Bringing the ‘burbs to life

When we started, there were plants, a bird bath and bird feeders. The plants for the most part did nothing to feed the birds. Native insects likewise did not come here for fine dining.

With this makeover, that’s all changed. The bird bath is now a recirculating fountain. The bird feeders remain, but now there’s a veritable smorgasbord for visiting birds, with insects buzzing around a host of new native flowers.

We didn’t touch the concrete paths, other than to add a looping access path of flagstones set in sand and gravel to service the fountain and resupply the bird feeders. To make the design look as though it were done at once, gravel mulch strips align to the existing steps, flowing back into the plantings.

Perimeter plants were left in place for screening, the white birches remained for shade and habitat, but most of the other plants were ripped out. If a plant didn’t feed pollinators, help restore butterfly populations or provide nectar it got chopped. The result is a seasonal display of successive blooms that support local bee populations and feed migrating hummingbirds. As plants go to seed, they’ll support seed-eating birds. Some plants, like the milkweed, may even supply downy nesting materials.

We did not choose a purely native plant list, since some of the best plants for honeybees are not native (neither are these bees, for that matter). As long as all the plants in each group used the same amount of water and sunlight, the design would work.

Indian paintbrush, unlike most plants, does not get everything it needs from sunlight, soil and water. It needs a host plant: bush monkeyflower. Growing paintbrush alone is unlikely to be successful, but once paired with monkeyflowers there’s a good chance you can grow this native wildflower in your garden.

Partial plant list

Although the plants had to provide some function, that didn’t mean that they were thrown together haphazardly. They’re massed to form swaths of color, partially screen one area of the garden from another, and make the garden seem more private near the house.

  • Milkweed: restore monarch butterfly populations
  • Indian paintbrush: hummingbird food
  • Bush monkeyflower: host plant for paintbrush, hummingbird food
  • Annual wildflowers: food for native solitary bees
  • Mexican lobelia: hummingbird food
  • California fuchsia: hummingbird food
  • Lavender: honeybee food
  • Red yucca (Hesperaloe): hummingbird food
  • Penstemon: hummingbird food
  • Russian sage: honeybee food
  • Woolly sunflower: bee food
  • Coyote mint: butterfly food
  • Mugwort: background plant, interesting fragrance (leaves)
  • Grasses: keep some green while natives are dormant, add texture.
  • Sundrops: great color, and feeds bees, too.

It was also accepted by the National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Garden for Wildlife, meeting the criteria for food (pollen, nectar, seeds), water (fountain), cover (perimeter shrubs), places to raise young (perimeter shrubs and birch tree) and sustainable practices (no pesticides or nasty chemicals).

Although the style of this garden differs a bit from the surrounding homes, it seems to be accepted by the neighbors. It was certainly accepted by the birds and insects! It will probably need to grow in a few more years before the milkweeds get large enough to attract monarch butterflies, but other benefits were immediate. Ground-nesting bees moved in, probably taking advantage of nearby abundant food. Hummingbirds zip through the flowers, searching for nutritious nectar and probably insects to eat. Then there’s the impressive palette of color to delight passing people.

 

 

 

Water!

Nothing brings home the fact that we’ve received a lot of rain this year like a walk along the American River, where we find our usual plein air painting spots completely underwater.

Officially, we’re still in a drought. All the water in the photographs is headed for the sea; it’s already likely passed through several reservoirs. Another series of storms is on the way, one an atmospheric river (or pineapple express) that’s likely to dump over two inches of rain in a couple of days here in Sacramento, and possibly over a foot in the foothills.

With all this rain, it’s a good time to plan landscapes, but not to install them. Things are simply too wet out there!

Here come the butterflies!

Each year brings a new group of butterflies to the California asters. Some species vary, other times the ratio of one species to another changes. This year, we had a new visitor: a monarch.

In past years, we’ve had checkered skippers, American ladies, sulfurs… this year seems to be veering toward skippers, and hairstreaks, along with several dedicated honeybees. With luck, we’ll have more and more monarchs and friends as the asters come into full bloom.

Growing California asters (Symphyotrichum chilense) is easy. Maybe too easy, since the plants thrive with or without water, and spread both by runners and seed. We control them by simply pulling out plants that aren’t where we want them. Since they’re native to our part of California, they’re only invasive in a garden sense, not biologically. 

The plants grow in our meadow, along with some milkweed (the monarch’s food plant). The asters feed the adults, while the milkweed feeds the caterpillars, helping the butterflies rebuild their population. This butterfly could even be heading to the coast to pass the winter before laying eggs and starting the cycle anew (you can tell she’s female by the vein pattern on her hindwings).

It’s pipevine time again!

You have to love a flower that looks like it could be singing. Or quacking. Creating some kind of floral music, at least. California Dutchman’s Pipe’s flowers appear when their vine is but bare stems, looking like someone hung bulbous little ornamental flowers all over a stack of twigs. 

Later in the year, the plant will present its leaves to the sun, possibly feeding a host of pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor) caterpillars in the process. It will develop interesting seed pods to hang among the leaves, becoming a rambling green vine until fall, when it will once again drop its leaves and prepare for a January surprise.

Our plant gets no water from us, although its roots could be filching a water supply from a neighbor. It started in between the house and the fence where it only got direct sun at noon, then grew up the fence where it could get more sun. It seems to be exploring another direction where it might find another sunny spot to its liking.

California Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia californica) is available sporadically at native plant nurseries. You can contact your local chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) to see if anyone has plants or knows a good source. It has become much more available than in the past, and it’s definitely worth planting where it can ramble along as it likes.

Water the birds, too

California’s drought replaces regular water with bare creek beds and depleted reservoirs. For small birds, staying clean and hydrated can be a challenge. Here’s how to help them out. 

Designing a water feature for birds transforms a decorative garden feature into a survival aid. With food and water available in the same area, small birds save energy that would be wasted searching for water.

Many birds migrate. Right now, the lesser goldfinches mob the fountain, with frequent visits by yellow-rumped warblers, Anna’s hummingbirds and American robins. Earlier in the year, we had Wilson’s warblers and American goldfinches, along with black-chinned hummingbirds. Scrub jays and phoebes visit the fountain year round.

These features are good to have in a bird fountain:

Audible water
If located under a tree, a silent water feature is a hidden water feature to birds passing overhead. The noise doesn’t have to resemble a major waterfall, but there should be enough sound for birds to locate the fountain, even if it’s hidden under a tree. This works best for migrating birds who don’t know the area and have not memorized where they can find water.

Rough surface, curved edges and sloping sides
Many birds – especially hummingbirds – prefer to perch on the side of the fountain in a stream of running water. Sloping sides let them grab hold and still access the water. This also increases capacity for goldfinches and warblers.

Recirculating water
It’s a drought, so using potable water flowing from a pipe is not only wrong, it’s probably illegal, too. Recirculating the water also keeps it moving, allowing filtration and oxygenation.

Deep reservoir
The bottom basin should be deep and ideally buried in the ground. This limits evaporation – as do plants growing on the surface of the water. Our fountain uses sedges to shade the water, keeping it cooler in the summer and further reducing water loss.

Biofiltration
This process uses natural systems to purify the water. Bacteria convert waste provided by the birds into nutrients for the plants growing in and on the fountain. The inside of the pot is filled with broken pots, increasing the surface area for the bacteria. The outside has become covered in moss, increasing surface area and feeding on the nutrients. The water needs to keep moving, since the bacteria involved need oxygen to thrive.

No chemicals
Obviously, adding chemicals would defeat the purpose of a bird refuge. The biofiltration system – bacteria, plants and moving water – will keep the water clear.

No fish
Even one goldfish will turn the water green and opaque, at least until a passing egret devours the fish. If you see mosquito larvae, add mosquito fish. These fish are too small to attract herons and will multiply in the fountain. If the filter system is strong enough to prevent mosquitos, it might be strong enough to suck up mosquito fish, so don’t add them unless you see mosquito larvae. Predatory insects, such as dragonfly larvae will move into the fountain over time, further reducing the risk of breeding mosquitos.

Nearby perches
As you can see in the photos, having perches available near the water allows birds to wait for their turn. The perch is also a place to look for potential danger before flitting down to the water.

Nearby shelter
Where the perches should be open and have good visibility, shelter shrubs and trees should be more opaque, better for hiding. Birds use these areas to preen their feathers after taking baths and sometimes watch the perching area to see if it looks safe.

Our birds
A benefit of fountains is that they attract insect eating birds as well as seed-eaters. Birds that would be difficult to attract to to a feeder will readily visit a fountain for a drink. These birds are common visitors, depending on the season:

  • black phoebe
  • western scrub jay
  • lesser goldfinch *
  • yellow-rumped warbler *
  • Wilson’s warbler *
  • Yellow warbler *
  • American robin
  • Northern mockingbird
  • Anna’s hummingbird
  • Black-chinned hummingbird *

* migratory, not around all year

The meadow at it’s messiest: butterfly paradise

After summer’s growth, the asters have come into flower, bringing clouds of hungry butterflies. This is when the meadow is tallest, where it starts looking wild and unkempt. Asters arc in all directions, visited by multiple species of butterflies: skippers, buckeyes, blues, sulfurs… Beneath the asters, native goldenrod blooms following earlier waves of flowers now matured into fuzzy brown seeds.

Soon, the flowers will fade, the stalks will bleach to browns and tans and the plants begin to release seeds, hopefully for goldfinches to dine upon. The meadow’s summer yellows and greens will transform to light tans, muted greens and rusty browns as it prepares itself for winter.

Next year, we’ll mow the straw-colored stalks to the ground, and begin an aster thinning regime to ensure that they don’t completely dominate the meadow, leaving more room for grasses, goldenrod, Indian hemp, sedges and milkweeds.

With spring rains, the sedges will shoot from the ground, greening the meadow. Grasses will grow and flower and the cycle will begin anew.

Six requirements for a successful hummingbird garden

Attracting hummingbirds to a garden requires a few simple design elements to create an area they can call home (when they’re not migrating). Their needs are simple enough: water, food and shelter.

Some birds are much more timid about jumping in, needing to hover over the water first
Some birds are much more timid about jumping in, needing to hover over the water first

There’s nothing like having breakfast outdoors while hummingbirds buzz around the garden. In the summer, it will need to be an early breakfast, since the birds are most active between dawn and a bit after sunrise. At other times of the year, the birds keep later hours. They’re active again at the end of the day, but nothing like during the time before the morning sun descends from the treetops. This might be because carpenter bees raid nectar from their favorite flowers – but the bees, being cold-blooded, can’t fly as early as the warm-blooded hummingbirds.

This is a simple list of things you can plan into your hummingbird garden. They’re just a start – the more diversity you have, the better. The birds tend to nest where they like, so designing something where you’ll think they’ll nest may remain empty while the birds build their nest on an outdoor lantern or other unanticipated feature.

This Anna's hummingbird will start bobbing and dipping
This Anna’s hummingbird will start bobbing and dipping

Water

This is the one thing that brings them back. They’ll drink and take baths, even if they’re not looking for nectar. The water should be shallow, and ideally flow over a curved surface where the birds can sit.

Flowing water is important for several reasons. Birds can hear it from above, telling them   that there’s a place to drink even if they can’t see it. Flowing water is probably cleaner water since unless you live on a spring your water will be recirculated with a pump. Having some basic filtration – both mechanical and biological – will keep the water clean. Keeping the water moving discourages mosquitoes, too. Moving, oxygenated water also seems to favor the growth of moss in the water over algae.

This bird isn't just looking for predators; he's checking for other hummingbirds.
This bird isn’t just looking for predators; he’s checking for other hummingbirds.

Inspection perches

These are near the water source. They’re places for the birds to sit and check out any potential dangers before moving down to the water. Locating open perches above the water but not far away encourages birds to move in gradually before they commit to a bath (this works even better with jays, goldfinches and warblers than hummingbirds).

Thoroughly damp birds fly into a nearby twiggy shrub to finish preening.
Thoroughly damp birds fly into a nearby twiggy shrub to finish preening.

Preening perches

These are farther away and higher up, in areas that a predator would find difficult to access. Brushy small trees or large shrubs seem to work best. The birds here like an open yet twiggy branch structure so they can see out.

Red yucca (Hesperaloe) is a hummingbird favorite (the leaf-legged bugs like it too, it seems)
Red yucca (Hesperaloe) is a hummingbird favorite (the leaf-legged bugs like it too, it seems)

Nectar

We don’t have a hummingbird feeder. Instead, we planted a succession of nectar sources for the birds to visit. There’s a succession of blooms: penstemons and culinary sage, Mexican lobelia, red yucca, native sages, California fuchsia. This mimics what the birds would find in nature, where one species of plant blooms, only to be replaced by another. Since we don’t have feeders, we’re free to spend a few days away from the house without interrupting the birds’ food source.

Insects

If you tried to live on nothing but sugar water, you’d die of malnutrition. Hummingbirds are the same way. They require insects and spiders for protein, and consume a fair amount of these creatures as sustenance. Hummingbirds are related to swallows, so you might say that eating bugs is in their bloodline. Spider silk is a component of hummingbird nests, so having some spiders around is a good thing. Having happy birds means no pesticides. Besides, I’d rather the bugs went to the good cause of feeding hungry birds than died uselessly, twitching from some toxic product.

Hummingbirds

This point is perhaps obvious, but these birds only live in the Americas. If you’re reading this somewhere else, your garden might attract other nectar-loving birds – just not hummingbirds. Not to worry, since most nectar-loving birds are quite beautiful.

 

Five things to consider when removing your lawn

Removing lawn is a good thing if you live in an area where water is limited. You’ll save on your water bill, avoid breathing dust and smog from a mower and gain more color and interest. Here are some things to consider when removing your lawn to conserve water and create a more sustainable landscape.

transformed lawn
This space – except for the patio – used to be lawn. A new Bocce court, fountain and flowering shrubs transform it into something exciting and useable, with pollinators for bees and nectar for hummingbirds.

Five things to consider when transforming your lawn:

1. Irrigation System. You’ll need to update your irrigation system to work with the new plants. You can switch to drip irrigation, but you’ll need to install filters (Wye strainers) and in-line pressure reducers at the valves so the drip components don’t clog or have problems with excessive pressure. If you’re using broadcast irrigation, you’ll likely have to move and change heads and probably nozzles as well. The lawn might have used 4″ pop-up heads – too short for shrubs. You’ll need to change the pop-up bodies to at least 12″ and put irrigation nozzles on risers where they’re  in shrub areas so that the plants don’t block the water. Stream sprays are more efficient than spray nozzles and can be retrofitted onto your pop-up bodies (check that the threads are compatible first). They do need longer run times, however.

2. Keep sight lines open. If your lawn is in the front yard and you replace it with tall shrubs, you’re creating a hazard every time you pull out of your driveway. You need to see what’s coming, and approaching cars need to see you backing out. The solution is to keep plants low where views are needed, and keep the taller stuff at the back.

3. Light. Don’t plant things that will grow up and cover your windows. If you want to screen views to a room, plant your shrubs far enough away from the house that you’ll still get light in the room. Planting shrubs farther out also gives you a nice private garden view instead of a mass of green leaves pressed against a window when the plant grows.

4. Maintenance. Just because you’re not mowing does not mean you’re not doing maintenance. Your new garden will need periodic trimming, initial weeding and periodic general cleanup. You may want to check on more natural ways of pruning and trimming than the mow-and-blow standard of shearing everything into a ball.

5. Think new opportunities. Ideally, you’re not just removing lawn; you’re transforming your landscape into something more interesting. You can use mounds to create a bit more privacy, perhaps to create a small patio for visual interest or chatting with neighbors – the new space does not have to be entirely dedicated to plants! If you add mounds, you’ll improve drainage – and the mounds can envelop the patio area for more separation from the street. In the back yard, your former lawn can become a Bocce court, dining space, a lounge, herb garden, grove of trees for sitting in the shade, a sculpture garden with flowing ornamental grasses, a hummingbird garden…

Of course, if it’s design ideas you need, we can help! Check our ideas section for some transformations, get in touch and create some wonderful spaces for yourself!

Got Birds? How to bring nature back into your outdoor environment

Imagine every yard with at least some habitat designed in: food plants for bees and butterflies, berries for birds, a variety of plants for foraging.

wildlife fountain diagram
This sectional view shows the fountain, pump, filters, perching branch, sheltering shrub and adjacent habitat. The plants are illustrative- not actual species – in reality, there is a variety of species chosen to attract hummingbirds, produce berries and provide pollen for bees.

Looking at the typical suburb in a satellite photo, you might notice the dominant plant type: lawn. It might be a great place to play from time to time, but it consumes a lot of water and energy – yet provides nothing for bees. Some birds will visit to pull worms or chase insects, but none will stay to nest, find shelter or forage for berries. Neither will the lawn feed caterpillars that become our larger butterflies like monarchs.

Just removing even a patch of your lawn and doing three simple things can help bring back vanishing butterflies, encourage native bees and give your local birds a better home. In the process, you’ll get movement, color and seasonal variation.

Provide water. The biggest attraction for birds in our garden is the fountain. It’s designed as part of a system: running water that makes noise so passing birds know it’s there. Bare perching branches over the fountain so they can pause to look for predators before drinking or bathing – or wait for their turn as other birds bathe. Sheltering shrubs nearby so wet birds can fly somewhere safe to preen and dry off. Sloping sides with a rough surface let hummingbirds cling to the edges for a bath, and placing pebbles at the top lets birds judge the depth of the water. Our fountain has filtration made from inexpensive aquarium supplies, drain line and perforated piping – so the water stays clear as long as nobody adds goldfish (although egrets love eating them!).

Plant food plants. There’s a double benefit here: by helping the bees, you’re also increasing the number of pollinators and therefore encouraging seed production for the birds. Although it’s a bit tricky to establish, milkweed is the only thing monarch butterflies eat. When I was young, these butterflies floated across the landscape in huge numbers; now they’re few and far between, to the point where people are considering putting them on the endangered species list. California asters will attract bees and butterflies, then produce seed. Toyon berries will give birds something to eat in autumn – while various species of mahonia and ribes can provide berries at other times of the year.

Plant native plants. You can plant certain Mediterranean climate plants, too – as long as they’re not invasive species. All the plants I mentioned above are native, and you can add Ceanothus and manzanita to the list. Both come in a variety of forms and are much loved by bees when in bloom. Most prefer dry conditions, often minimal or no water in summer. Other good natives include California fuchsia (hummingbirds love this), coffeeberry, sages (hummingbird sage even grows in partial shade) and penstemon, another hummingbird favorite. A lot of great ornamental grasses are native: deer grass, sporobolus airoides, nassella pulchra… There are grasslike rushes and sedges, some with spiky upright gray foliage. There’s blue-eyed grass, actually a type of iris – and we have native iris, too. There are annual wildflowers loved by native bees: California poppy, Clarkia, lupine, five spot… although you’ll probably have to reseed the annual area every year and give it no supplemental water. For shade, there’s red-twig dogwood, creeping mahonia, snowberry and bush anemone for light shade. You can add western columbine and alum root in irrigated areas.

These are just basic points on bringing small wildlife to your garden, possibly restore butterfly populations and gain something more interesting to stroll through than lawn. There is a lot of information on the web, and you can also join a local environmental organization like the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) to learn what people are doing in your area.

You can also contact us, of course! We’ve given talks on attracting wildlife to your garden, and many of our designs have a wildlife component.

Not just for the butterflies: California Dutchman’s Pipe

It’s a time when nothing in its right mind should be in flower. Fitting, since with flowers like this you could argue that the California Dutchman’s Pipe vine (Aristolochia californica) is on very friendly terms with the Mad Hatter.

Later in the year, the vines will leaf out and perhaps be crawling with strange spiky looking black caterpillars – the larvae of the pipeline swallowtail butterfly. For now, the vines are naked except for their flowers. Flowering season has just begun, and the show will continue for weeks as new flowers appear.

The vines don’t get supplemental water from our side of the fence – they could be sneaking a bit of moisture from the neighbors, but they favor a dry existence. They can be a bit tricky to find and get established, but once they’re in the ground and thriving we pretty much leave them alone.

The vines are pest free (I don’t consider caterpillars a pest). About the only thing I’ve done with them was to train them on some wires so they could climb toward the sun if they felt like it (they didn’t, much).

California has a few other native vines that work well in gardens, but most are large and none of them blooms in winter. The pipevine’s bare stems are a bit unkempt during the period between leaf drop and flowering, but after that it’s a floral display followed rambling mass of leaves and perhaps interesting seed pods. The other horticultural bonus here is that these vines prefer partial shade, allowing their use as screens on wire fencing or dividers for outdoor rooms when trained on an artistic support.

Their native habitat is along riparian areas in our region, anywhere you typically see a lot of pipeline swallowtails in flight. We’re out of the corridor, so the butterflies have a harder time finding our plants. I often imagine how many more butterflies we’d have if everyone stuck one of these vines somewhere in their garden!