Friday, December 03, 2004

Wildlife garden planning tips: features and plants

Fresh water is essential for many creatures and providing it improves the habitat value of most gardens. A birdbath works well for the small garden: best is one of variable depth, much of it quite shallow, with a substrate that provides secure footing; dripping or other sound and movement is the best enhancement. A bare branch to hop to close by improves security, as does dense cover a few feet away, such as that of a thicket of wild roses.

For built-in water features, a little stream of very shallow moving water pleases small songbirds. When it comes to ponds, a natural bottom substrate, variable depths, and submerged, emergent and marginal plantings, especially of natives, enhance habitat values. So also does anything providing shelter or a perch under the water or near the water feature. If nothing else, even a small stick contrived to emerge from a pond or half barrel -- perhaps embedded in a can of pebbles -- provides a handy perch for a dragonfly.

A large standing snag or substantial downed wood cannot be beat for habitat value -- food and lodging for countless creatures -- though such may not be welcome in urban or suburban situations. Even in a bleak wasteland a properly constructed brush pile can provide "instant habitat". A compost pile is more acceptable in many neighborhoods and valuable in every way.

A rock pile or wall can be quite beautiful and quickly provides a home or way station for insects and lizards. Check out the artfully constructed rock pile in the backyard habitat demonstration at the San Francisco Zoo! Rock shelters and other constructed features are profitably discussed at length in Russell Link's Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, which includes much that applies to the San Francisco Bay area.

Stepping stones, whether natural or of concrete, are useful in any garden. Small “paved” areas or walkways created with individual stones without mortar provide welcome retreats for many small creatures especially where they overlay friable soil or are bedded in sand. If large areas of stable pavement or substantial walkways are needed, consider pervious concrete, which allows water infiltration, and is convenient in that it doesn't puddle, even in heavy rain.

Artful placement of a few decorative rocks gives immediate structure to the garden and a place for butterflies and lizards to sun themselves. Small animals take cover or find or establish homes underneath and in crevices between artfully placed rocks. Wise use of rocks can immediately give a garden a “natural” feel. Study rock gardening!

Non-biodegradable weed fabric is the worst landscape feature for life in the garden! Please don’t use it, and especially not over large areas! It really gets in the way for many small creatures.

“Friable soil” is an important aspect of habitat quality that may be missing in urban or suburban settings, especially in new developments. Properly amended soils that are easy for you to dig in are easier for animal life to dig in – female lizards and turtles, for example, need friable soil to dig in to deposit their eggs for successful reproduction.

If you want a garden that teems with life, never "clean up" leaves or natural surface organic debris any more than you must. A surface “mulch” of whole, chipped or shredded leaves and branches is food and cover for microbes, worms and other invertebrates that “work” and “fertilize” the soil for you, as it helps the soil retain moisture and prevents many weeds from growing. Any weeds that do grow are easier to pull from the softer soil such a “mulch” engenders. Soil under a natural mulch, especially as it mulch decays and gets mixed into the soil by the worms, retains the balance of moisture with air needful for plant growth and lizard eggs. To foster life, “recycle” organic debris on your property as much as possible. Even a leaf pile in a corner helps. If you must clean up organic debris, please do it by hand: few things are more depressing to a biologist than barren soil scoured and hardened by "blower blight"!

For creating habitat a mixed planting that combines trees, shrubs, vines, ferns, grasses, and forbs -- perennials and annuals -- is usually best. Let natural vegetation serve as your model -- the greatest habitat value is embodied in gardens inspired and informed by the structure and composition of local plant communities. Context is crucial – aim to fit in ecologically to the surrounding neighborhood; its nature will determine what creatures are most likely to appear in your garden. If the garden abuts wild areas, large old vacant lots, or watercourses, especially streams with native vegetation, great are your prospects! Mature or ancient oaks in the neighborhood, or any other mature native woody plants are surely refugia for creatures that will find their way to your plantings! For a garden that ties in ecologically as well as artistically, include more specimens of those locally native species in your garden -- or complement them with their common associates or features of undisturbed native habitats, perhaps otherwise missing in your neighborhood. Provide the crucial missing "limiting factors" -- and thus allow otherwise extirpated species to survive or even thrive once again thanks to you!

Despair not if you must make your "habitat garden" in the midst of a vast wasteland of suburban plant junk with little value. Conspire to create a rich island for pollinators or a local “mall” for the neighborhood, or a “travel stop” for such creatures as may pass through. In urban areas, patches of richer habitat are a magnet for migrating or dispersing birds and other creatures.

Strive for a natural balance in your landscape composition. In natural vegetation usually a few of the relatively larger species of plants of the vegetation type dominate, creating a theme. There may be great diversity with the smaller species. In the typical “island” situation of the habitat garden, strive to provide enough resources from each species employed to enable it to be effective. For smaller flowering species the recommendation is to provide at least 16 square feet of plantings -- en masse or at least not spread over a wide area -- for a species so it can make enough of an impact to attract and support pollinating insects.

A variety of plant forms provide a variety of hiding places and other resources, as well as lending artistic interest. The smallest plants often provide a disproportionate amount of food and cover, so don’t neglect them! Don’t neglect vines! Vines clambering through other plants or over structures make excellent nesting cover for songbirds. Mature trees, especially those more than 30 or 40 years old, even if not native species, may contribute a lot to the structure of the habitat of the garden. Various creatures frequenting the neighborhood may have learned to use them, even if they aren’t native. In Davis neighborhoods, the seeds of mature deodar cedars feed flocks of red crossbills in the years when they irrupt from the north and out of the mountains, where they customarily forage in native conifers.

Plants from other parts of the world usually provide resources for a limited number of animals -- a few generalist species that in many cases are introduced organisms themselves. Some common non-native garden plants provide almost no resources for animal life. As a rule a far greater number of species of animals will make use of any species of native plant. Most are small invertebrates, often unnoticed, but essential as the basis of the vertebrate food chain. The smallest creatures also provide such significant ecological services as decomposition of dead plants and animals and their wastes, soil tilling and mixing, and the pollination of plants.

Many common “ornamental plants” have been bred to flower perpetually or for very long periods of time. Often they accomplish that mission by not producing pollen, nectar or seeds. Therefore they do not attract insects looking for nectar or pollen, nor do they produce seeds or fruits that may be eaten by anything. Their mere “color” value is at the price of animal life. A garden without the movement of insects and other creatures offers little interest for me! I gravitate to the garden that hums and teems with life! A good source of non-native – as well as native – flowering plants that do provide nectar and pollen is Annie’s Annuals.

Listed below are some of the particularly valuable native species for creating garden habitat in the San Francisco Bay area. Most are easy to grow and useful in garden design.


Coast live oak. Valley oak. California laurel. White alder. Hollyleaf cherry.
Coast redwood. Douglas fir. California nutmeg. Bristle-cone fir. Bishop pine. Gray pine.

Shrubs and vines:

Manzanitas. Quail bush. Coyote bush. Wild lilacs. Button willow. Western redbud. Virgin’s bower. Creek dogwood. Hazelnut. Douglas hawthorn. Bush monkeyflower. Flat-top buckwheat. Lizard tail. Golden yarrow. Coast silk-tassel. Salal. Golden fleece. Bush sunflower. Toyon. Creambush. California juniper. Pitcher sage. Hairy honeysuckle. Twinberry honeysuckle. Deerbroom lotus. White-leaf bush lupine. California holly grape. Bush mallow. Coyote mint. California wax myrtle. Osoberry. Red-flowered rock penstemon. Ninebark. Coffeeberry. Redberry. Western azalea. Squaw bush. Golden currant. Chaparral currant. Flowering currant. California gooseberry. California wild rose. Wood rose. Thimbleberry. Black sage. Blue elderberry. Red elderberry. Blue witch. Snowberry. California wild grape. Yerba de Selva. Wild fuchsia.


Nutka reed grass. California fescue. Red fescue. Vanilla grass. Deergrass. Berkeley sedge. Common rush. Single-leaf onion. Ithuriel’s spear. California pipe-vine. Hound’s tongue. Coffee fern. Western columbine. California buttercups. Meadowrue. Chain fern. Hooker evening primrose. Hummingbird fuchsia. Scarlet monkeyflower. Golden monkeyflower. Blue bedder penstemon. Figwort. Western bleeding heart. Elk clover. Douglas iris. Blue-eyed grass. Gold-eyed grass. Soap plant. Leopard lily. False Solomon’s seal. Common stonecrop. Common checkerbloom. Coyote mint. Hummingbird sage. Yerba buena. Coast woodmint. Wild morning glory. Bluff angelica. Foothill angelica. Yampah. Wormskjold’s clover. Bluff chickweed. Sea thrift. Leather fern. California poppy. Wild strawberry. Tinker’s penny. Common alumroot. Piggyback plant. Common sword fern. Yarrow. Pearly everlasting. Seaside daisy. Golden aster. Cobweb thistle. California sunflower. California goldenrod. Bluff goldenrod. Dog violet. Bolander’s phacelia. California phacelia.


Tansyleaf phacelia, lupines, globe gilias, clarkias, tidytips, goldfields.

Plants valued less by many gardeners but more by wildlife include: native willows, California buckeye, stinging nettle, poison oak, narrowleaf milkweed, western goldenrod, Douglas baccharis, common California aster, valley gumplant and miner’s lettuce.

These are among the favorite native plants I feel are practical to employ --

coast live oak, California laurel, hollyleaf cherry, manzanitas, wild lilacs, bush monkeyflower, flattop buckwheat, twinberry honeysuckle, hairy honeysuckle, California holly grape, California wax myrtle, coffeeberry, golden currant, chaparral currant, pink flowering currant, California gooseberry, California wild rose, toyon, creambush, thmbleberry, black sage, blue elderberry, red elderberry, creek dogwood, California fescue, deergrass, Berkeley sedge, common rush, single-leaf onion, hummingbird fuchsia, coyote mint, chain fern, western columbine, golden monkeyflower, figwort, soap plant, leopard lily, hummingbird sage, wild strawberry, common sword fern, yarrow, California goldenrod, seaside daisy, common stonecrop, Bolander’s phacelia, California phacelia, tansyleaf phacelia, globe gilia, clarkias, tidytips, California poppy.

Less “garden worthy” for current conventional tastes but extremely valuable for bringing in life are California buckeye, willows, narrowleaf milkweed and western goldenrod.

Most of these native plants are easy to cultivate. Using several to many plants of each species works best for providing significant wildlife habitat. Masses of one species of flowering plant attract insects effectively only if at least sixteen square feet in extent. In neighborhoods particularly barren of insect life, larger masses of flowers are particularly advisable – think “critical mass”!

Two more tips: "light pollution" and "noise pollution" adversely affect animal life. Natural darkness at night -- as close to it as we can contrive -- suits most animals. It is also true that some plants -- whose flowering is keyed to daylength -- never flower in areas brightly lit at night. Noise also severely interferes with animals -- lately biologists have noted that the mating calls of frogs and toads, especially, are less effective because of man's mechanical noises!


At 4:20 PM, Blogger Ezio said...

Have you ever seen Asparagus this BIG
They grow up to 15in long and 2in wide.
asparagus plant

At 10:19 PM, Blogger I Like 2 Read Blogs said...

Reading blogs gives me so many ideas and I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to read yours. Feel free to stop by mine Roses and Rings and leave your comments. You'll see that mine covers a lot of flower and gardening territory, and stresses international flower delivery

At 12:05 PM, Blogger Just Surfing said...

Reading blogs gives me so many ideas and I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to read yours. Feel free to stop by mine Roses and Rings and leave your comments. You'll see that mine covers a lot of flower and gardening territory, and stresses wedding flower

At 12:49 PM, Blogger Silvianne said...

I just came across a great gardening website called*. Not only does it feature articles for the gardening enthusiast, but has become a great gardening advice
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What I like about it is that I get instant access to the book and don't have to wait for the book(s) to arrive which of course saves me shipping charges.... in some cases. Great idea. I love it. You must check it out today. Let me know what you think.

At 8:36 PM, Blogger lindaweaverfamily said...

Vegetables are great, but the Heart Start Defibrillator is better (At saving your life, that is ;) ).

At 1:22 AM, Blogger Stan said...

Do you want to grow your own House Plants, Flowers, Trees and Shrubs for FREE....Grow them to landscape your yard, grow them for fun and for profit....Growing small plants in your backyard is one of the most rewarding things you will ever do in your life. Not to mention the money you can make. Getting started in this home based business is really easy. All you have to do is start rooting cuttings of your favorite plants (I'll show you how to do that), and you are off and running. Any time you have a few extra minutes just stick a few cuttings. Before you know it you will have thousands of plants valued at several thousand dollars.

At 3:28 PM, Blogger k guillen said...

Thank you for taking the time to write this. I am going to plant a small garden- which i hope to make as organic and native as possible. This really inspired me.

At 1:32 AM, Blogger velvet_green said...

I live in San Jose in a neighborhood with large backyards. The homes are steadily being replaced with large ones of course. I think of this as a wonderful area for wildlife stop offs in the middle of the city and try to garden accordingly. Trying to think of a way to encourage my neighbors to do the same and I need ideas!

At 4:24 PM, Blogger pakbudi sampurno said...

Useful article for me. thanks.


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