What to plant in your urban garden for the birds, bees and butterflies
When people put in their landscapes or gardens, they usually pick plants that are either utilitarian or eye-pleasing. But Sebastopol landscape architect April Owens is on a mission to encourage people to think about their own yards, however grand or small, as way stations for winged wildlife.
Through her nonprofit Habitat Corridor Project, Owens is working to create a critical mass of gardens and landscapes that provide at least a little something for the birds, bees, bugs and butterflies that need native plants to thrive.
“We have become dependent on nonnative pollinators, like the European honeybee,” she said. “We have not focused at all on our native
California pollinators who are very powerful. But they need certain plants to feed them. If we can add into our gardens a ?percentage of native plants, those pollinators can have these islands to go to throughout our communities.”
It’s all interconnected. Birds, she said, eat 500 million tons of insects a year, and those insects depend on native plants.
“Specialization in the natural world is the rule rather than the exception. So some insects will use nonnatives, but most need their specific native,” Owens said. “I’ll watch the life on a native salvia versus a nonnative, and there is an abundance of diversity on the native compared to the non. I’ve seen it over and over.”
A key element of the project’s work is creating demonstration gardens to show people what a well-thought-out native garden can look like. Teaming up with West County habitat gardening expert Nancy Bauer, a partner in the project, Owens created the first demonstration garden in front of the Sebastopol Chamber of Commerce on Main Street five years ago. They added a second landscape on a large corner in front of the Sebastopol Center for the Arts on High Street. Now they’re completing a series of gardens in front of five homes owned by Santa Rosa Junior College on Elliott Street, bordering the campus off Mendocino Avenue. All are in places the public can drive by and see.
Owens also saw a big opportunity, with the loss of so many gardens and landscapes in wildfires, to move the project forward by encouraging fire victims to replant their yards in ways that are more welcoming to wildlife. That means sustainable landscapes that are drought tolerant and more resistant to fire and also provide forage and cover for birds and insects. The Habitat Corridor Project has been offering free consultations for property owners rebuilding after fires. But anyone may get planning help for a $75 donation.
Niessa Diehl lost her home of 18 years in the Tubbs fire in the woodsy Mark West area of northeast Santa Rosa. She and husband Steve reached out to Owens, seeing a chance to create some good out of the tragedy. The three acres around the house was torched, including 100 mature oak trees, a heartbreaking blow for the Diehls.
“Our biggest sadness was the loss of two massive heritage oak trees that graced the whole entrance to our home,” Diehl said. “It was a very special property, with a really simple home. It was the property that was spectacular.”
Owens came up with a plan incorporating big masses of plants, always more effective and more attractive that planting a bunch of single plants of different types.
Diehl said her landscape before the fire was a “hodge podge” developed without any particular plan or vision over many years. There were geraniums and roses but few truly native plants.
Traumatized by the sight of a denuded landscape that once was lush with trees, they started putting in plants as soon as they broke ground on their new house, on the same lot, in June 2018. By the time they moved in last August, there was life reemerging.
“We had been looking at a dead forest. But now there were little pockets of blooms with bees and butterflies,” she said.
Owens brought in a meadow of No Mow Fescue, a soft turf substitute that the dogs love and that doesn’t need much water or maintenance. For the wildlife, there is a large mass of flowering sage and other pollinator-friendly natives such as coffeeberry, a low-growing mounding variety called “San Bruno” and Apricot Mallow, a pretty plant commonly seen throughout Sonoma County. Other features serve to “harden” the landscape against wildfire, such as walls and an attractive stone swale for drainage.
“We’re trying to live in more harmony with what is a natural reality for where we live,” Diehl said of her vastly different new landscape. “We now have a lot of rocks and pebbles and other decorative features around our house instead of bark. It’s a modern, clean feel. I don’t have to worry about it, and that’s a good peace of mind.”