Restoring wetlands and how to get started

Restoring Wetlands – How to Get Started on Your Land

Wetlands are home to all sorts of beneficial critters like frogs, salamanders and dragonflies. They also filter and clean water. But many wetlands aren’t in good shape. If you’ve got a wet area on your land there are some simple steps you can take to restore it. Restoring wetlands will bring all sorts of life to your land. Let’s dive into how you can get started on your property.

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Do you have a low area on your land where water pools up during the wet seasons? Often these areas are looked at negatively—they’re hard to move through, a pain to grow traditional food plants in, and not the best areas for livestock.

But these wet areas are fantastic for wildlife. And remember, when you bring wildlife to your land your more likely to achieve a healthy balance of pests and the beneficial critters that eat them.

These wet areas can become wetlands that will be filled with beneficial wildlife.

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Restoring wetlands on your property involves following a few simple steps:

  1. Increasing native plant diversity.
  2. Keeping more water in the wet area and adding complexity.
  3. Adding habitat features.

Even a small wet area, like where your rain gutter downspout empties, can be turned into a mini-wetland for the benefit of wildlife.

And if you don’t have a wet area keep reading because the last section of this post has some tips for how you can create an artificial wetland to bring wildlife to your property.

Wild Tip

The methods outlined here are meant for restoring degraded wet areas into wetlands, not for modifying an existing, healthy wetland. Healthy wetlands should mostly be left alone. Though sometimes they can be improved by adding habitat features.

One group of beneficial critters that will love your restored wetlands are birds! If you want birds on your property, you will need to give them a source of water. Restoring wetlands is a great way to do this. But birds also need cover and food. To learn more about how to attract birds,  make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet all about attracting birds to your garden.

Restore Wetlands by Increasing Native Plant Diversity

Restore wetlands by adding native plants

When I started out, this wetland was just a mix of old pasture grass and creeping buttercups with some blackberries mixed in. Over time, I’ve been getting willows established and promoting rushes, sedges, and other native wetland plants.

If you’re restoring wetlands for wildlife, you will want to prioritize native plants. The reason is that these plants have evolved with the wildlife that live in your area.

They rely on each other, and you will support the greatest abundance of wildlife with native plants. Here are some blog posts you can check out to learn more about native plants and why they’re important for wildlife.

Native Plant Series

The following is a series of blog posts all about native plants, their importance and how to get started with them on your own property.

Chances are, your wet area won’t have many native plants in it. Most likely, you will have a mix of non-native grasses.

If you’re living in western Washington, like me, you’ll likely have blackberries and creeping buttercup in seasonally wet areas, in addition to the grasses.

So what’s the best way to make room for native plants? There are 2 techniques that work well.

  1. Use sheet-mulching to open up the area.
  2. Dig out (grub) the non-native plants.

Sheet-mulching works great if all you got to work with are non-native grasses and plants like creeping buttercups.

Sometimes you can even get away with just straight mulching using fall leaves or woodchips.

If you’re dealing with non-native woody plants like blackberries, you can just grub those out. But mulching is better for opening up larger areas.

Once you’ve got the areas cleared, you can then start adding native plants. And some may even show up on their own. Cattails, sedges and rushes often show up on their own once there is space for them.

But you can also plant native plants yourself. One easy way is to use a technique called live staking which works great for plants like willows.

This has the added advantage of quickly creating shade over the existing plants. The shade will make the existing plants grow slower, which will make it easier to establish more native plants.

The key is to increase the overall diversity of native plants—you don’t have to eliminate all non-native plants.

As you add more native plants, you will start to notice more birds, insects and other wildlife moving into the area.

Keep More Water in the Wetland

Adding complexity is a great method for restoring wetlands

There used to be just a single straight stream flowing through this part of my land. Now there are 2 curvy streams with a mix of pools and regular stream channels.

But one of the best ways to increase the diversity of native plants and attract more wildlife is to keep more water in the wet area.

Keeping more water in wet areas is key to restoring wetlands.

The extra water will shift the balance to wetland plants and attract more wildlife.

This can be done through 3 methods:

  1. Slowing down moving water.
  2. Adding pools or ponds.
  3. Mulching the area.

If you’ve got a wet area like mine, where water flows straight through it, then the best way to restore it is to slow that moving water down.

This can be done by putting “stuff” in the way. That “stuff” can be rocks, logs, plants and soil. Anything that gets in the way of the water and slows it down.

You’re basically making a speed bump for the water.

Just make sure that the material is large enough not to be washed away during any high flows. And this shouldn’t be done in year-round flowing water.

If you use rocks, logs, or soil, make sure to strengthen it by adding plants to help hold it all in place. Live stakes can be installed in or just behind these features.

Another option for restoring wetlands in areas with flowing water or just ponding water is to dig out pools or ponds. This will increase how much water can be held in the wet area and improve the habitat.

Wild Tip: Meander a stream with small pools and mounds

Meandering a stream (guiding it side to side instead of straight through) is a wonderful way to slow down water, and you can do it with very small pools and mounds. When you dig out the pools, pile the dirt in front in a way that partially blocks the flow of water.


You want to guide the water first to the left, then to the right, allowing the stream to meander back and forth in a zig-zag pattern.


I did this with several very small pools to slow the flow of water heading into an earthen dam, and it’s amazing how much water even these simple pools have held back. Even small steps like these can help slow down water and restore a wetland.

Make sure the edges of your pools or ponds are gently sloped and not straight up and down. This will make it easier for frogs, salamanders and other wildlife to use the pools or ponds.

And regardless of which method you use, another good option is to mulch the area. This will keep the soils moist longer into the summer. Plus, the mulch provides moist habitat for frogs and salamanders to hide in.

This is especially a good idea for low, wet areas with no flowing water leaving it.

But don’t forget that regardless of which methods you use to keep more water, (all 3 can be used in the same area,) make sure to add native plants, too.

Restore Wetlands with Habitat Features

Restore wetlands with habitat features

These logs provide abundant habitat for wildlife while also slowing water flow and creating more pools.

One thing your wet area is likely lacking are habitat features—things like log piles, snags, rock piles, etc.

These features are important for providing area for wildlife to take shelter in. Small wildlife like frogs and salamanders will hide in these—especially during the summer months.

The main thing you will want to do is to create a diverse mix of habitat types. A snag or 2, a couple log piles, and a rock pile. Each of these will support different types of wildlife.

Larger habitat features will support more wildlife than small ones, but even a single log or a small rock pile will provide important habitat.

When placing your habitat features, add some around the edges of the wet area, but also make sure to place some directly in the wettest spots.

Rocks and logs that are placed around the wet area will provide sunning areas for lizards, snakes and turtles to warm up. And logs and rocks in the wettest areas will provide underwater habitat for aquatic insects and other wildlife.

The mix of types is what’s most important.

Plus, you can place these habitat features so they will also slow any moving water down.

These features are a critical part of restoring wetlands. Without them, frogs and other wildlife will have limited areas to take shelter, and they probably won’t stick around.

What if You Don’t Have a Wetland?

Restoring wetlands is a great way to attract wildlife to your property. Birds, frogs, salamanders, and many others will use these areas.

All these critters will also help keep any garden pests you’ve got in balance by creating a healthy ecosystem.

But what do you do if you don’t have a wet area?

There are several ways to create artificial wetlands if you don’t have a wet area. These can range from small rain gardens to small backyard wildlife ponds.

Even a mini-pond using a small container can be used to provide wildlife habitat. Here are some links to help get you started:

When you create an artificial wetland or restore wetlands on your property, you will be providing critical habitat for wildlife. You will be amazed by how much wildlife will show up once there is water for them.

From the peaceful sound of moving water to the beauty of sunlight reflecting off the surface, to the dragonflies darting around your pond, there is something very special about having water on your property.

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Daron

Daron is a restoration ecologist, a lifelong gardener, and the founder of Wild Homesteading. He manages the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he applies restoration and sustainable gardening techniques on his family’s own wild homestead. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children. In addition, to running this site Daron manages the restoration program for a local non-profit and is a husband to an amazing wife who makes this site and the homestead possible and daddy to 2 perfect kids.

  • Marsha Brower says:

    Hi Daron,
    That’s a great blog! I live in the high dessert region on the Palmer Divide in CO. I don’t want to install a pond, because I don’t want to encourage the deer to come and drink and eat more of my food! I cannot fence the area. I would like to make a location where the water collects, but in the earth. Can I do a bog site like in the video alone? Are there any specific dos & don’ts? I do have a down spout close to the garden that I can direct that way, even burying a conduit to get it where I need it to go. The garden is down the hill at about a 35-45º angle.

    • Daron says:

      Thank you! Yup, you can do a bog area as a stand alone area. Rain gardens may also be a good option for you. Often these are just depressions where water can collect but the soil isn’t compacted so it soaks in quickly. But an artificial bog can support a lot of great plants and can be a great option. If you go the bog option I would be careful to make sure you know where the water will go if it fills up and overflows. Otherwise just make sure you pick plants that like to be in saturated and acidic soils. Good luck!

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