The November page of my Nature Conservancy calendar states that ‘Roughly the size of Connecticut, San Diego County-with its native grasslands, oak woodlands, sycamore-shaded streams and lush meadows-houses more kinds of native animals and plants than any other county in the continental United States”. Why not encourage those animals, especially birds and butterflies, to share our gardens, thereby enlarging the habitat to which they have access?
As mentioned in my last column, these animals need cover to protect them from hot sun, heavy rain and wind, and predators. They also need safe places to raise their young. Densely-branched evergreen shrubs and trees provide the best shelter and, in many cases, food, too. Our indigenous species of animals are most familiar with plants native to San Diego since they and the plants have co-evolved; these native plants are also likely to be the easiest to care for and the ones requiring the lowest need for supplemental water. Heteromeles arbutifolia (Toyon), Rhus integrifolis (Lemonade Berry), Rhus Laurina (Laurel Sumac), and Rhus ovata (Sugar Bush) all provide dense shelter as well as delicious berries. Our beloved Torrey Pine has nuts and provides cover.
Since animals in the wild are accustomed to a wide variety of plants, providing a smorgasbord of plants attracts more species. Many plants, native to other Mediterranean countries are attractive to our local fauna, as well as migrating visitors so don't be hesitant to include them in your garden. Rhaphiolepis (Indian Hawthorne), Pittosporum (Mock Orange) varieties, Nandina (Heavenly Bamboo) Pyracantha (Firethorn…. the thorns are a good deterrent to predators) and Junipers are all readily available in our local nurseries. Like our natives, all are easy to grow, provide good shelter and places to raise young, and are loaded with tasty berries. Those folks, who think these plants are boring and overused, may change their minds when they witness the hive of activity they encourage! Other good choices include Bottlebrush (Callistemon viminalis) which shelters Hummingbirds, Finches and Mockingbirds all year long. Orioles and tanagers (AND large ravens) enjoy flitting among the high branches of our Eucalyptus trees.
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Plants that provide nectar attract butterflies and hummingbird and, sometimes, even orioles. Salvias, Penstemon, Alstromeria, Fuchsias and Zauschneria have colorful tubular flowers that are nectar-filled.
Butterflies and moths also need the ‘host' plants that will feed their young (caterpillars). The gorgeous Black Swallowtail butterfly will arrive almost instantly if you plant Cosmos, Fennel, or Parsley. And, anyone who has grown broccoli or cabbage knows very well, that it is a host plant or the cabbage moth larvae!
In the wild, the largest number of animal species lives at the ‘edges' where forests and meadows meet. If your garden combines an assortment of tall trees, middle-sized shrubs and low perennials and grasses, such as the varieties mentioned above, it will attract many species. While mowed lawns are appealing to Robins and Brown Towhees, large expanses of lawn make animals, especially birds, very vulnerable, so it's best to limit the size of lawns and be sure to provide low branching shrubs, to which birds can escape from prowling cats or hawks, on the perimeter.
Finally, don't be too quick to clean up your garden. Decaying plant material provides a home for a multitude of insects. A rich diet of insects, worms and caterpillars provides protein to many species of birds. Try to limit the use of pesticides and let the birds take care of eliminating many of the insects.
Providing a wild habitat, even in a small garden, can benefit our entire community by providing a beautiful sustainable landscape that thrives with little water, fertilizer or pesticides.