Tag Archives: wildlife gardening

What to Plant in Clay Soil in the Santa Cruz Mountains

              "The soil is made of butterfly wings, dinosaur teeth, pumpkin seeds, lizard skins, and fallen leaves.
                  Put your hands in the soil and touch yesterday, and all that will be left of tomorrow shall return
                                         so that new life can celebrate this day."  -Betty Peck

Soil is a wonderful thing. It grows our food, anchors our trees and provides a foundation under our feet. But it sure can be hard to work with if it’s not the soft, crumbly loam that many plants prefer. It’s amazing that anything grows in some of the soils here in the Santa Cruz mountains. Some folks garden in an ancient sea bed of sand and there are others who have such heavy clay in their gardens that you wonder how anything survives.  Recently I helped plant in the dense clay of Garrahan Park in Boulder Creek and I dedicate this column to those of you with similar inhospitable soils.

The soil in Boulder Creek required a pick ax to break up enough to plant. Sound familiar?  Although rich in nutrients it needed compost in many areas to provide the environment  necessary so beneficial microbes, worms and other critters could do their work and aerate the soil. A thick layer of mulch will be spread over the soil by The Boy Scouts to preserve the structure and prevent it from packing down again.

There are many plants that are tolerant of clay soils and plant selection is half the equation. The park chose mostly California natives that won’t need fertilization or pruning, can be eventually weaned from irrigation and will provide food for the birds and visiting children. Juncus, a type of grass, red-flowering currant, redtwig dogwood, California rose and western redbud will be the stars of the park in the wet, clay soil. The drier side of the park was planted with deer grass, toyon, California rose, huckleberry, coffeeberry , ceanothus, native honeysuckle, vine maple, native iris and California fescue grass.

I’m sure the park will be the crown jewel of the area and hopefully you will come to visit and see the progress of the plants. Kinda like a local demonstration garden in the San Lorenzo Valley.

There are plants from similar environments in other parts of the world that would also do well if you garden in heavy soil. One of my favorite trees for these conditions is the strawberry tree. Also hackberry, ash, gingko and paperbark trees work well also. Shrubs to try include flowering quince, bottlebrush, Australian fuchsia, smoke tree, escallonia, pineapple guava, mahonia, osmanthus, Italian buckthorn, elderberry and vitex. Easy perennials for clay soils are yarrow, bergenia, carex grasses, fortnight lily, coreopsis, echinacea, nepeta, salvia, teucrium and verbena to name just a few.

If you’re not familiar with some of these plants it’s easy to see what they look like by Googling images. It’s what I do to see a plant full grown and not just a line drawing or a close-up of the flower.

So you see, there are plants that will be successful even in heavy, clay soil, you just have to pick the right ones.

Attracting Birds to your Garden

Fall brings with it not only foliage color but also colorful fruits and berries that invite birds into your garden. If you’re a backyard birder you probably already have lots of plants to lure our feathered friends,

If you have room for a new tree, consider Paul’s scarlet hawthorn.  With clusters of double rose flowers and small vivid red fruits resembling tiny apples in late summer and fall that hang from the branches well into winter, this tree offers interest in more than one season.  Robins are attracted to hawthorn berries.
 
Flowering crabapples sport showy edible fruit relished by many birds in the winter, including black-headed grosbeaks.  Fruit color ranges from reddish purple, brilliant red to golden orange.  Crabapples are good lawn trees and their spring blossoms are stunning.  To avoid disfiguring diseases, choose varieties that are resistant to cedar-apple rust, scab and powdery mildew.   Among these is ‘Prairiefire‘, with pink flowers and dark red fruit.  This tree grows 20 feet tall.
 
A native that puts on a fall show is  A background plant most of the year, the white berries on this 4-foot shrub stand out when the leaves drop.  Snowberry is a good choice for erosion control on banks.

Looking like clusters of pale purple pearls, the gorgeous fruits of beautyberry ( Callicarpa ) are born well into winter.  This deciduous shrub reaches to 6 feet and takes sun or light shade.
 
For both bird-attracting berries and brilliant winter stems, plant redtwig dogwood.  Native along creeks and other moist spots from northern California through the Northwest, it performs well with little additional summer water once established in gardens
 
Other shrubs with beautiful colored berries include barberry, cotoneaster, currant, elderberry, mahonia, nandina and pyracantha.  As an added bonus many of these berries make good holiday decorations, too. 

 

Butterflies of the Santa Cruz Mountains

Have you noticed how many butterflies are visiting your garden lately?   I see California Sister, Common Buckeye and Western Tiger Swallowtail everywhere I look. We have about area. Many of these occur only in our mountains, forests and chaparral environments. They are easy to attract and make a permanent feature of your landscape. Here’s how.

Butterflies are less efficient than bees as pollinators but have their place in the ecosystem. They do not pick up much pollen on their bodies. Still they visit a variety of wildflowers and other plants to probe for nectar adding beauty and color to the garden. Did you know that butterflies taste with their feet?

To attract the species of butterfly most common in your area, a butterfly garden should include plants that accommodate all stages of the life cycle ( egg, larvae, pupa and adult ). When both adult nectar and larval host plants are available, they will attract and support a butterfly population. In addition to the right plants, your garden should also have sun, a water source, protection from wind and plants in clusters. When maintaining your garden avoid the use of insecticides, including BT.

As adults, most butterflies feed on the nectar of flowers. Some local butterflies, however, like the Mourning Cloak and Red Admiral, feed primarily on rotting fruit or tree sap for moisture and nutrients and the California Sister also feeds on aphid honeydew.

In the larval stage, most butterfly species are limited to a single plant family and occasionally a single genus. To attract more Western Tiger Swallowtails, for instance, provide larval host plants such as willow, sycamore, alder, Big Leaf maple, sycamore, plum and ash. Common Buckeye lay their eggs on mimulus and verbena while California Sister use the coast and canyon live oak. Planting a variety of grasses and shrubs like ceanothus, buckwheat, coffeeberry, bush lupine and manzanita and also perennials like redwood violet, California aster and wallflower to attract a variety of local butterflies. If your garden is near a wild area that naturally supports the caterpillar stage, you can plant just the nectar plants to attract butterflies to your garden.

Filling your garden with nectar producing flowers is the fun part. Adult butterflies rely on sugar-rich nectar for their daily fuel. Different species have different flower color and shape preferences. Many butterflies produce scents that attract the opposite sex and many of these scents smell like the flowers that they are attracted to and visit. The scent of these butterfly pollinated flowers may have evolved as an adaptation to ensure their survival.

Butterflies typically favor flat, clustered flowers that provide a landing pad although larger butterflies can feed on penstemon and salvias while hovering. Butterflies have good vision but a weak sense of smell. Unlike bees, butterflies can see red and are attracted to brightly colored flowers. PInk, red, orange, yellow and purple are the most attractive nectar source colors but they also use blue and white.

Consider the blooming time of each plant. Having plants blooming in the sun for many hours in the day will lengthen your viewing time. Nectar rich flowers include yarrow, aster, verbena, scabiosa, buckwheat, toyon, salvia, erysimum, zinnia, lantana and coneflower.

In addition to nectar, butterflies need a source of water and salts. A patch of mud kept wet year round or a shallow depression lined with pebbles and kept moist will work fine. Also provide some flat rocks for them to bask in the sun in an area protected from the wind by shrubs.

Having your own butterfly garden will enable you to witness close-up the wonder of butterflies and the flowers on which they feed.
 

Resilient Plants for Santa Cruz Gardeners

We all approach the new gardening season with enthusiasm and optimism. Then the rain come down hard and pelts your new plants into the ground, the nights turn cold again and some of the plants in your garden aren’t so happy anymore. That’s when you need some tried and true plants to star in your landscape no matter what Mother Nature throws at you.

I’m often asked to give suggestions for resilient plants for a problem spot. These plants may have beautiful foliage, bark and texture, too, and serve two purposes in the garden. They may have flowers for some of the year to provide nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds or berries to feed wildlife. Most of all they are easy to care for and trouble free.

Snowberry gets an A+ for all of these qualities. A California native of shaded, mixed evergreen and oak woodlands, this 3-6 ft shrub thrives in a variety of locations including the dry shade under large trees like oaks. It tolerates poor soil and neglect and will grow well in full shade but blooms better and produces more berries if it gets some sun. Clusters of pure white berries appear in late summer and early fall and last through much of the winter. In late spring or early summer, its pretty blue-green leaves provide a nice contrast to the tiny pink flowers which hummingbirds love. Bees produce a white honey from their nectar rich pollen.

They can be pruned as a nice hedge providing twiggy, dense shelter for wildlife.Because of their vigorous root system, they are useful to stabilize banks and slopes. Maintenance is easy- simply prune away some of the suckers every few years to keep it in check. If it gets too tall,  shear it back in late winter to keep compact. The berries are not the first choice for most birds but thrushes will eat them if there isn’t anything else available. Other wildlife will eat the berries, too.

Lewis and Clark collected this plant and brought it back to Thomas Jefferson. It was sent to England in 1817 and became a popular garden novelty among plant collectors there.

If showy flowers are what you’re looking for in a specific spot, the perennial Phygelius would make a nice addition to your garden. This large 3-4 ft plant blooms from early spring into fall and you can grow them in full sun or light shade. Related to snapdragons and penstemon, the flowers also suggest fuchsias which is where they get their common name, Cape Fuchsia. Coral Princess is one of my favorites with lots of tubular, soft salmon and yellow flowers which attract hummingbirds.

In the same bed you might plant a few to fill and and add a nice contrast at the base of the Cape Fuchsias. This bright bluish-pink true geranium groundcover grows 8" tall and spreads slowly but widely. Easy to care for true geraniums are hardy in the winter, need just average watering and can be sheared each fall for fresh spring flowers.
 

Backyard Wildlife Certification

One of my New Year resolutions is to get my garden certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. It will be fun for me and would also be a good school project for your kids. They can keep track of all the birds, butterflies, dragonflies, insects, mammals, lizards and frogs that come to visit your yard. Once your backyard is certified by NWF, you can order and display an attractive Certified Wildlife Habitat sign to convey your commitment to wildlife conservation and the environment and help spread the word to your neighbors.

All species of wildlife need the basics of food, water, cover and places to raise young. We can help conserve our natural resources like soil, water, air and habitat for native wildlife by gardening in an environmentally friendly way.  Here are some of the simple steps I’m doing in my small garden garden to reach this goal.

To provide food in my shady garden I plan to include Ca. native snowberry, pink flowering currant and mahonia for berries that attract birds.  Hummingbirds will find nectar from coral bells, western columbine and fuchsia-flowering currants. I also keep my feeders up year round for them.

Butterflies will like like Santa Barbara daisy, sweet alyssum and columbine. Plants that will attract beneficial insects are Ca. rose, coast live oak and ceanothus. Although I try to plant natives for their beauty and toughness, I believe that finding the right balance by mixing natives with non natives can enhance benefits to wildlife.

Next, I provide clean water for drinking, bathing and reproduction. I don’t have room for a pond but I do have bird baths that I keep filled year round. I’m also planning to make a puddling area for butterflies.

Wildlife need places to find shelter from the weather and predators. I keep some areas of my garden orderly but leave some less manicured. I plant in layers providing a canopy or tree layer, a shrub layer and a ground cover layer. This provides a large range of sheltering, feeding and nesting sites. Keep in mind, wildlife need to feel safe in their surroundings. They tend to steer clear of large, open spaces. I find most of the wildlife that visit my yard start at the wooded area in the back and work their way up through dense shrubs, wild berries, a dead tree and a small log pile.

Evergreens and deciduous trees provide nesting areas for birds. The rock wall and leaf pile are favorite spots for mice, sakes and salamander to lay their eggs or raise young. Butterfly larvae find food on host ceanothus, huckleberry, oaks, bleeding hearts, foxglove, sweet alyssum, ornamental strawberry, dogwood, viburnum, crabapple and red flowering currant. I’d plant a wisteria for them if I had more sun.

I conserve our valuable resources by doing simple measures like mulching, using drip and soaker hoses, planting low-water use plants like natives suited to this area, using organic pesticides only when necessary and using organic fertilizers.

In my little corner of the world, I’ve created a beautiful wildlife garden. Visit the National Wildlife Federation at NWF.org to get started on your own certification.

Layering Plants for Wildlife

I confess , I’m a lazy gardener.  In July, my idea of working in the garden consists of removing seed pods from the fuchsias and trimming a few parsley and basil springs for dinner. I don’t have to spend time spraying for harmful insects and diseases because the birds and other creatures I encourage in my garden provide natural pest control. Having wildlife in the garden saves time and money, too.

A wildlife garden doesn’t have to be messy. It just requires the right balance between form and function. Areas close to the house can look more refined because they get more attention. Spots farther away from the house can be a little more relaxed because they are seen at a distance.

Plant in layers, providing a canopy or tree layer, a shrub layer and a ground cover layer. This provides the greatest range of sheltering, feeding and nesting sites for birds and other creatures. Towhees, black-headed juncos and robins like to stick to the shrub layer but are frequently found foraging in leaf litter on the ground where they find insects for food. Warblers and chickadees tend to search for insects in the canopy layer. 

Many native plants provide essential food and foraging areas for wildlife. Plants from similar climates like the Mediterranean region also have benefits for wildlife.

Coffeeberry are a favorite for many birds. This native grows in full sun or partial shade and aren’t fussy about soil. Established plant need no irrigation but will accept regular gardening watering unlike many other natives. They make up for small inconspicuous flowers with large berries than turn from green to red to black as they ripen. Use this 4-8 ft. shrub for your middle layer.

If it’s summer color you’re after, look to Vitex agnus-caste. This large shrub can be trained as a multi-stemmed small shade tree if you like. Fragrant lavender-blue flower spikes cover this plant summer to fall. Even the leaves are aromatic with handsome lacy, fanlike leaflets. Vitex thrives in heat with moderate water and is deer resistant.

Pacific wax myrtle is another shrub to use in your middle layer as a screen.  This 10 ft evergreen can also be trained as a small 30 ft tree. It’s one of the best looking native plants for the garden with aromatic glossy dark green leaves. Clusters of tiny berries are a favorite food source for several species of birds, especially warblers.

Other natives for the middle layer include Howard McMinn manzanita, Ray Harman ceanothus, bush anemone, western redbud, snowberry, pink-flowering currant and philadelphus. Native plants for the ground cover layer would also include Emerald Carpet manzanita and Yankee Point ceanothus.

You don’t need a lot of land or a huge garden to use the layering principal. Even the smallest yard can have all three layers that offer beauty and shade for us and nesting sites, food and foraging areas for wildlife.