Susan Handjian is a garden educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was a contributing editor of Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates.
By: Susan Handjian , 4:26 PM GMT on July 03, 2012
This time of year I can’t stay out of my garden. I guess I just don’t want to miss a thing that’s going on right now. Flowers swarming with native bees and other pollinators, visits by several species of butterflies, and the birds are everywhere. I look at this as my reward for keeping my garden toxin-free, a place where the needs of wildlife come first. I recall the words of a teacher from years back: when you garden naturally, you sustain the environment, sustain habitat, and in the process you sustain yourself.
It’s been quite warm recently, in the mid-70s, in my usually foggy neighborhood, and that’s when the insects are most active here. In the windy front garden, the flowers of the buckwheats, Eriogonum giganteum (St. Catherine’s Lace), Eriogonum fasciculatum (California buckwheat), and Eriogonum grande var. rubescens (red-flowered buckwheat) are covered with the most amazing array of native bees imaginable. California has over 1600 species of bees, with more than 65 of them right here in the Bay Area. Because they’re solitary creatures and have no territory to defend, they do not sting, and it’s possible to get up as close as you wish to watch their industrious extraction of nectar from the flowers.
The bees are also extraordinarily fond of Monardella villosa (coyote mint), and it’s the rather flashy and very entertaining bumblebees that dominate this plant. There are surely many more pollinator species such as wasps and flies on these and other plants. I like knowing that they’re providing sustenance to critters I can’t even see.
A pale swallowtail butterfly has been spending lots of time in both front and back gardens, and there are tiny skippers galore fluttering nearly everywhere I look. From the kitchen window overlooking the rear garden I see the swallowtail wafting from plant to plant, stopping at the Buddleja davidii ‘Lochinch’ (butterfly bush) before she drifts to the huge Sambucus Mexicana (western elderberry), heavy with cream-colored umbels and feasting insects. A huge Callistemon citrinus (bottle brush) that came with the house is in nearly perpetual bloom and an absolute favorite of untold numbers of insects and birds. Hummingbirds fight over its blossoms, and just the other day when it was close to 80 degrees back there, I watched a small flock of bushtits emerge from beneath a blanket of Vitis californica ‘Roger’s Red’ (California grape) that has managed to cover part of the plant. They were using it as a canopy to protect them from the warmth of the sun!
On warm afternoons I spray water on the plants I know the birds love, and they come in droves to bathe and preen. The bushtits also spend a great deal of time in an Abutilon ‘Nabob’ (flowering maple) just two feet from me under the kitchen window. Right behind and towering over the elderberry, a 30-foot Syzygium paniculatum (Australian brush cherry) that began life as a tidy hedge 60 years or so ago in my neighbor’s garden is now a massive scramble of impenetrable branches that creates the perfect habitat for untold numbers of birds. A young male mockingbird has been perched on the very top branch singing his heart out for many weeks. The northern towhees, always the first ones up and the last to turn in, also adore this spot and use it as a launching pad for their endless searching throughout the garden. Overlooking all of this activity is a phoebe, or flycatcher, with several favorite vantage points throughout the garden from which she surveys the area for her next insect meal. What a thoughtful guest!
For wildlife, though, the two stars of the garden are the huge Salvia mexicana ‘Limelight’ (Limelight sage) and the exuberant Verbena bonariensis beyond. I can sit at my front window and watch the hummers dive bomb one another to gain control of the salvia. If it’s warm, the blossoms it will be covered with bees. The real fun comes as the summer ends and flowers begin to fade.
In salvias, the flower has two parts called the calyx and the corolla. The calyx is the cup-like part that holds the seeds as well as the two-lipped corolla, or flower. When the flower dies, the seeds are visible at the bottom of the calyx. It’s these tiny seeds that draw flocks of goldfinches to the plant. I know they’ve arrived when I see the entire plant begin to shake as they endeavor to loosen those tasty morsels. It’s quite a sight to behold. By deadheading about half the faded flower heads I can keep the bloom going until past Thanksgiving and still have lots of seed heads. Much the same thing happens with the verbena, and as the flowers die and the seed heads ripen, goldfinches will feast on them throughout the winter, hanging on as the tall stems bend with the wind.
How did this wildlife garden evolve? When I first moved into my small cottage 7 years ago, my main interest was drought-tolerant plants. I was determined to get rid of the existing St. Augustine grass lawn by sheet mulching and replace it with what I imagined would be a stunning display of plants perfectly adapted to my neighborhood’s foggy, breezy, and quite cool climate. From the top of my block you look directly at the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge where, as a friend once observed, the wind blows straight in from China. In summer the days usually begin enveloped in fog, somewhere in the 50s. The fog will burn off, and it will warm up into the high 60s, even 70s, until the fog rolls in come evening.
As happens to many garden dreams, this one gradually changed as I became increasingly aware of the importance of natural gardening, planning and planting to attract beneficial wildlife. I no longer enjoyed having plants that didn’t meet that need. I developed an increasing interest in California native plants that are adapted to coastal conditions and found that I not only liked their look but also their strong relationship with insects.
You’ve heard me go on and on about giving up the indiscriminate toxins that destroy great varieties of insect populations, and I vowed never to use any kind of pesticide or herbicide here, a promise I’ve kept. If you choose to build a garden around the needs of wildlife, you do sacrifice a manicured look in exchange for a more natural one. Having a brush pile in a remote corner somewhere will provide shelter and food for birds. Providing water sources will multiply your wildlife population, but be careful – more birds, more cats. I spend a fair amount of time plotting to outwit a substantial population of neighborhood cats. They’re gradually learning to give the garden, and me, a wide berth. My own cat Sugar stays inside or lounges on the enclosed deck.
You do have to educate yourself about what plants attract what insects and birds in your area. It can be a complicated process, but well worth the effort. It will all begin to make much more sense to you after you gain confidence following one or two successful selections. For a practical guide, I frequently refer to The Xerces Society Guide Attracting Native Pollinators to find out more about these intimate relationships between insects and plants. Look to local sources of information for the most reliable plants.
Two books about wildlife and natural gardening have influenced me deeply and I recommend them as a starting point. Not surprisingly, they both chronicle personal gardening journeys. Noah’s Garden, by Sara Stein, is a pioneering book by a biologist who moved from city to country and had to fight against the accepted norms of heavy usage of pesticides and herbicides. In his wonderful book Bringing Nature Home, Douglas Tallamy makes a compelling case for gardening with native plants in order to attract native insects, which then of course attract birds.
My own garden contains about one-half California native plants and one-half Mediterranean natives, and about 80% of them attract something. Do you have a wildlife garden? Let us know about how you got started and what your favorite plants are.
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