Tree Planting for Wildlife Habitats

Planting trees to create or enhance wildlife habitats is an extremely rewarding endeavor for any landowner. As our natural habitats diminish due to development and other human activities, supplementing food, shelter, and nesting sites for wildlife through thoughtful tree planting becomes increasingly important.

Why Plant Trees for Wildlife Habitats

Creating the right habitat enables many species to thrive that would otherwise struggle in the area. Food, shelter, nesting sites, and other resources provided by trees you plant may determine whether or not various animals can survive and reproduce in the vicinity.

Specific types of trees can attract specific wildlife suited to the resources that tree provides. For example, oaks with their acorns are excellent for attracting squirrels, turkeys, deer, and other animals that consume nuts. Evergreen trees provide year-round shelter and food sources. Trees with fruits or berries will bring in different birds than nut-bearing trees.

By planting a diverse mix of tree species, you can create an vibrant habitat for many types of wildlife. Understanding the needs of specific animals you hope to attract is key to choosing the right trees.

Getting Started with Tree Planting

Choosing a Site

When selecting an area to plant trees for wildlife habitats, consider the following factors:

  1. Sunlight: Most trees require at least 4-6 hours of direct sunlight per day. Assess sunlight patterns on your land to identify suitable spots.
  2. Soil: Test the soil to understand pH level and modify if needed. Ensure the soil is deep enough for ample root development.
  3. Moisture: Ensure the site has adequate moisture through natural rainfall, runoff, or access to the water table. Supplemental irrigation may be needed in drought-prone regions.
  4. Space: Leave enough space between trees for them to grow to maturity. Density and spacing depend on mature height and crown spread.
  5. Native Species: Prioritize native trees as they are best adapted to the local climate and soil. They also provide the most appropriate habitats and food sources.
  6. Existing Vegetation: Assess current plant growth on-site and remove competitive grasses and weeds if needed.
  7. Accessibility: Consider proximity to a water source and ease of access for planting and maintenance.

Choosing Tree Species

Selecting the right tree species to plant is the most critical decision. Consider the following when deciding:

  1. Mature Size: Choose trees that will fit the available space when fully grown.
  2. Soil and Sunlight Needs: Match species to site conditions for healthy growth.
  3. Native vs. Non-Native: Prioritize natives, but non-invasive imported species can also provide good habitats.
  4. Food Source: Nut trees, fruit trees, sap flows, etc., provide food for specific wildlife.
  5. Shelter: Conifers and dense deciduous species create shelter and nesting sites.
  6. Wildlife Goals: Determine target wildlife and choose trees that meet their needs.
  7. Diversity: Plant a mix of species to attract a wider range of animals.

Some excellent trees for wildlife include:

  • Oaks: Acorns feed a wide variety of birds and mammals. Provide shelter and nesting sites.
  • Maples: Seeds and flowers support birds. Cavities provide nests. Fall foliage color.
  • Crabapples: Fruits feed many bird varieties from waxwings to robins. Lovely spring blossoms.
  • Dogwoods: Fruits and seeds eaten by many species. Provide shelter and nesting sites. Stunning flowers.
  • Douglas Fir: Cones provide food for finches, squirrels, etc. Excellent nesting sites. Shelter.
  • Birch: Catkins and seeds eaten by birds and small mammals. Beautiful bark. Larval host to butterflies.
  • Serviceberry: Fruits highly valued by many birds. Lovely spring blooms. Fantastic fall color.
  • Hickory: Nuts feed squirrels, chipmunks, turkeys, deer, and mice. Provide shelter. Distinctive leaves.
  • Blueberry: Berries provide essential food for bears, rabbits, deer, and over 100 bird species. Multi-season interest.

Preparing the Site

To ensure successful tree planting, proper site preparation is crucial. Follow these steps:

  1. Soil testing: Send soil samples for analysis to understand pH levels, identify necessary amendments, and determine if fertilizer is required.
  2. Weed removal: Clear the planting area of competitive grasses, vines, and weeds. This may require repeated weeding or sheet mulching to suppress weed growth.
  3. Ground cover: Lay down 3-6 inches of wood chip mulch or leaf litter in the planting areas to suppress further weed growth and conserve soil moisture.
  4. Access: Create walking paths between planting areas, if feasible, to facilitate maintenance and access for future care.
  5. Water access: Ensure a water source is readily available nearby in case supplemental irrigation is needed, especially during dry periods.
  6. Tools: Gather essential tools such as shovels, gloves, measuring tape, stakes, and ties to aid in the planting process.
  7. Surveying: Mark planting spots with stakes and outline the planting areas with string to guide hole digging and ensure proper spacing between trees.

When to Plant

Spring – Mid-spring after the last frost is an excellent planting time as the soil has thawed and moisture is plentiful to establish new roots before summer heat.

Fall – Early fall is also a prime season as soil retains summer warmth to stimulate root growth but temperatures are cooler. Time it 6+ weeks before first frost for establishment.

Avoid planting in summer due to heat stress or winter when ground freezes. Containerized or balled-and-burlapped trees give you more flexibility to plant outside typical seasons if adequately watered.

How to Plant Trees

Follow these key steps for planting trees:

  1. Dig a hole 2-3 times wider than the root ball but no deeper. Roughen sides and loosen compacted bottom soil with a fork.
  2. Carefully place tree in center of hole. Face best side outward, keeping root flare even with ground level.
  3. Backfill hole with native soil. Break up large clumps and remove stones. Do not amend soil.
  4. Water thoroughly until no air pockets remain, without compacting soil. Construct water basin if needed.
  5. Apply 2-4 inches of wood chip mulch extending 3 feet out from tree, avoiding contact with trunk.
  6. Stake tree if needed to prevent wind tipping, using wide straps to prevent bark damage.

Ongoing Care and Maintenance

Caring for newly planted trees properly ensures their long-term survival. Here are the key priorities:

  1. Watering: During the first year, water deeply every 7-10 days if rain is insufficient. Slowly wean off supplemental water over 2-3 years.
  2. Weed control: Monitor and quickly remove competitive weeds around trees. Replenish mulch as needed.
  3. Pruning: Inspect annually and prune only dead or damaged branches using proper technique. Avoid heavy pruning.
  4. Pest monitoring: Watch for signs of insects, diseases, or animals that could damage tree health. Organic treatments may be needed.
  5. Protection: Install fencing or tree guards if deer, rodents, or equipment can damage young bark and branches.
  6. Staking: Remove support staking after 1-2 years once the tree establishes anchor roots.

Creating Specialized Wildlife Habitats

Beyond basic tree planting, you can create specialized habitats to attract specific wildlife by providing supplemental resources.

Bird Habitats

To create a bird-friendly environment, consider the following:

  1. Food: Plant berry bushes, nut trees, and nectar plants that provide fruits and seeds for diverse birds. Additionally, set up bird feeders to supplement their diet.
  2. Water: Install a bird bath, small wildlife pond, or water garden to provide drinking and bathing water sources for birds.
  3. Shelter: Preserve dead standing trees, dense shrubs, and brush piles as nesting sites and shelters from weather and predators.
  4. Nest boxes: Put up nesting boxes suited to cavity nesters like bluebirds, owls, woodpeckers, and ducks. Maintain these boxes annually to ensure they remain suitable for nesting.
  5. Native plants: Provide native grasses, flowers, and foliage that birds use for nest building materials and foraging.
  6. Overwintering: Create protected microclimates using evergreens and rock piles to offer shelter from winter winds and snow. Keep feeders stocked for consistent food access during lean months.
  7. Safe zones: Use thorny or prickly plants as barriers to protect nests from predators, ensuring a safer environment for nesting birds.

Butterfly & Pollinator Habitats

To support butterflies in your garden, consider the following:

  1. Food: Plant native wildflowers, herbaceous plants, and bushes specifically chosen to feed larvae, caterpillars, and adult butterflies throughout their life stages.
  2. Water: Create areas with muddy puddles, dripping fountains, or shallow water zones where butterflies can access the minerals they need.
  3. Shelter: Preserve leaf litter and dead wood to provide shelter for butterfly chrysalises. Avoid disturbing tall grasses where pupae overwinter.
  4. Sunlight: Orient sheltering shrubs and trees to maximize sunlight exposure in feeding and roosting areas, which butterflies often prefer.
  5. Diversity: Ensure a variety of plants that bloom sequentially to provide nectar availability throughout the season. Mix flowers, herbs, shrubs, and trees to create a diverse habitat for butterflies.

Bat Habitats

To create a bat-friendly environment, follow these steps:

  1. Roosts: Install specialized bat houses suited to local species on buildings, poles, or trees, properly oriented to receive sufficient sunlight for warmth.
  2. Water: Ensure access to an open freshwater source like a pond or stream for drinking and feeding purposes.
  3. Food: Plant night-blooming flowers and white-flowering plants to attract nocturnal moth and insect prey, which are essential for bats’ diet.
  4. Access: Maintain open corridors between roosting and feeding areas, ideally along forest edges or waterways, to facilitate bats’ movement.
  5. Protection: Reduce exterior lighting that could disrupt sensitive bat feeding behaviors. Avoid using pesticides that diminish the insect prey base. Consider putting up barriers to shield roosts if needed, ensuring bats feel secure in their habitat.

Backyard Habitats

To attract a diverse range of wildlife into your backyard, consider providing the following supplemental resources:

  1. Food: Use seed feeders, suet feeders, hummingbird feeders, and plant fruit-bearing shrubs and trees. Additionally, create snags (standing dead trees) which can attract insects and provide food for birds.
  2. Water: Install a small backyard pond, birdbath fountain, or container water garden. Include areas with sand and stones for butterflies to access water.
  3. Cover: Leave areas of native plants, leaf litter, brush piles, fallen logs/branches, and rock piles to provide shelter for wildlife.
  4. Places to Raise Young: Incorporate native flowering plants, evergreens, nest boxes, dead trees, and dense shrubs to create suitable habitats for breeding and raising young.
  5. Sustainable Gardening: Employ organic gardening practices, avoid using chemicals, keep areas of land unmowed to provide habitat for ground-dwelling wildlife, compost organic waste, and retain water naturally through techniques like mulching and using rain barrels.
  6. Overwintering: Provide winter food sources such as bird feeders stocked with high-energy foods like suet and seeds. Ensure year-round shelter and roost spots by maintaining dense vegetation and leaving dead trees and branches. Consider installing heated bird baths or ponds to provide access to liquid water during cold weather, and provide nest boxes specifically designed for nocturnal species like owls with appropriate insulation for winter roosting.


What are the benefits of planting trees for wildlife?

Planting trees for wildlife provides supplemental food, breeding sites, shelter and other habitat resources that have diminished due to development. This enables diverse native species to thrive.

Should I choose native or non-native trees?

Native trees suit local wildlife best as they are adapted to climate and soil. They provide appropriate food and sites. But some imported species can also supplement habitats if selected carefully.

How many trees should I plant?

Ideally plant trees in clusters and diverse mixes based on available space and wildlife goals. Groups of 3-7 trees work well. Plant in layers using canopy trees, understory trees and shrubs for maximum benefit.

What is the best way to arrange trees for wildlife?

Use irregular spacing that mimics natural patterns, with closer and wider gaps. Orient trees to maximize sunlight access. Ensure connectivity between planted clusters to create corridors.

How often should I water newly planted trees?

During the first year, provide deep watering weekly if rain is insufficient. Slowly wean off over next 2-3 years. Mature trees typically need no supplemental water except during drought. Prioritize water for establishment phase.

What is the most important thing when creating wildlife habitats?

Providing food, shelter and breeding sites to enable full lifecycles is most vital. Understand needs of target species, mimic natural environments using native plants suitably arranged, sustain resources year-round.

How can I provide shelter for wildlife in winter?

Leave dead standing trees, brush piles, evergreens, rock piles to insulate from cold and wind. Avoid pruning shrubs late fall. Mulch garden beds. Provide roost boxes and heated bird baths. Maintain winter food sources.

What trees attract the most wildlife?

Oaks, maples, dogwoods, crabapples, douglas fir, birch, serviceberry, and hickories are excellent choices. Prioritize trees that offer nuts, seeds, fruits, berries, sap, catkins. Evergreen and dense deciduous trees also create excellent shelters and nesting sites.

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