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.




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. 

The incredible flying circus

The Aster chilensis is blooming, and it’s the biggest insect party of the year. The plants are covered with skippers, with frequent visits by mason bees and other creatures.

Despite its Latin name implying South American origins, it’s a California native – but from the Southern part. It’s common name, California aster, makes its origins clear. This is our first year with these plants, so we’ll see if they can handle our Northern California winters. They’re about four feet tall, until they flop over onto adjacent vegetation, in this case Deschampsia caespitosa, a native California grass.

The plants, when out of bloom, are gangly, spindly things that haven’t got much presence. They’ve almost been yanked out as weeds until we realized what they were, since they somewhat resemble a weed when they’re out of bloom.

The flowers aren’t exactly a riot of color, either. Kind of a nondescript pale blue, so pale as to look more whitish than anything else. The reason I noticed that they were in flower was the hovering, zooming skipper butterflies over the plants. Sometimes, just about every flower on the plant harbored a skipper, and this plant has a lot of flowers. So, the color comes from the butterflies, bees and flies that visit the plant more than the flowers themselves. Overall, a great deal and much more animated than simple flowers.

Seems like this is a pretty good example of regenerative design. Three small aster plants have five or six species of butterflies (I didn’t get decent photos of the other two – another species of skipper and a buckeye), two or three species of bees, drone flies and whatever might show up later. That’s just the herbivores. There are also jumping spiders, preying on the skippers, and probably mantises as well.

Imagine that this had been a patch of lawn, instead. The herbivore would be a lawn mower, probably with a two stroke engine capable of spewing out more smog than the average small car. There would be no butterflies, bees, spiders or grasshoppers. Just controlled, mowed, sterile and perhaps toxic lawn. But the fun thing isn’t imagining this as lawn – it’s imagining lawn transformed into regenerative green spaces. Think of all the life that would appear, and all the noise and pollution that wouldn’t.


Native plants, native bees. Alien plants, alien bees

You might think that bees think like this: see nectar, drink nectar. Find pollen, collect pollen. Simple, but incorrect. It’s more like European bees have European tastes and native bees have native tastes.

Our familiar honeybees originated in Europe. They generally like European flowers: thyme, rosemary, lavender, mint, oregano, stone fruit and apple blossoms. Yarrow and native sage, not so much. They like California poppies, so at least they can develop new tastes.

On the other hand, I’ve never seen a native bee in the thyme. Same for the other European mint family plants. Native bees love native plants, apparently: annual wildflowers, yarrow Pozo blue sage… Each plant has it’s own fans; carpenter bees don’t visit yarrow and leafcutters don’t visit the sage.

There are a lot of species of native bees. Most are small, with the notable exception of the carpenter bees. They don’t build honeycombs or any of that stuff, either. They’re solitary bees who eschew hive dwelling for a simpler lifestyle, typically nesting in the ground or in holes in wood or plant stems without forming large colonies. Leaving some areas with bare ground gives these species a place to dig their nest holes. Wood blocks for leafcutter bees (megachilids in Latin) are even available commercially, since these bees are very good at pollinating alfalfa.

Carpenter bees are big, black and fly with a loud buzz. There is also an ocher color variant, that seems to come out earlier in the year and is much fuzzier than the black, shiny bees flying now. As their name suggests, they nest in holes in wood. So far, we haven’t managed to attract any of them to the stumps we’ve left around, but they must have a nest somewhere because there certainly are a lot of them in our native sage.

Leaf-cutter bees also nest in holes in wood, although they don’t chew them out themselves. These bees are supposedly great pollinators and some are important agriculturally. In the garden, we seem to get the species that cuts circular leaves in roses. The bees carry off the trimmings to feed to their larvae, leaving the rose bush looking like someone took some kind of hole punch to the leaves. So, is a good pollinator that also does strange things to rose bushes a beneficial insect or….? In any case, I like watching them cut the leaf pieces since it’s kind of like a cartoon where someone stands on a plank that he saws off. The bees use the same technique, sitting on the piece of leaf to be cut, slicing it off with their mandibles and falling a short distance with the piece until they fly off to their nest.

Other native bees tend to be small. Some are brightly colored, others black and white. None of them really looks like a honeybee. None of them builds honeycombs.

Bees are not the same as wasps or hornets, although they’re related. Wasps (sphecids and vespids) are typically larger. Vespids make nests and form large colonies, and have painful stings (most native bees are more docile and some are even stingless). Wasps aren’t a bad thing to have around despite their stings, since many are predators of caterpillars and are therefore considered beneficial insects.

There are a lot of bee groups promoting bee friendly gardens. For some reason, they often tend to write in “bee style”. Although I find this style grating and obnoxious instead of cute, it’s certainly popular. Here’s what I mean:

Be friendly to bees and they’ll bee friendly to you. Bee-come a bee-nevolent bee-nefactor by planting bee-friendly plants to bee-nefit bee populations bee-yond your garden and restore bee-o-diversity in your area. Bee populations are bee-ing menaced by habitat loss for native species and disease for honeybees. So bee active, bee ecological and bee aware of which plants bring buzzing bee-auty. Plant a variety of bee plants that bloom throughout the year so there will be nectar and pollen for bees of all kinds. Catch the buzz and bee-friend your local bees!

Yeah, it’s pretty much like that. Except that they’re serious. I’m just bee-ing facetious.