Growing a Wildlife Garden
Sometimes the gardener is the director, sometimes a mere player, but for the most part a habitat gardener is a spectator expectantly awaiting the next twist or turn in nature's plot.
—Judy Adler, wildlife habitat gardener
What is your personal vision of the perfect garden? Does it come from a childhood memory? A photo spread in a gardening magazine? A botanical garden you've visited? Though our visions may differ, for decades the American landscape of lawn, trimmed shrubs, and neat flowerbeds has been the standard for most homeowners throughout the country. There is a new twenty-first-century vision of gardening afoot, however, that is quietly and steadily gaining momentum. This new paradigm views the garden as a living ecosystem rather than merely as outdoor decoration. It recognizes the intricate relationships between plants and wildlife and our changing role as steward, rather than manipulator, of these relationships. This gardening philosophy, which values individual creativity over conventional design, is often described as "natural gardening." It encompasses a variety of concepts and gardening styles that include biological diversity, ecological design, and environmentally friendly gardening methods.
Wildlife habitat gardening embraces all aspects of natural gardening with an additional emphasis on providing food, cover, and water for wildlife. Backyard gardens have become increasingly important as wildlife sanctuaries as agricultural practices, human development, and invasive plants have led to the destruction and degradation of wildlife habitat. Protected wilderness, those scattered and isolated islands of habitat, no longer are sufficient for sustaining wildlife, and the corridors that are needed for wildlife to move from one area to another are missing. "Our gardens," says entomologist and author Douglas Tallamy, "are the last chance we have for sustaining plants and animals that were once common throughout the United States." Wildlife gardens can provide the necessary food and shelter—resources that in the past were more available on undeveloped lands—that enable various wildlife species to get through all seasons, dry summers or cold winters.
There are many compelling reasons to create a wildlife garden, but "wanting to do something positive for the planet" and "personal pleasure" are among the reasons I most often hear. "We have the power as individual habitat gardeners," says Judy Adler, whose garden is profiled in this chapter, "to play a part in reversing the practices that have caused the degradation of many of the Earth's natural resources. I can't think of a more meaningful gift to the world." For most wildlife habitat gardeners the focus is on attracting birds, butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects. Songbirds, toads and frogs, honeybees and various native bee and butterfly species are the canaries in the coalmine. They have been facing population declines for decades. They are the ones most in need of backyard habitat in cities, suburbs, and rural areas too. While many wildlife gardeners choose to welcome all visiting wildlife, others draw the line at deer. Regardless of the wildlife focus, however, one thing quickly becomes clear: when you plant for one, you plant for all. A diversity of plants brings insects. The supply of insects feeds the birds, toads, frogs, lizards, and the predaceous and parasitic insects we call "beneficials." Nectar flowers bring in hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. Other food plants feed the butterfly caterpillar or provide seeds, berries, nuts, or fruits for birds, which may, in turn, eat some of the caterpillars—and other desirable insects.
Often, a bird-habitat gardener begins to notice butterflies in the garden and soon adds butterfly nectar and host plants; the butterfly gardener finds more hummingbirds in the garden and starts looking for plants attractive to hummers. Inevitably, both become fascinated by all of the creatures that show up. Wildlife habitat gardening has a wonderful tendency to escalate! By supporting these relationships among plants and wildlife, the wildlife gardener, in turn, reaps a multitude of rewards.
Food and Shelter
How do we turn our backyards—and front yards—into wildlife habitat? It's really quite easy; no special training or skills are required and it doesn't involve starting over. Except for that all-too-common American landscape of lawn and clipped shrubs that offers very little to wildlife, many garden landscapes meet at least some of the needs of birds, insects, and other creatures. But there are many ways to enhance the wildlife value of any garden. All animals—birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and insects—need shelter, foraging sites, and places to nest and breed. Overlapping, vertical layers of trees, shrubs and ground plants provide wildlife species with many different options for shelter, foraging, and nesting. Leaf litter, logs, and brush piles, even small ones, provide shelter for insects, lizards, and salamanders, and good foraging sites for birds. A dead tree, or snag, is home to cavity nesters such as woodpeckers, wrens, bluebirds, and tree swallows. Wildlife gardeners take their cues from Nature. Wilderness areas that contain the most diverse animal species also contain the most diverse plant species. Diversity is Nature's key concept.
Trees and shrubs that produce seeds, berries, fruit, or nuts feed birds; nectar flowers attract butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. Ideally, our "plant shelters" do double duty as nectar and food plants and, in some cases, do extra duty as host plants for butterfly caterpillars. Our native California lilac (Ceanothus spp.) is a good example of a multifunctional habitat plant. The clusters of early spring flowers provide nectar for pollinators, especially native bees that are just emerging; the seeds and insects this plant attracts feed many birds; and its foliage serves as a caterpillar host plant for the Spring Azure, California Tortoiseshell, and several other butterflies. Its many forms, from trees to mounding groundcover, offer shelter, nesting, and foraging sites for birds, insects, and other wildlife. Oaks are habitat heroes. They provide places to breed for owls and hawks and small cavity nesters, such as chickadees and nuthatches; their acorns feed woodpeckers, jays, and squirrels. According to the California Oak Foundation, over 300 species of wildlife (birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles) use oak woodlands for food, cover, and nesting. Over 5,000 species of insects, including seven butterfly species, are also part of this web of life. Even the mistletoe that hangs from oak branches feeds the caterpillars of the Great Purple Hairstreak and provides fruit for birds.
While cover and plants that provide food, pollen, and nectar are essential for any wildlife habitat garden, it is the geographical region that signals which food and nectar plants gardeners should choose. California, in most areas, is blessed with a Mediterranean climate: warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters, though as many Californians are well aware, winters are not always wet. Our climate is similar to the Mediterranean Basin, where the name comes from, and other regions of the world that include the southern tip of South Africa, southern and western areas of Australia, and central Chile. Plants from these regions easily adapt to California's climate, especially the less foggy areas inland from the coast. The plants best adapted to our climate and soils are the ones that have always lived here—our native plants. These are the plants that have evolved with our native wildlife species; they meet all of their nutritional needs for pollen and nectar, fruit, seeds, and nuts. Native plants attract the highest number of insects (including beneficial insects) and, for some butterfly species, they are the only caterpillar host plants. Hundreds of non-native food and nectar plants, drawn mostly from other Mediterranean climate regions, supplement this large and diverse palette of native plants that are easy to grow, without the need for fertilizers, insecticides, or regular summer water.
A California Wildlife Garden
We Californians live in a magnificent land of evergreen forests, oak woodlands, chaparral studded hillsides, bluffs, and bays—one of the most floristically diverse regions in the world. Our California native plants give Californians our most essential expression of place. They are versatile and beautiful in their own right, and they have a long and enduring relationship with our wildlife. It is not a coincidence that many native trees and shrubs bloom when the nectar of their blossoms is most needed in early spring and produce fruit and nuts when birds are the hungriest. The life cycles of many of our native wildlife have evolved in relationship to the flowering and fruiting seasons of our native plants. Insects pollinate many of the plants and birds eat the fruit and spread the seed in this mutually beneficial relationship.
The delicate bell-shaped flowers of manzanitas blooming in late winter are a critical source of nectar for Anna's Hummingbird, our year-round resident that nests as early as December. It is a time when food sources are scarce. The nectar flowers of willow, blue elderberry, coffee-berry, and many other native trees and shrubs follow in spring with berries, nuts, or seeds for birds in the fall. Native sages and wildflowers bloom from February through May followed by summer-blooming perennials offering nectar, pollen, and seeds for birds. In the fall, when most plants are fading, goldenrod, California fuchsia, and coyote bush come into bloom. In December, the red berries of the beautiful toyon, also called Christmas berry, are a favorite winter food source of robins, mockingbirds, and thrushes.
There are more than 6,000 native plants in California, some of them found nowhere else in the world. Probably only half that many are suitable for gardens, and these are finding their way into the nursery trade in greater numbers each year. While many native plants from one region of the state can be grown in another, local native plant communities are the first place to look for inspiration and potential plant choices. California's large native plant communities include forest, woodland, grassland, chaparral, coastal scrub, desert scrub, and alpine communities. Knowing which plant communities are dominant (or were historically dominant) in your area is valuable information for understanding not only which plants might naturally grow well in your garden, but also what other native plants, with similar requirements, might be well suited for your site. Native plants, however, do not always follow our designated categories—plant communities often overlap and plants from one community can sometimes be found in another.
The key to success with natives is matching their natural growing conditions to your site. While many native plants are drought tolerant, plants that grow by streams in shady forests will have different needs from chaparral plants that grow in dry, sunny, exposed sites. Plants that grow in the summer fog zone of coastal areas need more moisture than those from areas farther inland. Plants with frost intolerances that do well in southern California or mild winter areas farther north are not good choices for California microclimates that experience hard freezes. Most native plants require good drainage and benefit when planted on mounds or in raised beds. All drought-tolerant plants need water to get established; some may need occasional deep watering the first or second year, or longer. The most advantageous times to plant natives are late fall and winter. Winter rains encourage the deep roots that natives need to weather the summer drought season. Native plants should not be fertilized and heavy mulching is not necessary. Allow leaf litter to accumulate under native trees and shrubs, just as it would in natural conditions.
Perhaps one of the hardest concepts for transplanted Californians to accept is that summer is the quiet season for many native plants. Unlike the lush landscapes of the eastern half of the country where summer rains are the norm, a California garden is resting in more muted tones of russets and golds. Yes, there are native perennials—from asters, mints, and mallows to the tall evening primrose, with its large sunny flowers, and the California fuchsia, with its flaming color—that brighten the garden in summer and fall. However, the glory season for California native plants is spring. That spring, though, starts in late winter, when the eastern half of the country may still be under snow—and it extends well into summer. Later, in the fall, those same trees and shrubs, no longer in bloom, are feeding birds and other creatures with nuts, berries, seeds, and fruit. Summer is not the time to water naturally dormant plants, though some do, but to accept the quiet beauty of their natural seasonal cycles.
Mixing Natives and Ornamentals
While an all-native garden may be the ideal, a wildlife habitat garden does not have to be 100 percent native. Typically, wildlife habitat gardens contain a mix of native and compatible non-native food and nectar plants (including fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, medicinal and culinary herbs, vegetables) that bloom and set fruit in different seasons. Non-native food and nectar plants, especially those with long bloom periods, can both supplement peak bloom times of native plants and prolong spring flowering through the summer months, when bees, butterflies, and other pollinators and beneficial insects are foraging. Summer-blooming non-natives from the mint family (such as sages, lavender, calamint, catmint, lemon balm, thyme) and the sunflower family (asters, cosmos, zinnias, coreopsis, blanket flower, for example) are good sources of nectar and pollen for honeybees, other pollinators, and beneficial insects. Plants from these families (which also include many California natives) bloom over a long period; seeds from the composites provide food in the fall for finches, juncos, and other seed-eating birds. Choose single-flowered, old-fashioned plant varieties, especially composites such as sunflowers, zinnias, blanket flower, coreopsis, and marigolds. They are almost always more nectar- and pollen-rich than the over-hybridized versions, many of which are selected for ornamental traits or for growing in pots. The flowers of many medicinal and culinary herbs—chaste tree, rosemary, oregano, dill, valerian—are excellent nectar sources for all types of pollinators. Butterflies and bees flock to the flowers of strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) and the broad pinkish tops of Sedum 'Autumn Joy' and S. spectabile in late summer. Red hot poker plant, bottlebrush, flowering maple (Abutilon spp.), and fuchsias, for example, are valuable plants for the hummingbird garden.
Hundreds of non-native food and nectar plants are compatible with our climate and with California natives. Your choice depends on your site, personal preferences, and which wildlife species you are trying to attract. Grow a diversity of plants, with an emphasis on natives, that bloom at different times of the year. Massing nectar plants, especially perennials and annuals, in drifts of just one plant variety is more attractive to butterflies and bees than planting only one or two of many different species.
All Wildlife Need Water
Water, the most essential of the four basic needs, is fundamental to animals and humans alike. Bathing, too, is a delightful ritual that we share with many wildlife species and there are a myriad of drinking and bathing-station options for the wildlife gardener to consider. Birds are especially fun to watch. A birdbath is an easy way to provide a year-round source of water and is one of the great pleasures of a habitat garden. Even a saucer filled daily with fresh water will not go unnoticed. Placed on the ground, deck, or tree stump, it becomes available to birds and small mammals. With the addition of several large river stones, sand, or pebbles, a shallow saucer becomes a watering hole for butterflies and small insects, which need moisture more than water. Be cautious with the placement of birdbaths. Place them near enough to shrubs or trees to offer birds a quick escape but not close enough to provide a hiding place for cats. Domestic and feral cats are a bird's worst nightmare: annual U.S. estimates for birds killed by cats range from two to four million birds a day. A tall pedestal birdbath or a saucer held securely in a mesh harness and hung from a tree limb may be the best option if there are cats nearby.