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.




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.

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.

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!

Aster chilensis trimming results

Last year, our California asters grew. And grew. And grew. By flowering time, the plants were about six feet tall. Too hard to appreciate the flowers at that height without a ladder, but the plants had a solution: as the season progressed, they drooped. We couldn’t cut them because we wanted the seeds as a food source for birds. Messy.

Six foot tall asters were too dominant for the native meadow, so we decided to try a bit of maintenance and limit their height. I wanted them to come in around three feet, but didn’t want to block flowering.

The experiment started at the beginning of the second week of July. The plants were trimmed to a height of two feet above the ground, the clippings chopped up and strewn on the ground of the meadow.

Aster chilensis, July cut
Asters cut in July

Another set of plants were trimmed about the first week of August, again at a height of two feet above the ground, same treatment for the clippings.

Asters, August cut
Asters cut in August, first plant
Asters, August cut
Asters cut in August, second plant

The first plants, trimmed in July, went into full bloom around September 24th, at an average height of 50 inches.

The others topped out at 36″ – 40″. The taller plant had a few sparse blooms. The three foot tall plant had very few buds and no flowers, as of October 7th.

So, I managed to get my desired height, but at the expense of flowers. The taller plants are still a huge improvement over last year, sitting right around eye level. As before, the plant is covered in butterflies (four species, so far) – but now they’re at eye level and much easier to photograph.

This plant is native to Sacramento, where it spreads by stolons and apparently seeds. So, although it’s a California native it’s a potentially invasive one. We’ve found that it’s easy to rip out where it’s not wanted, and by timely pruning its size can be managed. Considering its importance to butterflies, I’d say it’s worth growing in a native border or meadow.

As an aside, the name I gave above for the plant is no longer botanically correct. It was too easy to spell, apparently. The plant got a complete name change: Latin and common names are now different. The plant is still sold by the name above, unless you’re at a CNPS plant sale, where it goes under the new and improved moniker of Pacific Aster (Symphyotrichum chilense). It has a couple of subspecies, although I don’t know which flavor of the plant I’ve got. 

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.

Where are the Monarchs?

I’m not talking about the basketball team. I mean the butterflies that used to frequent our area, their banded, strange-looking caterpillars feasting on milkweed plants.

I attended a lecture on local butterflies at a recent California Native Plant Society (CNPS) meeting, and only one person mentioned having a caterpillar on her milkweed plants. We have lots of interesting bugs on our plant, but no caterpillars.

Then I started thinking… when did I see a monarch here? I saw a lot of their cousins, the queen butterfly – adults and caterpillars – in Arizona, but here? It’s been a while.

There are a number of other orange butterflies that resemble monarchs, but they’re not even related. These are gulf fritillaries, representatives of a tropical family that moves north where there’s a combination of passion vines for their caterpillars and warm enough temperatures in winter to keep them from freezing to death. In times past, these butterflies were extirpated every winter with cold temperatures, but lately they’ve been multiplying.

The two butterflies are easy to tell apart by looking at the photos below. Monarchs are also larger and have a different flight pattern than the fritillaries (monarchs tend to flap and glide more than flutter).

Gulf Fritillary
Gulf fritillary

Pemphredon! Aphids despair!

pemphredon wasp at nesting hole

I noticed a lot of sawdust coming out of the wood stumps propped up and drilled to make habitat for mason bees. A stakeout with camera should solve the mystery.

After several minutes, a tiny iridescent black wasp zipped into a hole in the stump. Definitely not a mason bee! Getting a photo was like catching a launching rocket – these guys go in full speed and exit like they’re shot from the holes in the wood.

Luckily, I had time and at least with a digital camera I wouldn’t waste any expensive film. I noticed signs of emergence: the insects push sawdust from the holes as they excavate, then (sometimes) crawl out before zooming away. Others would sometimes hover in front of the hole before entering, and with bright sunlight I could stop the lens down to minimum and perhaps have enough depth of field for a clean enough image for an ID.

Eventually, I succeeded. Out of about 40 images, I managed to get five good shots. Once transferred to the computer, it was time to go wasp hunting.

A bit of poking around insect-oriented web sites, and there they were: Pemphredon, also known as aphid wasps.

Yes, another species that dines on aphids! These wasps nest in hollowed out pith in stems, but apparently a hole drilled in an old stump is a perfectly good nesting place for them.

The mother wasp collects a lot of aphids (one site says about 24 aphids per wasp larva), piles them in the hole, and lays an egg on them. Then she seals the chamber, fetches another two dozen aphids and repeats the process. The larval wasps feast on the aphids, eventually to emerge as wasps ready to eliminate even more aphids. There are a lot of wasps in this stump, and more nests in another stump nearby – all apparently packed full of incapacitated aphids in various stages of being devoured.

It’s always fun to discover another beneficial insect, especially when you didn’t even know these guys were out there. I couldn’t find much on the adults, so I don’t know how good a pollinator they might be. I do know that an old stump drilled with holes does double duty, harboring mason bees (other holes are full of telltale leaves) and aphid wasps. Both pollination and pest control in one convenient location!

pemphredon wasp in flight

It’s possible that I goofed on my ID for these guys, although they match the description more or less exactly. If so, perhaps some trained hymenopterist (is that even a word?) will come to my rescue with a definitive ID.