Certified Wildlife Habitat 35038

Pat's Garden
On April 7, 2003, my garden became garden #35038 to become a Certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. Now there are over 100,000 certified wildlife habitat gardens, with more being added every day.

What does Certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat Mean?

For the purposes of the National Wildlife Federation, these were the key elements in a backyard wildlife habitat when my garden was certified:

  • Food
  • Water
  • Shelter
  • Safe places to raise young

It used to be that you could install several birdfeeders, put in a birdbath, and slap up some nest boxes and call your “habitat” done. Your garden could be certified on the basis of that alone.

It also used to be that having a “certified wildlife habitat” sign hanging in your garden was a type of status symbol for some gardeners. They had the sign, so they did not have to do anything else.

Disappointment and Disillusionment

It has been my strong feeling since going through the process of certification that there had to be more:

  • What did the birds eat if we weren’t there to fill the feeders?
  • How could we recreate or mimic elements of natural ecosystems in our gardens that would provide for the needs of not just birds but butterflies, pollinators, amphibians and other wildlife as well?
  • Could we make better choices to benefit wildlife by reducing our use of fossil fuels, pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers?
  • How could we responsibly manage stormwater and garden waste?
  • What if we created welcoming habitats for wildlife on our whole properties, not just the backyard?

It has been my mission for almost 20 years to answer those deeper questions and to share those answers with you, whether as a garden consultant or here on these pages. Answering these questions and more is what led me to the concept of Ecosystem Gardening.

Because I was working so hard to provide better information for homeowners to make more responsible choices for wildlife in all aspects of property management, I became disillusioned and disappointed in the National Wildlife Federation’s approach. It seemed they were providing very minimal, basic information for wildlife gardening, while using the status of “the sign” merely as a fundraiser for their other projects.

This disappointment was so profound that I have not even looked closely at their website for several years. I felt that they were doing a large disservice to the many people who were looking to them to provide good information, by focusing solely on the acquisition of the sign for their fundraising purposes.

The New Certified Wildlife Habitat Program at NWF

In the past several weeks I’ve been looking again at the information included at the National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program.

I have to say, I am liking what I see!

Here are the new elements of a wildlife habitat garden:

  • Provide food for wildlife–Everyone needs to eat! Planting native forbs, shrubs and trees is the easiest way to provide the foliage, nectar, pollen, berries, seeds and nuts that many species of wildlife require to survive and thrive. You can also incorporate supplemental feeders and food sources.
  • Provide water for wildlife–Wildlife need clean water sources for many purposes, including drinking, bathing and reproduction. Water sources may include natural features such as ponds, lakes, rivers, springs, oceans and wetlands; or human-made features such as bird baths, puddling areas for butterflies, installed ponds or rain gardens.
  • Create cover for wildlife–Wildlife require places to hide in order to feel safe from people, predators and inclement weather. Use things like native vegetation, shrubs, thickets and brush piles or even dead trees.
  • Give wildlife a place to raise their young–Wildlife need a sheltered place to raise their offspring. Many places for cover can double as locations where wildlife can raise young, from wildflower meadows and bushes where many butterflies and moths lay their eggs, or caves where bats roost and form colonies.
  • Let your garden go green–How you maintain your garden or landscape can have an important effect on the health of the soil, air, water and habitat for native wildlife–as well as the human community nearby. Reducing chemical use, composting, mulching and reducing turf grass in your yard are important steps to gardening greener.
  • All of this information and more can be found at the Create a Certified Wildlife Habitat page.

There’s a wealth of wonderful information to check out there. Make sure to spend some time perusing all of the pages. Here’s a great place to start: Gardeners Pick Their “Gold Medal” Favorites.

Finally, many thanks to Kelly Senser (@klsnature) for convincing me to come back! It would not have happened without your efforts.

© 2010, Carole Sevilla Brown. All rights reserved. This article is the property of EcosystemGardening.com If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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  1. says

    With great minds like yours — my guess is we’ll be able to keep growing and improving the program! Thanks for your support!

    • Carole Brown says

      Thanks, Danielle! Ya’ll are doing wonderful things lately, and that is such a pleasure to see.

  2. says

    I know my whole property could be certified, but I have never gone through the process. I am lucky that I have 60 acres of woodland and overgrown meadow, Thanks for the info on how to do this.

    • Carole Brown says

      60 Acres! Wow. I am having some envy. But having read through your blog on a regular basis, I just have to say how beautiful your place is.

  3. says

    Hi Carole, I only certified mine a little over a year ago, but have been gardening for wildlife forever. This was a great post, and I think that coming from you the Ceritifed Wildlife Habitat program will see even more interest. Kelly, yourself, and others like you can make a huge difference in getting the word out to people with yards everywhere.


    P.S. I was so honored to be included in the group of gardeners picking their gold medal favorites. You have choices for yours.
    .-= Kathy Green´s last blog ..Gardening on Small Budget sometimes misses Big Picture =-.

    • Carole Brown says

      Kathy, I am so honored to be in such great company in that Gold Medal Plants post. It’s a great piece by some writers I have the utmost respect for, you included!

  4. says

    Interesting — I shared your disillusionment after getting certified several years ago. A birdfeeder and a tree do not make a wildlife “habitat” in my opinion. Will have to check out their new website.

    I also became concerned over all the mail, solicitations, and general crap (notecards, etc) we got from NWF after we got certified. Seemed like an awful lot of useless paper coming from an “environmental” organization, and I told them so. I’d be curious to hear if that aspect of the program has changed as well — I’ve asked to be entirely off their mailing list until I hear otherwise, and try to keep up with the good work their doing in other ways.
    .-= Elizabeth @ the Natural Capital´s last blog ..New & Improved Natural Capital: Thanks for Your Feedback! =-.

    • Carole Brown says

      Elizabeth, it’s kind of strange how an organization with such a great mission seemed to have lost their way in past years as they became more and more about corporate fundraising. I am very hopeful that the “new NWF” is returning to the mission and finding new ways to fundraise without filling mailboxes across the country with junk that simply ends up in landfills. They have a great opportunity to be a role model for walking their talk. I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

  5. says

    Thank you for the kind words you expressed in your blog post, Carole. I’m glad I convinced you to give NWF a fresh look!

    While the elements of certification are not new (with regards to native plants, etc.), I know they have not always been well communicated by all parties at the Federation. I’m sorry for the disappointment you, Elizabeth, and others have felt. I’m also grateful for your honesty.

    I’ve experienced many joys because of the habitat gardens I’ve helped to create (in my yard and at my children’s school). More species to marvel at, outdoor adventures to share with loved ones, and laughter to warm the soul… Nature invigorates, and it’s nice to swap stories with you and other members of the wildlife gardening community.


  6. Michelle R. says

    Hi, I stumbled across this and it’s giving me the frowns. I mean, a case of the sads.

    Back when I worked with abused animals I learned that it’s not helpful, and quite harmful, to expect people to care as much as those who are most passionate about a cause or hobby. It leaves out and discourages a whole lot of people — and it’s the animals who suffer.

    Sure, it would be swell if everyone was committed to going all out in creating a habitat. I’d love it, you’d love it, we know the critters would love it. There are people who can’t afford it or simply do not give it a high priority. Let them stick out the bird bath and the millet and maybe they have a moment with their kids, watching the birds, trying to figuring out what they are, and they do more — or it sticks in the kid’s head and, here comes the pun, a seed is planted.

    And maybe they get the yard certified and people see the sign and they decide to join in. I do more than the minimum, but I feel good when the mail lady mentions how much she loves our yard or people mention the rain barrels — if people do something, anything, that’s a start and it helps.

    I think leading by example is so important, but giving people the feeling that their efforts pale in comparison to yours doesn’t help the greater good. This is something that most people CAN do, as long as they aren’t demeaned by folks who are blessed with better resources.

    Elizabeth, I share your pique at all the mailings.

    • Carole Brown says

      Michelle, I’m working very hard to try to encourage people to take just one step. I do not mean to be demeaning to anyone at all and am thrilled when someone adds just one element to benefit wildlife to their gardens.

      And yes, in this one post I shared my personal experience with an organization with whom I have in the past had a certain amount of disappointment. I think NWF does some great work, but sometimes wish they would go deeper because they have the platform and audience to be able to do that. That is not at all to say that anyone’s efforts pale in comparison to anyone else’s.

      I am thrilled that you are working to set an example!

  7. Michelle R. says


    I appreciate your point that NWF has an opportunity and it would be a shame to fritter that away.

    I like the idea of there being a tiered program, which would be on the honor system. People can be certified at the basic level, and given suggestions on how to upgrade to the next level.

    My husband and I make a real effort and plan annual projects to improve our modest sized yard — as well as judicious planting at our rental property. I know that other people don’t have the means, time, or interest to do what we do. I also know to some, we’re probably not doing enough.

    I was recently at this seminar for solar panels and a True Believer proceeded to lecture others about how people can’t afford not to do it. As if everyone can reach into their wallet and pull out 30 grand. :) But everyone can turn out lights and switch to the “good” light bulbs.

    I think the goal is to encourage people to do better within their means and to let others see us enjoying the outdoors and what we’ve created in a smaller space. (Although, if the snake from last year doesn’t return to our pond, but the frogs do, I can’t say I’ll mind.)


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