human Geese Control Through Plantings

In 1999, when she was writing an article on humane goose control, Nancy  realized that turf will ceaselessly create conflict between people and animals. Because grass at pondfront properties is often mowed right up to the shoreline, lawns create a very inviting environment for geese, Nancy says. The geese like to have an unobstructed sightline into the water while they are molting, which allows them to fly off quickly to escape from predators. But landscape designers, after some experimenting, realized they could deter geese by planting a native plant buffer of tall grasses and flowers.

Living Out Native Plants Dreams

When Nancy moved from an apartment with a balcony full of potted plants to a 2-acre property, she could live out her gardening and landscaping dreams. Still, she had work ahead of her: The property was mostly covered in grass, Bradford pears, burning bush and other invasives that the previous owner had planted. “I thought it was just such a waste of space,” she recalls.

She began to plant perennials from seed, including butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and eventually saw her first monarch butterfly caterpillar feeding on that plant. This is important because the monarch butterfly population has dropped dramatically in the past 20 years by 90%, and needs our support. Likewise, the bird population in North American has declined by nearly 3 billion since 1970. It can’t be stressed enough that plant choices matter to the ecosystem.

She visited a native plant nursery in Maryland in 2004, took a tour, and bought a woodland sunflower. Her interest grew from there. Gradually, she allowed more and more of her property to become woodland. It started when she allowed sassafras to take over her vegetable garden. She knew she could garden in another area while the native sassafras trees thrived in that original location. As she continued to watch and observe, she noticed all of the native plants that birds and squirrels planted, and she let those plants grow. Even deer spread native plants’ seeds on their fur.

Nancy rejects the attitude that any plant is “evil,” including invasive plants. She finds that attitude corrosive. A plant that is invasive where she lives is native someplace else, where it likely serves an important ecological function. However, she does not want invasives in her landscape because they crowd out other plants and are not as useful to wildlife as natives are.


Patio garden

Once all turfgrass, the patio garden and mini woodland above provide habitat for both humans and wildlife. Rabbits nest among the golden ragwort, newborn fawns hide behind the ferns, and chipmunks snack on snails and nuts atop the moss covered retaining wall.
(Photo credit: Nancy Lawson)


Let Them Eat Plants

For the first time in my gardening life, I recently encountered a groundhog. It came into my garden and mowed down bean and edamame plants. I have no intention of trapping or killing the groundhog, so I thought of another solution.  Outside of my garden, on the path the groundhog appears to be coming from, I planted a buffet of plants that groundhogs prefer to eat. There, he can munch away.

Nancy points out that groundhogs are good climbers but will be deterred by a wobbly fence. She adds that they also love certain native plants, including fleabane and sumac.


Rabbits in ragwor.

Plants enough to share with rabbits, or plant a buffet of plants that they prefer to eat over what’s growing in your garden.
(Photo Credit: Nancy Lawson)


Be Mindful of Turtles

Once a year, I mow down a weedy area of my property, but before I proceed with the mower, my daughter walks ahead of me with a stick and scouts for turtles. We have found a number of turtles by patrolling this way, which likely saved their lives.

Similarly, Nancy and her husband have found baby turtles before while weedwhacking. One trick Nancy employs is to start her mower and let it run for a minute before she begins mowing. Many animals will hear this sound and know to get out of there.

If you do find a turtle on your property or crossing the road, don’t relocate it. You can help it cross the street, but you should not take it someplace that you think is safer. Turtles removed from their territory and brought someplace unfamiliar become disoriented. They may stop eating and die.


Box Turtle

Animals find habitat everywhere, so it’s important to check for their presence before mowing, trimming or otherwise disturbing an area. Nancy says that many times when weeding stiltgrass she had found wood frogs, pickerel frogs, American toads and turtles, some of them quite small.
(Photo Credit: Nancy Lawson)


Install Window Well Covers

Houses with basement windows often have window wells, which lower the grade of the property just outside each window. These wells can be cavernous drops for animals — anything from snakes to baby raccoons — that fall in and can’t get back out. Nancy recommends a simple solution: window well covers.

Window well covers are generally made out of clear plastic. They are designed to let in light in while keeping rain and snow out — and they also keep animals from falling in. Another solution Nancy recommends is to provide a plank a window well that will act as a ramp an animal can use to get out.


Green frog

Frogs, rabbits, baby raccoons, snakes — all sorts of wildlife can become trapped in window wells. (Photo Credit: Nancy Lawson)


Escape Routes in Water

Pools and artificial ponds can be very dangerous for wildlife. They tend to have vertical sides that animals cannot climb up. When crafting a pond, design sloping sides. If using a prefabricated pond, put ramps in or rocks along the side so critters can get out.

In a pool, you can install a FrogLog. This is a ramp that floats on the water’s surface and has a ramp out of the pool. Frogs, salamanders, ducklings, turtles and more critters can use the FrogLog as a means of escape.


American toad

Water features with vertical walls can be a death trap for wildlife. Ponds should have sloping sides, but if you have a pond made from a prefab shell, you can create escape routes by adding a series of stepping stones or rocks and placing branches where animals can crawl and hop out. Ramp devices like the Frog Log created by a wildlife biologist have saved the lives of many amphibians, insects and other small animals.
(Photo credit: Will Heinz)


Choose Better Birdnetting

Birdnetting and other fencing can wreak havoc for wildlife. Nancy says because birdnetting is so flexible, birds and snakes often get caught in it. The best option is to use no fencing at all. You could do what I do and plant more of a crop than you plan to eat, so there is enough to share with wildlife. Another option is to choose a stiffer barrier. Animals are far less likely to get caught in rigid fencing.


Catbird in pokeweed

Flexible birdnetting can result in birds getting stuck in it. Choose a rigid option if you must use birdnetting.


Refrain from Tree Trimming During Nesting Season

Mother squirrels, if they survive a tree trimming, may not be able to find their young afterward. Nancy shares a story of a biologist who heard baby squirrels in distress after a tree was taken down on a neighbor’s property. The biologist amplified the babies’ cries so their mother could locate them. Sure enough, the mother arrived and relocated her offspring to another nesting site.

If you plan on trimming a tree yourself or hiring a company, schedule the work some time other than nesting season. Squirrels and birds will thank you.

Leave Snags

Dead trees provide habitat for birds and other wildlife. For instance, many owls prefer to nest in tree cavities. A dead or dying tree that’s still standing but missing many branches or its top is known as a snag. Snags are naturally occurring in forests but you can also create a snag on your property by leaving the trunk of a tree standing after removing dead branches that pose a safety hazard. 

Don’t Be Too Quick to Rescue Young Animals

People who love animals want to intervene when they find a young animal in distress, but intervening is not always the best thing. For instance, a mother deer may leave a fawn unattended for hours and come back only at feeding time. Animal rescue centers field many calls about fawns that appear abandoned, and those rescuers will tell callers to monitor the fawn but leave it alone. The mother, in all likelihood, will return at dawn or dusk. 

Baby birds can also seem abandoned when really they are fledgling and learning to fly. If a baby bird on the ground has feathers, chances are its parents are nearby. But a grounded baby bird with no feathers may have actually fallen from a nest and be in need of a hand. 


fawn hiding

Just because a baby animal is alone, that doesn’t mean that it is abandoned. The parents are often nearby and will return at feeding time.
(Photo credit: Nancy Lawson)


Don’t Use Sticky Traps for Rodents

Sticky traps are non-discriminatory. A trap put out to catch a mouse can very well catch a bird too. But even when sticky traps catch their intended targets, they are inhumane, causing a slow death. Snap traps for mice, which kill quickly when used correctly, are much more humane. 

Rodenticides are also troublesome. A poison that’s put out for mice and rats will also attract squirrels. Not only that, but the owls, foxes and other predators that eat rodents can die acutely or from the cumulative effect of eating prey that’s been poisoned.

Voles, mice and chipmunks can be viewed as nuisance animals, but they spread mycorrhizal fungi in soil, Nancy points out. That fungi makes the soil food web work and helps plants grow.


chipmunk on rock

Sticky traps for rodents are cruel and often catch unintended targets, such as birds and chipmunks.
(Photo credit: Nancy Lawson)


Relocating Is Not a Good Solution

Animals have a map of where they live. They know where the food sources are and where the predators hang out. They know where there is cover is to escape under. It would be like taking a person’s wallet and dumping them in a country where they don’t speak the language. 

One study showed that 97% of squirrels that were relocated from urban and suburban environments to forests either disappeared or died within the first four weeks. 


garden view

Nancy’s front garden view.
(Photo credit: Nancy Lawson)


I hope that my conversation with Nancy Lawson gave you a greater understanding of what it is to be a humane gardener. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.

Do you practice humane gardening? Let us know in the comments below.

Links & Resources

Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.

Episode 060: How to Control Nuisance Wildlife in the Garden: Deer, Rabbits, Moles & More

Episode 072: Creating an Eco-friendly Garden & Landscape: 7 Key Tenets

Episode 073: How to Create a Resilient Garden: 10 Key Principles

Episode 119: Deer-Resistant Design: Fence-Free Solutions to Protect the Plants You Love

joegardenerTV YouTube: How to Protect Trees from Deer Rut Damage

joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Tomato expert Craig LeHoullier joins me in leading this course on how to grow healthier, productive tomato plants and how to overcome tomato-growing challenges. 

joegardenerTV YouTube

joegardener Newsletter

joegardener Facebook

joegardener Facebook Group

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Growing a Greener World®     

GGW Episode 406: Setting Up A Garden

The Humane Gardener – Nancy’s blog

 “The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife” by Nancy Lawson

The Humane Society of the United States


Milorganite® – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of

Rain Bird® – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of

Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Exmark, Greenhouse Megastore, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Wild Alaskan Seafood Box and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

0 Responses to “227-The Humane Gardener-How to Nurture a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife”

  • Ms Annie says:

    We have a 6 foot wooden fence around our property so “limited” critters get in. Those that do manage to get in have lots of choices for food that we gladly share. What a joy to see them enjoying what is available. Our fence is mainly for privacy from the two-legged critters. ????

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