Planting Signs in Your Natural Landscape Part One: National Wildlife Federation Program

Like many fairly new suburban neighborhoods, my neighborhood has broad stretches of lawns punctuated by landscape beds with shrubs (including those curlicue ones) and a few annual flowers surrounded by expanses of mulch or stones.  My beds are increasingly filled wall to wall with mingled native plants and flowers (as well as a few shrubs), leaving me with less and less open mulch every day.  And, as noted in the last post, I am leaving more and more browning stems and seedheads on my plants.

So, I have already signed up for two programs that provide explanatory signs for my native plants/wildlife habitat enhancing landscape.  I was going to write one blog post outlining some of the best of the sign-providing programs, but it immediately became clear that they offer very different things and that the signs are really just a small part of what you can get out of participation in each program.  So, this will be the first of a series of posts on sign programs, starting with the program of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), which has the sign I have seen most often designating a certified wildlife habitat.

NWF certification and a sign depend on your answers in five areas the organizations deems critical to providing wildlife habitat.  Before you launch right into the registration (and what I consider a rather expensive payment for your sign), you should read over the tutorials for each of the five areas.  Doing so can not only give you ideas on easy ideas for enhancing wildlife habitat, but will underscore what practices you are already taking to help wildlife.

FOOD SOURCES:  You need to be able to certify that you provide three types of food sources, not just three food sources.  The list of possible choices includes, first, food sources from things you are growing in your yard (which NWF prefers to be native plants):  seeds from a plant (see my last post, for ideas), berries, nectar, leaves or twigs, nuts, fruits, sap, and pollen.  Providing insects for consumption by birds or by other insects is mentioned several times, although not specifically on the tutorial’s primary list.  Other acceptable types of food sources are bird feeders, squirrel feeders, hummingbird feeders and butterfly feeders.  While the website describes the last four as “supplemental,” and indicates that such food sources can be particularly helpful in the winter, there is no apparent requirement that any of your food source types must be the plant derived ones.  See

WATER SOURCES:  You need at least one water source on or adjacent to your property.  I was thinking of my little birdbath as I made this certification.  It is true that you can create a birdbath quickly using a shallow dish of water, but a look at the NWF page specifically on birdbaths will help you understand that you can’t just put anything out and be finished.  You need to add a layer of stones for small birds to stand on when in the bath if the birdbath is too deep.  During winter your birdbath may freeze, making it useless—see for all sorts of considerations that go with a bird bath.


Acceptable water sources need not be right on your property—bodies of water such as rivers or bays visible from your property can be used for certification purposes.  NWF especially encourages people with larger properties to consider putting in a rain garden or backyard marsh, and provides special pages to help you with either of those.  See for more information, and links to descriptions of specific water sources.

SOURCES OF COVER:  Did you grow up with the image of birds sheltering each night in a nest, as I did?  Imagine my shock to learn—rather recently—that birds only build and use nests while they are laying eggs and raising young.  The rest of the year, many birds just hang out, day or night, in a place that provides cover.  They apparently don’t necessarily have settled “homes” like humans do, and may not even hang out with the birds that they share offspring with.

Other animals may use “homes” such as burrows or holes in trees for more of the year, but perhaps the chief sheltering need animals have, aside from raising young, is for cover–places to hide from predators, and places to shelter from weather.


NWF requires a certified wildlife habitat to have at least two sources of cover, with acceptable options including wooded areas, bramble patches, ground cover, rock piles/walls, caves, roosting boxes, dense shrubs/thickets, evergreens, brush/log piles, burrow, meadows/prairies, water gardens/ponds and even dead trees with tree cavities.  Cover is an area where a little reading can go a long way in opening up your understanding of the natural world.  See, and the several links included there.

PLACES TO RAISE YOUNG:  So now that we’ve established that birds only hang out in nests when they are laying eggs and raising young, we can consider the NWF certification category for places to raise young, which recognizes the fact that animals cannot survive long term if they cannot successfully raise a next generation of their own kind.  Raising young, as with cover, requires shelter; options you can offer to wildlife for NWF certification include mature trees, meadow or prairie, nesting box, wetlands, caves, host plant for caterpillars, dead trees or snags, dense shrubs or a thicket, water gardens/ponds, and burrows.


Actually, the main write up on this aspect of wildlife habitat, found at, notes that animals may not simply have baby needs and adult needs for shelter/cover, but varying needs at different stages of their lives—think human teenage or young adulthood needs.

SUSTAINABLE PRACTICES:  The last NWF requirement is that you be using two sustainable practices.  This is the one where reading the tutorial at, and clicking on links there is most useful.  The listed areas of sustainable practices are soil and water conservation, controlling exotic species, and organic practices (including eliminating chemical pesticides and composting).  Each of these areas has several sub-options.  You are probably already doing two things—however, reading the tutorial can suggest even more.