Planting for Wildlife

Ribes King Edward VII – Pink flowering currant are a favorite of hummingbirds.

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 sprigs for dinner. I don’t have to spray 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 me time and money, too. I have a tiny garden now on Boulder Creek but attracting wildlife is just as much fun.

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 isn’t fussy about soil. Established plants 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-castus. 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 Was Myrtle (myrica californica) makes a great screening plant and the
berries are loved by warblers.

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.

What You Can Do to Help the Bees

Common garden plants like this echium ‘Tower of Jewels’ can attract bees to your garden.

Outside the birds are chirping like crazy in anticipation of this year’s nesting activities. The bees are becoming more active every day searching for nectar in the flowering trees and shrubs. Ceanothus season is coming soon and then they’ll really be busy. Last year was a banner year for my native bees and bumble bees. There were also a lot of European honey bees around. Maybe I was just lucky. What can you do to help our pollinators in these times of diminishing habitat, disease, climate change and pesticide use?

There are 1600 species of native bees in Santa Cruz county. They are solely responsible for pollinating many of our native plants. Being solitary they do not make a hive but make nests underground or live in wood, one female per nesting hole and she lays her eggs there. Leaving areas in your garden near flowering plants un-mulched helps her find a nesting hole. The hard working females mate, make nests, collect pollen for their young and lay eggs. Males live to mate and only pollinate inadvertently when they visit flowers for nectar to fuel their flight.

Common native bees in our area are the yellow-faced bumble bee and the long-horned bee which has stripes a little like a yellow jacket. The hard working bumble bee is easy to identify from its bight yellow facial hair and yellow bands on their backs and abdomens. Female bumble bees’ hind legs widen to form pollen baskets often filled with bright yellow, moistened pollen pellets.


The Long-horned native bee gets their name from the long antennae of the males although the females do not have this. Males may be seen by day jostling for female attention above a patch of blooming plants while the females are collecting pollen. Only the females have branched hairs on their legs for carrying pollen.

Bees eat two things: nectar which is loaded with sugar and is their main source of energy and pollen which provides proteins and fats. Some of the common native plants that are recommended for our area to attract bees of all types include yarrow, columbine, California poppy, coral bells, silver lupine, penstemon, ceanothus, toyon, big leaf maple, mahonia, monkey flower, buckwheat, western azalea and purple sage.

Common garden plants that can attract bees to your landscape and vegetable garden are herbs such as African blue basil, oregano, mint, catnip and cat mint, borage, rosemary, chives, hyssop, dill, comfrey and fennel. Edibles that attract bees are blueberry, pumpkin, squash, sunflower, blackberry, hazelnut, artichoke, beans, cucumber and peas. Crabapple, iris, lavender, salvia, sunflowers, monarda, aster, butterfly bush, sweet alyssum, alstroemeria, red hot poker, gloriosa daisy, scabiosa, coneflower and echium also attract bees of all types.

The higher temperatures that come with climate change can affect a bee’s ability to detect a flower’s pollen. A flowers scent is what tells a bee that nectar is present. If the weather gets too hot the plant will spend less energy on producing fragrance and just try to survive. When flowers stop emanating these enticing smells, some bees have a tough time finding food and may abandon certain area. Studies have shown that warming climates already have affected our central coast bumblebee population during the past 30 years especially the California bumblebee.

In your own garden an abundant and healthy population of pollinators can improve fruit set, quality and size. Crops raised in California depend on both domestic honeybees and native bees for pollination of almond, blackberry, cucumber and artichoke crops.

Honeybees and native bees need help to survive and we’re the ones to give it. Besides planting nectar and pollen sources you can help by buying local honey which support beekeepers.

Rethink the Lawn & Save $

This garden sitting area looks inviting after the old lawn was removed.

Water is a precious and vital resource. Our bodies are about 60% water and our brain – a whopping 70%. Less than 1% of the water on the Earth, however, is suitable for human consumption. With the population increasing and the water supply staying the same, water conservation indoors and out is important. A well planned landscape makes water conservation outside the home even easier. Since up to 70% of summer water use comes from landscape irrigation it’s a good place to start.

Both San Lorenzo Valley Water – http://www.slvwd.com – and Scotts Valley Water Districts – http://www.svwd.org – offer many tips and incentives to conserve water. Scotts Valley Water District is even having a limited time offer to double your Lawn/Turf Replacement Rebate from $1 to $2 per square foot when replacing with low water-use alternatives. All sites must have a pre and post inspection completed my June 30, 2021 so don’t miss out on this great opportunity. You can apply on their website by requesting a pre-inspection lawn measurement before April 15th.

The fun part begins when you redesign the area where you took out the lawn or modify the plantings in other beds to include same water use plants. It doesn’t make much sense if you have some plants that require more water than others in the same bed. You have to water to the highest water-use plant to keep everybody happy.

Hydrozoning is the practice of clustering together plants with similar water requirements to conserve water. A planting design where plants are grouped by water needs improves efficiency and plant health by avoiding overwatering or underwatering. And as you move farther away from the water source your plantings should require less water.

An edible garden replaced the old lawn.

When redesigning your landscape start with simple things. Rock, stone, and permeable paths and driveways add visual interest to the landscape and don’t require irrigation. Improving your property’s soil quality aids in saving water regardless of the plants grown there. Organic materials added to the soil help establish a strong root system for plants. Nutrients in the soil allow the plants to become stronger, too. Adding a layer of mulch increases the plant’s efficiency by retaining moisture and keeping the soil temperature stable.

Choose the right plants for your location. California natives or plants from similar climates in the world are low maintenance, low irrigation plants and usually need less tending, fertilizer and pruning. Your choice of groundcover can make a big difference, too, in how much water the landscape saves. Keeping grass areas to a bare minimum reduces the amount of water needed to keep the landscape looking green and fire safe.

Your method or irrigation helps conserve water. Hand watering where possible, especially new plantings, directs the water exactly where it needs to go and you can shut off the hose as soon as the plants receive enough water. A soaker hose is another efficient option that reduces evaporation during the watering process. An automatic irrigation system with a rain sensor, weather based controller or soil moisture sensors is the newest way to save water.

There are lists of drought-tolerant plants and water smart grasses, as well as replacing lawns with drought tolerant or native plants on the Scotts Valley Water District website. Permeable landscape materials such as mulch, decomposed granite, permeable pavers are other ways you can keep your yard looking beautiful and also be water efficient.

Now is the time before it gets hot to look at your irrigation system, plant choices and rebate options to save water and money and recharge our aquifers.

Landscaping for the Allergy Sufferer

Don’t blame Acacia for your sneezing

Everybody blames the Acacia tree for their allergies but they are not the real culprits for the allergy sufferer. I didnt realize just how much redwood pollen is dispersed at this time of year. After those horrific winds a while back my patios were covered with 2 inches of thick yellow redwood flowers. Actually the flowers are the male cone but boy, can they put out the pollen. Ask a friend who is highly allergic just how much her life is affected by our dear redwoods. And because redwoods live in such a narrow band of coast line, there is no allergy shot for those highly affected by them. But back to what you can do in your yard if you suffer from allergies.

Yes, the acacia trees are in full bloom. Being one of the first flowering trees we see they get our attention. Blooming acacias are often blamed as the cause of allergic reactions at this time of year but acacias are largely pollinated by insects and their heavy pollen doesn’t tend to become airborne. It’s the non-showy, quiet plants you have to watch out for. If youre an allergy sufferer some plants are worse than others for you.

About 25-30 popular landscape plants are responsible for the majority of plant-related allergies in California. During the height of the pollen season- from late February to June- there are often thousands of pollen grains in every cubic meter of air. One can breathe hundreds of them with every breath. Though pollen can travel many miles, the majority tend to stay in the general area of their origin.

Redwoods are wind pollinated. Not good for the allergy sufferer.

Redwoods, oaks, alders, ashes and other wind pollinated trees like olives, birch, box elder, cypress, elm, juniper, maple, fruitless mulberry, pine, walnut, willow and privet are the major source of spring pollen. Most native plants are good in the sneezeless landscape but if you have bad allergies or asthma it best to avoid wind-pollinated ceanothus, elderberry and coffeeberry.

You may not be able to avoid those culprits growing on other properties but you can get the most out of your own backyard by creating a sneezeless landscape. Replacing existing plants may be impractical but planning future plantings with these things in mind will save you a lot of headaches down the road and let you enjoy the sunshine outside in your garden.

Flower type is a good way to judge plants. The best looking flowers usually cause allergy sufferers the fewest problems. Plants with bright, showy flowers are usually pollinated by insects, rather than by the wind. These flowers produce less pollen and their pollen is larger and heavier, sticking to the insect rather than becoming airborne and lead to sneezing, a runny nose and watery eyes.

Some trees that are good for anti-allergy gardens are apple, cherry, dogwood, magnolia, pear and plum. Shrubs like azaleas, boxwood, lilac, rose-of-Sharon, hydrangea and viburnum are also not likely to cause problems. Good flower choices include alyssum, begonia, clematis, columbine, bulbs like crocus, daffodil, hyacinth. Also good are dahlia, daisy, geranium, hosta, impatiens, iris, lily, pansy, petunia, phlox, roses, salvia, snapdragon, sunflower, verbena and zinnia. Lawns of perennial rye grass, blue grass and tall fescue blends are usually OK as they will not flower unless allowed to grow to 12 inches or higher. Bermuda grass, on the other hand, can pollinate when the lawn is very short, sometimes as quickly as a few days after mowing.

We dont know whats going to happen rain-wise for us this spring. Symptoms can become worse for the allergy sufferer if the body reacts to the disappearance of the pollen following its initial appearance only to have to have more of it later in the spring. According to Dr. Stanley Fineman, an allergist with the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic, “You become sensitized to it, so when you’rere-exposed, you can get an even more violent allergic reaction.”

Here’s to a sneezeless spring for you allergy sufferers.

Pruning Plants in February

My plants are confused. Actually they know exactly what they are doing its me thats confused. The mild winter, so far at least, has encouraged many of my plants normally still dormant at this time of year to start growing for the season. Whats a gardener to do when the roses, fuchsias, oakleaf hydrangeas and many other plants never really went dormant this year? Here are some February tasks that Im going to be doing.

Cut back woody shrubs to stimulate lush new growth. Trim plants like Mexican bush sage and artemisia to within a few inches of the ground. Don’t use this approach on lavender or ceanothus, though. Lightly prune those after blooming later in the season and don’t cut back to bare wood inside the plant.

Prune fuchsias back by a third and remove dead, crossing branches and interior twiggy growth. Container fuchsias can be cut back to the pot rim. Do this right away if you havent already done so. A plant is wasting energy on new growth just to have it trimmed off later.

Cut back hydrangeas stems that bloomed last year and apply a soil acidifier if you want the flowers blue. Although aluminum sulfate is the traditional favorite for quickly acidifying soil its not as kind to beneficial soil microorganisms. Coffee grounds, pine needles, peat moss and cottonseed meal are better for your soil.

Miss Kim lilac

Don’t prune spring flowering shrubs like lilac, weigela and spirea or flowering trees such as cherry, plum and crabapple now. These and evergreens like rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias should be pruned after they flower. You can cut some branches while they are blooming to bring into the house for bouquets.

Even if you have pruned your roses be sure to remove old leaves still clinging to the plant even if the leaves look okay now. They will most likely develop fungal spots and diseases later if you dont. Rake up any debris beneath the plant and discard to eliminate overwintering fungus spores

Roses are super forgiving and you can trim them up again using the following guidelines. The goal is to produce lots of roses not just a few of exhibition size. Aim for a vase-shaped bush with an open center.

Prune old garden roses that bloom once in the spring after flowering. Climbing roses require little pruning. Cut out extra stems if there are too many and also cut back long established canes to about the place where they are slightly thicker than a pencil. Then cut each side stem down to several inches. This will cause the cane to flower along its complete length for a beautiful spring display.

Wait to prune back perennials that may have their new foliage damaged in a late frost. Same goes for shrubs that might have gotten hit by frost. That damaged foliage can protect the plant from further frost damage. Mid-March is the estimated date of hard frost in our area or at least it used to be. We gardeners are always betting Mother Nature will go our way and our efforts will not have gone in vain.

Prune fruit, nut, shade trees and deciduous vines like clematis.

Cut back ornamental grasses if you live where you rarely get frost. Im pruning California fuchsia, salvia Bees Bliss and hummingbird sage now. They look okay now but I want the encourage new, compact growth.

Flowering Plants for Wintertime

Daphne odora ‘Maejima’

I had to wait a couple years for my variegated winter daphne to settle in before setting flowers but this year its making up for lost time. Theres something special about a plant that will bloom in the depth of winter, hold up to rain and scent the garden all at the same time. With beautiful rosy-pink flower clusters and attractive yellow-margined variegated foliage, daphne make a great foundation plant for dappled shade gardens. They are deer resistant and have low water requirements during the summer. Whats not to love?

Tagetes lemmonii

Yellow is always a cheery color in the garden at any time of year. The deep golden flowers of Mexican marigold or tagetes lemmonii are carried on branch ends sporadically all year, peaking in winter and spring. Finely divided leaves are strongly fragrant when crushed and smell like a blend of marigold, lemon and mint which is why deer avoid them. Prune them lightly to control shape and size. They grows 3-6 ft tall and as wide.

A favorite of birds and indoor floral arrangers is the evergreen mahonia. They are already blooming with cheery, bright yellow flower clusters that will last for months. When each flower sets a purple berry they look like grape clusters. The edible berries make good jelly, too. There are 70 varieties of mahonia including our own native Oregon Grape which grows in the understory of Douglas fir forests. Mahonia aquifolium is resistant to summer drought, tolerates poor soil and doesnt create a lot of leaf litter.

Helleborus orientalis

Also here in my own garden the hellebore flowers are holding up well. One of my favorites is called Cinnamon Snow but all of the varieties of this buttercup relative accept wind, rain, cold and less than perfect soil while getting by with only moderate watering in the shady summer garden. Deer arent attracted to them either.

Recently, after seeing a Pink Australian Fuchsia blooming so profusely despite the rain, I decided to add a variegated variety called Correa Wyns Wonder to my own garden. Although not related to hybrid fuchsias, the flowers are similar and their nectar will feed the Annas hummingbirds. They grow well in dry shade under oaks are deer resistant and drought tolerant.

Camellia sasanqua

Camellia flowers, thick, tough and full of color, easily sail through winter weather. Camellias bloom for a long time and with so many types you can have one blooming from October all the way through May. This showy evergreen shrub is quite drought tolerant once established. Yes, with some mulch and and a deep soak every so often they require much less irrigation than youd think. There are even fragrant varieties, such as Pink Yuletide, a sport of the popular red Yuletide.

Pieris japonica variegata

Another tough plant that can take weather extremes is the Lily-of-the-Valley shrub (Pieris japonica). There are many varieties of this early winter bloomer. Some have pure white flowers, other sport various shades of pink or dark rose.
Mine is the smaller variegated foliage model with dainty, drooping clusters of pure white flowers in early spring. Right now it is covered with flower buds so dense that youd think it was already blooming. The new growth in the spring has a beautiful pink tint. This shrub will hold up to the wildest weather. Another plus for the Lily-of-the-Valley shrub is that is useful for firescaping in the landscape and it isnt on the menu for deer either.

Other winter blooming plants include abutilon, euroyops, witch hazel, edgeworthia, michelia, loropetalum and grevillea. Driving around Im seeing that the Saucer Magnolias are putting on quite the show this year.

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