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What to plant in your urban garden for the birds, bees and butterflies

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Ideas and plants to welcome wildlife

Get started with five great habitat plants

Drought-tolerant native salvias are a great source of nectar for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, especially our year-round resident, Anna’s hummingbird, which nests as early as January. Brandegee sage and “Pt. Sal Spreader” are two favorites.

Coffeeberry is an attractive, evergreen and multifunctional shrub. It has nectar flowers for pollinators in the spring and berries for birds and is a host plant for several butterflies. Rhamnus californica “Mound San Bruno” has a rounded compact shape.

Native bunchgrasses are long-lived, easy to grow and maintain and drought tolerant, forming a permanent ground cover. They offer more protection from fire than naturalized grasses and have more habitat value. Tiny butterflies, the grass skippers, use them as host plants and birds use them for cover, foraging sites and nesting materials. Ladybird beetles congregate on the native fescues and other bunchgrasses.

Buckwheats are drought tolerant and are food and host plants for butterflies, a rich source of pollen for bees and other beneficial insects. They also offer cover and seeds for birds. Try red buckwheat (erigonum grande rubescens).

Milkweed is a critical plant to include, as the only caterpillar food plant for the endangered Monarch butterfly. Narrowleaf milkweed, showy milkweed and Indian milkweed are a few of the easier native species to find. If you plant tropical milkweed be sure to cut it back in the fall. Plant 3-5 at least of each species. Best planted in areas that are away from foot traffic.

For more information:

Habitatcorridorproject.org

Livinglearninglandscapes.com

AprilOwensDesign.com: 707-634-6192

Milobaker.cnps.org

Eco-friendly virtual garden tour: savingwaterpartnership.org/eco-friendly-garden-tour/

FOUR WAYS TO WELCOME WILDLIFE

— Add a water feature. Owens uses shallow boulders with a drip emitter line. When your irrigation runs, the pollinators get some water. But you can also try a birdbath or bowl of water with a landing pad.

— Create a hummingbird and butterfly swale by digging an 8-24-inch shallow trench for water to collect. Add small pebbles at the bottom. Butterflies like getting their water from moist places like wet dirt and rocks. Surround it with a bunch of hummingbird sage (salvia spathacea), deer grass (muhlenbergia rigens) and milkweed (asclepias species).

— Leave some areas of your garden unmulched with bare ground for native bee habitat.

— Create a twig and scrap pile for birds. Every garden needs a little mess, and the birds love it.

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.”

Demonstration gardens

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 Community Center on Morris 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.

Ideas and plants to welcome wildlife

Get started with five great habitat plants

Drought-tolerant native salvias are a great source of nectar for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, especially our year-round resident, Anna’s hummingbird, which nests as early as January. Brandegee sage and “Pt. Sal Spreader” are two favorites.

Coffeeberry is an attractive, evergreen and multifunctional shrub. It has nectar flowers for pollinators in the spring and berries for birds and is a host plant for several butterflies. Rhamnus californica “Mound San Bruno” has a rounded compact shape.

Native bunchgrasses are long-lived, easy to grow and maintain and drought tolerant, forming a permanent ground cover. They offer more protection from fire than naturalized grasses and have more habitat value. Tiny butterflies, the grass skippers, use them as host plants and birds use them for cover, foraging sites and nesting materials. Ladybird beetles congregate on the native fescues and other bunchgrasses.

Buckwheats are drought tolerant and are food and host plants for butterflies, a rich source of pollen for bees and other beneficial insects. They also offer cover and seeds for birds. Try red buckwheat (erigonum grande rubescens).

Milkweed is a critical plant to include, as the only caterpillar food plant for the endangered Monarch butterfly. Narrowleaf milkweed, showy milkweed and Indian milkweed are a few of the easier native species to find. If you plant tropical milkweed be sure to cut it back in the fall. Plant 3-5 at least of each species. Best planted in areas that are away from foot traffic.

For more information:

Habitatcorridorproject.org

Livinglearninglandscapes.com

AprilOwensDesign.com: 707-634-6192

Milobaker.cnps.org

Eco-friendly virtual garden tour: savingwaterpartnership.org/eco-friendly-garden-tour/

FOUR WAYS TO WELCOME WILDLIFE

— Add a water feature. Owens uses shallow boulders with a drip emitter line. When your irrigation runs, the pollinators get some water. But you can also try a birdbath or bowl of water with a landing pad.

— Create a hummingbird and butterfly swale by digging an 8-24-inch shallow trench for water to collect. Add small pebbles at the bottom. Butterflies like getting their water from moist places like wet dirt and rocks. Surround it with a bunch of hummingbird sage (salvia spathacea), deer grass (muhlenbergia rigens) and milkweed (asclepias species).

— Leave some areas of your garden unmulched with bare ground for native bee habitat.

— Create a twig and scrap pile for birds. Every garden needs a little mess, and the birds love it.

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.”

Network of oases

Owens is installing four other gardens in Mark West and Fountaingrove, creating a network of nearby oases for wildlife. She also is doing six in the Bennett Ridge area on the other side of Santa Rosa. Each adds to the corridor with plants that provide food and protection.

Owens dreamed up The Habitat Corridor Project while working on her master’s degree in sustainable enterprise at Dominican College. She wanted to design a for-profit business that fed into a nonprofit. Her landscape business, April Owens Designs, would donate part of its income to the nonprofit Habitat Corridor Project.

Her collaboration with Bauer, the author of “The California Wildlife Habitat Garden: How to Attract Bees, Butterflies, Birds, and Other Animals,” led to the creation of the Habitat Corridor Project. Their vision is to lead by example, replacing high-maintenance lawns and water-intensive landscapes with California native gardens.

The two demonstration gardens they started with in Sebastopol, in front of the Chamber of Commerce on Main Street and outside the Community Center on Morris Street, show how attractive a native garden can look with the right plants and good planning. Ceanothus, California’s striking native lilac, is in bloom now with deep cobalt blue pannicles. It stands out among other hedgerow plants — salt bush, wax myrtle and coffeeberry, one of Owens’ favorites, as well as attractive perennials such as coyote mint and California’s native fuchsia.

While an all-native garden is the most sustainable, Owens said you don’t have to give up all the plants you love, as long as you create a balance.

“I believe in using the plant community that is local to you to create sanctuaries in your garden with just a few native plants that work for what you want to bring in,” Owens said. “If you want butterflies, you need to make sure you get a few plants that are going to relate to butterflies. Or say you love bumblebees. You need to make sure you have plants that will bring those sweet bumblebees to your garden.”

Owens and Bauer just finished a third demonstration garden in front of Bear’s Meadow, a condominium complex on Bodega Avenue that will create a habitat corridor through nearby Ives Park.

Continuing their project in Santa Rosa, they are completing installation of a series of gardens in front of five homes owned by Santa Rosa Junior College. Done in cooperation with the Sonoma County Master Gardeners, The California Native Plant Society Milo Baker Chapter, Sonoma-Marin Water Saving Partnership, Sustainable SRJC and the city of Santa Rosa, the project shows what a typical homeowner on a smaller city lot can do. Each garden has a different theme, such as gardening under oaks, under redwoods, creating an extremely drought-tolerant landscape or a cottage garden. Free plans are available, with an extensive plant list, at LivingLearningLandscapes.com. Some are accessible, with schematics, at habitatcorridorproject.org.

The gardens will be featured on Sonoma Water’s Eco-Friendly Garden Tour. The in-person tour has been canceled for 2020, but video footage of the gardens will be featured online, at savingwaterpartnership.org/eco-friendly-garden-tour.

With funding from Rebuild North Bay, Owens will lead five workshops on creating resilient landscapes. Done in partnership with Sonoma Ecology Center and the Sonoma Master Gardeners, they will get underway once the current shelter-in-place order is lifted.

Across the state

Beyond Sonoma County, the Habitat Corridor Project has secured money through the state Department of Water Resources to create habitat in the Central Valley, in Fresno, Merced and Visalia. They’re working primarily in low-income neighborhoods to install gardens that can serve as models.

“We want to be able to show people things they can do to make their gardens beautiful,” Owens said.

Although many businesses are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, hardware stores, agriculture supply companies and many nurseries remain open with some level of service. So planting natives in the spring, when their young roots can benefit from spring showers, can be a healing project as people hunker down at home.

“This COVID virus issue just keeps bringing it back to our backyards,” Owens said. “Our urban gardens are such healing places for all of us stuck in our own little spaces.”

Staff Writer Meg McConahey can be reached at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204.

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