Resilience Gardening is a monthly feature during the pandemic in which our Director of Horticulture gives advice to gardeners interested in regenerative gardening. This month, we discuss gardening for wildlife.

(1) You use regenerative gardening practices at Arlington Garden — how would you characterize regenerative gardening and how does it help create habitat for our local species?

My gardening philosophy, even before I knew the expression “regenerative gardening,” has always been to imitate the natural processes that occur in forests. The most important among these are rebuilding the soil by avoiding soil disturbance (to encourage the network of beneficial fungi), capturing rainwater, and putting carbon (in the form of brown plant matter) back into the soil to sequester it.

By using these practices, your garden is going to be well-balanced, and it will not require the use of pesticides or other chemical agents such as fertilizers. This balance allows the garden to support a great diversity of plants and associated insects, which are all part of this system, and provide food and shelter for native birds and other animals.

(2) What are some strategies that a home gardener can use to attract wildlife to their yard? What about a container gardener on a balcony?

Planting a garden with diverse plant-life is probably the easiest and fastest way to attract wildlife. If you want a true wildlife habitat, you want an assortment of plant species [see some of the species discussed below], some kind of water source, food sources, and no chemicals (e.g. pesticides). You can use these strategies in a yard or in smaller-scale balcony garden.

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) berries, image credit Julia Markey 2020 CC 4.0

(3) Are there any plant species that you would describe as habitat “super-hosts” here in Southern California?

It all depends on what you want to attract to your garden. There are so many different options!

Pollinators are often attracted to umbels [umbrella-shaped inflorescences] such as those produced by our native Yarrow. Toyon is great for attracting birds that eat berries. Ceanothus attracts hummingbirds and insect pollinators, and its seeds attract birds. Apricot mallow, on the other hand, is great for attracting native bees.

Penstemon newberryi, shown here in habitat but grown in Arlington Garden, image credit Gerald and Buff Corsi copywrite California Academy of Sciences

(4) How can a home gardener attract bird species (in particular) to their garden? What about hummingbirds and butterflies?

For birds, I would begin by figuring out what species you want to attract and then doing research on their diet and nesting behaviors. For instance, by planting dense, twiggy shrubs, you can provide shelter and nesting materials for small birds. Planting tube-shaped flowers, such as native Penstemon and Honeysuckle, will help attract hummingbirds. And a small water source, such as a bird bath, is almost universally appreciated by thirsty birds.

To attract butterflies, you should plant flowers that produce a lot of nectar. Some native nectar-rich species include:

(5) What is the most surprising species you have seen supported by a habitat garden here in Southern California? 

A fun species to see is the ‘Black Witch’ Ceanothus moth (Ascalapha odorata)! It’s as big a bat (about a 6.5 inch wingspan)!

(6) In the past, we have had multiple conversations about so-called “weeds” that are actually really great food and shelter sources for native wildlife. What is one that comes to mind right now? 

  • Sow thistle is great for attracting aphids (and hence ladybugs), and Goldfinches love the seeds!
  • Common mallow is also a great habitat for ladybugs: in fact, you can often find all four life-stages of the ladybug at the same time on the common mallow. 
  • Grassy weeds provide great nesting material for certain bird species.

(7) What is a step that a home gardener can take *right now* to make their garden, yard, or balcony friendlier to wildlife? And what is a good resource for learning more?

If possible, stop using all chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers including horticultural oils and soaps. Even the “non-toxic” oils and soaps are harmful to beneficial soft-bodied insects such as ladybug and lacewing larvae. You might also add some of the food sources we discussed above and a small water source. 

You might visit Arlington Garden to see an example of a mature habitat garden. And the California Native Plant Society and the Theodore Payne Foundation both provide resources and planting guides to attract and sustain wildlife!

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