Previous articles have stated that habitat gardening is easy, no special skills required. However, there are basics one should keep in mind when considering a habitat garden.
Water is an essential need for birds in the garden. There is nothing more delightful than to watch the hummingbirds and finches bathing and drinking in my waterfall. Moving water is especially attractive to birds. Not only does my wildlife pond and stream attract birds, but it also draws in frogs, dragonflies and nocturnal animals. Water in the habitat garden can be provided in numerous ways, from very simple to elaborate — such as my recirculating stream and pond. A simple saucer can be carefully placed where birds can quickly escape to a bush or tree for safety, or high enough and inaccessible to feral and domestic cats. Placing a few stones in a shallow saucer of water is also a great way to provide water for butterflies and other insects. It is important to keep bird baths, saucers and other watering holes clean and filled with fresh water daily to prevent mosquito breeding.
Wildlife ponds are not koi ponds. Although koi are beautiful creatures, they are not compatible with wildlife. They eat just about everything, including pond plants that provide cover and shade for dragonfly larvae and tadpoles. Koi ponds are also costly and high maintenance. Building a wildlife pond can be completed in an afternoon with a shovel and rubber liner. Keep it simple, consider the basics such as access for wildlife, pond plants, and a sunny site and, most importantly, place the pond where you can see it. What an enjoyable experience. The mosquito issue is easily remedied with mosquito dunks (Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis), which are widely available at hardware stores. These dunks only kill the larval stages of mosquitoes, black flies and crane flies and will not harm tadpoles, dragonfly nymphs or other wildlife.
When planting your habitat garden, keep in mind that you want to imitate nature. Provide different layers of ground covers, shrubs and trees to provide shelter, nesting and foraging sites for birds. Manzanita (“Howard McMinn”), Ceanothus (California lilac) and Oregon grape are perfect examples of native plants that birds use for shelter and foraging sites. Brush piles and wood piles are essential for quail to nest and retreat to. Remember to diversify. Try to provide a wide variety of regionally appropriate food and nectar plants that flower at different times of the year. Remember that native plants have evolved with the different wildlife in the area, so it is important to emphasize native plantings. Don’t be so eager to prune and clean up. Again, you’re trying to imitate nature. Let trees and shrubs reach their normal size, flower and set fruit. Allow flowers, such as Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan) and yarrow to go to seed for a food source during the winter.
A habitat garden does not have to be all native. Non-native plants can play a big role in maintaining wildlife. The food and nectar of non-natives, especially those with long bloom periods, can both supplement bloom times of native plants and prolong spring flowering through the summer months. Summer-blooming non-natives such as sages, lavender, asters, zinnias and coreopsis are good sources of nectar and pollen for honeybees and other beneficial insects. Hundreds of non-native plants are compatible with our climate and with California natives. Grow a diversity of plants, with an emphasis on natives that bloom at different times of the year. Massing nectar plants, especially perennials and annuals, in drifts of just one plant is more attractive to butterflies and bees than planting only one or two of many different species.*
Wildlife gardens are easy to maintain, conserve water and require no fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. Remember, nothing comes into the garden that is toxic, nothing leaves the garden that is organic.*
Upcoming articles will discuss the specifics of habitat gardening with regard to plants that work best in habitat gardens and the needs of specific birds, amphibians, reptiles and beneficial insects in the garden.
* Bauer, Nancy: “The California Wildlife Habitat Garden,” University of California Press 2012.
Wendy Weidenman is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener of Tuolumne County. UCCE Master Gardeners of Tuolumne County can answer home gardening questions. Call (209) 533-5912 or go to: ucanr.edu/survey/survey.cfm?surveynumber=7269 to fill out our easy-to-use problem questionnaire. Check out our website at cecentralsierra.ucanr.edu/Master_Gardeners. You can also find us on Facebook or pick up the local UCCE Master Gardener book “Sharing the Knowledge: Gardening in the Mother Lode” at Mountain Books or the UCCE offices in Sonora or San Andreas.