One Gardener's Adventure Building a Habitat Garden
By Mary Lou Milkoff, Sonoma County Master Gardener
As I look out my window, I see an eager gray squirrel, intent on
scavenging seed, peering at the bird feeder swinging above him. No doubt he wishes that he could enter its caged interior as easily as the finches and towhees. A softy cooing, gray mourning dove perches on the edge of the upright birdbath, flying off at my approach.
Birdfeeders and birdbaths are attractions for many wild species, and become a focal point for viewing them, but they do not create habitat--the natural environment for animals, insects and plants. The birds drop by, as we would a local diner, but they live elsewhere. My goal is to create a true and diverse wildlife habitat by preparing garden areas and planting and nurturing California native plants. These areas will invite and sustain the wild things around me, specifically birds, bees, butterflies and beneficial insects.
Fresh out of the Master Gardener Class of 2011, I am not an expert on any garden subject, thus my journey into habitat building will be a challenge. And so I
will learn. Living on five unfenced, hilly, rocky acres of oak and bay, with a scattering of madrone and fir, I have not the intention nor the funds to transform all of the property into a wildlife park. Rather, I have identified two specific areas for my native habitats. The first, I call the West deck area, and the second I’ve dubbed the South hillside. The hillside will eventually contain a crescent-shaped hedgerow of native shrubs providing a screen from the driveway as well as habitat.
The West deck area is near the bird feeders and bird bath and is shaped like a Salvador Dali hourglass. Water is available here to install drip lines, so the tiny perennials and shrubs that I plant will survive the first year. A purely sunny spot is hard to come by on the tree-dense property, but this space faces west, on a slope, backed on the north, east and south by trees. The top of the hourglass is in shade, while the bottom is drenched in afternoon sun.
I soaked the ground in preparation for exploratory spading. After scraping away or pulling the many weeds, my shovel detected few large rocks except in the middle of the hourglass, destined to become the connecting path. Hooray! I will be able to use the native soil and not have to buy and haul in a large quantity of top soil to make plantable mounds. A few plants reside there now: bearded iris, daffodils, a Perovskia atriplicifolia (Russian Sage), Rudbeckia hirta, three lavandula, three Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon.’ All are non-natives that I will move to other spots on the property. Then I will have a usable space. What should I plant in keeping with my goal of habitat building?
Now comes the research! I found a wonderful pamphlet published by the Master Gardeners of Sonoma County entitled Habitat Plants for Birds, Butterflies, and Beneficial Insects. The Master Gardener website has loads of useful information. As a general introduction, please read Master Gardener Sandy Metzger’s helpful article ”The Habit of Habitat Gardening” . I also am consulting California Native Plants for the Garden, by Bornstein, Foss and O’Brien; Designing California Native Gardens, by Keator and Middlebrook; and Growing California Native Plants, by Schimdt. Those should keep me busy for awhile. I am on my way to creating a native, creature-friendly, water-wise garden. Sorry, deer! I will have to put a temporary fence around the new plantings until they are large enough to survive your browsing.
Stay tuned...I’m going to share the results of my research in Part 2!