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 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.

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

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


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)


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.


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.


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.


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.

The Joys of Fennel

Psaltriparus minimus

You get pollen and seeds for seasoning, a ferny looking plant that uses very little water and comes in bronze, a potential food plant for anise swallowtail butterflies and a year-round home for aphids – all in one plant. We use bronze fennel because it’s much more ornamental than the green stuff.

Why would you want a permanent aphid colony? To keep predators around, of course! As long as you have a food source and aren’t applying insecticides, you’ll probably have aphids, syrphid flies, soldier beetles, lacewings, tiny wasps… So when aphids decide to move to your ornamental plants, an army of predators will be there ready to deal with them, keeping infestations short.

Not all predators are insects. These guys are bushtits, who find aphids delicious. They move in small flocks from bush to bush, scouring the plants for insects. With all its bugs, fennel is a perennial favorite for the hungry birds (if you look closely at some of the images, you can see aphids stuck to the bird’s beak).

Fennel pollen is an expensive spice, easy to harvest in spring with a few taps on the flower heads and a clean bowl. The seeds are good for seasoning, too. All have a licorice flavor that complements fish, chicken and lamb. If you’re using bronze fennel, it doesn’t form nice fennel bulbs for cooking – that’s another variety.

As long as you’re in an urban area where your plants can’t spread, having some fennel around is a good thing for your garden. Odds are, even if you’re not in an urban area there are some feral fennel plants running amok nearby. There are stands of fennel in the American River Parkway, thick masses lining highway 37… still, if you’re in a Mediterranean climate next to a fennel-free natural area, best not to plant it in your garden.

Psaltriparus minimus
That green thing on his beak is an aphid.
Bushtit, artsy photo
Hanging upside down is a favorite bushtit attack strategy. Hiding on the bottom of the plant won’t help you, aphids!


Photographing hummingbirds in action

The first thing about getting shots of hummingbirds in action is getting up early, before sunrise. That’s when they go for a drink and quick dip in the fountain. A few sips of water and a splash on the face and they’re ready for a day chasing insects and sipping flowers.


The second thing is: don’t move. If you stay absolutely still, you can get quite close, although the birds will probably still react to the click of your shutter. With the camera on a tripod, focused on the bird, cable release or remote in hand, you should not have to move to get the shot – since the birds are coming to the fountain, you’ll know pretty much where they’ll land.

If you want to capture all that iridescent color, you need the sun behind you (or a light source that won’t scare the bird). The bird will also have to look right at you for the best effect. Tricky!

If you don’t have a fountain, you need to pick whatever flowers the birds are visiting and camp there, shooting until you get the shot you like. Early or late in the day is better, and pay attention to where the light is coming from if you want an iridescent bird floating over colorful flowers. Be persistent: this is not an easy shot and you’ll be shooting a lot of images just to get a few good shots (or only one).

High ISO, a large aperture and a telephoto lens that can focus on small birds relatively nearby are the other requirements. If you have a giant, powerful telephoto lens you might need to add an accessory so you can focus closer than normal.

Hummingbird at fountain

If you have a simpler camera, turn off any non-optical zoom function – this just adds noise to your image. Focusing might be an issue, since fast-moving hummingbirds don’t sit around and wait for the focusing system to lock on. So shoot a lot of pictures – way more than you think reasonable, and delete all the ones that didn’t work. If you’re lucky, you might get two or three shots that you’ll love. The rest will most likely be perfectly focused plants in the background and a blurry blob (the bird) in the foreground.


A (mostly) native garden by a stream

Some gardens don’t have it simple. This one gets drainage from above, plus it’s subject to flooding along its lower portion. If that wasn’t enough, the soil is non-draining clay. The solution? Pick plants adapted to the site, of course.

The garden had been in for about a year when these pictures were taken, and it’s progressing well.

streambank garden

The lower portions take advantage of native shrubs and grasses that grow in wet or boggy conditions: button bush, sedges, rushes, red twig dogwood…

The drainage passes under a low bridge made from pressure-treated wood and is filtered by a small meadow planted with native tufted hair grass and sedges. So, even if there is some sediment flowing off the slope or the driveway, the intent is that it will enrich the meadow instead of silting up the stream.

simple footbridge over meadow

Further up the slope, redbuds, toyon, deer grass, California fuchsia take over, blending with coffeeberry and other plants and taking advantage of increased drainage provided by the slope. There are a few Mediterranean plants for variety: Powis Castle wormwood, rock rose, snow in summer. For fast cover, there are some patches of Myoporum – the closest thing there is to an instant ground cover.

Some plants are somewhat short lived, and will die out to leave place for other plants to spread as the garden grows – so it won’t look bare in its early years, but won’t become as crowded as it would if all the plants were to compete with each other.

Adirondack chairs with a viewTwo chairs look out over the stream toward the neighbor’s lawn, a study in contrasting garden design approaches. This side has nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds, plants that will thrive if the stream floods, color and interest that changes with the seasons. The other is constantly lush, simple and green.

Chairs looking over garden


As the river birches grow, the upper area will become a shady haven looking out over the sunnier lower garden. Other plants will grow with time, blocking views of a culvert and making the stream banks look more wild. There will be a bonus for wildlife, too, as flowers bloom and fruits ripen.

As their roots grow downward, they should reach underground water from the stream, reducing or eliminating the need to provide supplemental irrigation. The plants farther up the slope, when established, will require little water.

Got birds?

Can you have a Big Day? A good wildlife garden can have a lot of action on a good day, no bird feeder required. 

Mockingbird 0033Mockingbirds arrive several times per day, landing in the birch to survey the area, then descending into the holly bush to gobble a couple of berries. He only takes two or three berries at a time, then flies off.

Birch finches 9669


These finches sit and talk in the upper branches of the river birch.

FInch 0095They explore the branches, but there’s nothing for them to eat here at this time of year.

Finches crape 0212So they head for the crape myrtle trees, where it seems that they have developed a taste for the seeds, held in capsules at the tips of the branches.

Woodpecker 0121Meanwhile, back on the birch, a woodpecker searches for insects under the peeling bark.

Hummingbird 0259Early morning is a good time for drinking and bathing. Birds never just head for the fountain. There could be a predator lurking nearby! So, they light on a nearby tree, then move to a dead branch placed over the fountain for their comfort, then touch the water. They immediately fly back to a branch to take another look. Once they’re comfortable, they head for the water for a quick drink and a bath.

Finch bath 0269The fountain is just a modified pot, filled with 3/4″ crushed rock that serves as a biofilter, the top just beneath the water is small river pebbles. Birds prefer shallow water for bathing, and the pebbles let them judge the water depth – and give the top of the fountain a more natural look.

Finches bath 0278At times, the entire surface of the fountain is covered with birds, with others perched nearby to await their turn. It’s kind of like people at a major sale event, with pushing, shoving and squawking.








It’s bird-eat-bird out there

empty dove nest

Funny how we tend to think that providing food and habitat in the garden will create some kind of harmonious place where everyone gets along, a kind of Bambi scenario where all the animals are friends.

This wasn’t true with the insects, and it’s not the case with the birds, either.

I found a broken egg on the ground after noticing that the doves had not been in their nest for a day. The nest was apparently raided by other birds, the egg enjoyed as a quick meal.

Maybe the idea where the savage jungle is far away comes from nature films that show the African savanna as a constant struggle for survival between predator and prey. The reality is that this struggle is everywhere. It’s here, right in your own back yard.

As bad as things are for people, they’re much worse if you’re a dove. We watched a hawk snatch another dove from the sky as it flew between two trees (the dove survived, somehow). This is not the first nest that was raided by other birds, so I’d say successfully raising a family is pretty iffy when you’re a dove in the wild.

All of this isn’t anything new; it’s been going on for a long time, at least since the Pleistocene, maybe a million years ago. We weren’t here to watch, but then we were probably too busy back then dodging sabertooth cats and chasing mastodons.

Creating an ecological garden means just that – allowing natural processes to happen, creating habitat and food sources to increase the amount of energy in the food chain. It means that with more creatures living in the landscape there will be more instances of predation. A dynamic balance will hopefully allow populations of each species to remain, in numbers greater than if the landscape were sterile lawn and purely ornamental shrubs.

It does not mean that natural processes will cease, that every egg will become a bird or butterfly. That’s just not how nature works.


It’s nesting season

Mourning doves nesting
Find the birds!

If you look closely, you’ll find two mourning doves. One is sitting on their nest, a loose gathering of twigs that doesn’t look like it could support even a tiny egg, let alone a bird or sometimes two.

Every year, a pair of mourning doves arrives at the river birch to start a family. Over the years, the tree has grown and the birds have adapted by moving higher up. One bird sits on the nest and the other remains nearby to keep her company. They could even trade places, but I can’t tell the two birds apart.

Other birds like other trees. Last year’s mockingbirds moved into a twiggy crape myrtle. We’ve had robins nest in the mulberry and even on a ledge under the eaves. There could be hummingbirds in the taller shrubs, but their nests are almost invisible unless you see the birds arrive or depart.

The only place the birds have consistently shunned is the bird houses. Some are too low, placed as garden sculptures, but other are farther away from the path and much higher. Our birds apparently are not so enthused with architecture.