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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Habitat Gardening: Dreams and Realistic Expectations

Habitat gardens provide for butterflies and other creatures

Habitat gardening is becoming popular in the United States and elsewhere.  There’s something satisfying about planting a garden that attracts a wide range of birds and other creatures.  Many gardeners dream of a garden filled with butterflies and birds.  But how realistic is that dream?  And how long will it take for a new garden to meet those expectations?

One thing gardening teaches us is patience.  The best garden features – shade trees, large flowering shrubs, nesting birds – take time.  But you’ll probably see some changes right away, when you begin to garden for habitat.  For example, a water source and fast-growing flowering plants begin attracting insects and birds the first year. 

Native plant gardens change dramatically in the first decade. Here’s what you’ll likely experience, when you convert your S. California garden from conventional garden plants to California native habitat species:

The first year: plants are low and small
Year 1

  • Birds and insects will start coming to a water source almost right away.  Water is scarce, and creatures are skilled at finding it.  Install several water sources to supply this critical resource.
  • Any native that flowers will start attracting some pollinators.  There may not be very many pollinators the first year, but annual wildflowers, perennials and flowering shrubs will see some activity the first year.
  • Any plant that produces seeds will attract some seed-eating birds (like gold finches and white-crowned sparrows) particularly in late summer and fall.  The more annual wildflowers, the more seed eaters you’ll see the first year.

Years 2 and 3: sub-shrubs are larger; annuals still play key role.
Year 2 & 3

  • Flowering perennials, shrubs and sub-shrubs become larger, producing more blooms.  These attract noticeably more insect pollinators and hummingbirds.  We suggest planting annual wildflowers, in open spaces around shrubs, to create still more spring-summer pollinator food. If desired, begin to photograph and document the insect and bird species visiting your garden.
  • As shrubs and trees grow, more use of them as perches and cover by birds and small creatures (lizards).  So you’ll see more of the common birds.
  • More summer-fall, seed-eating migratory birds will pass through, as food sources increase.  They will likely come as small flocks, and won’t stay long.
  • Omnivorous and insect-eating birds occasionally visit; same with dragonflies

Years 4 and 5: even larger shrubs are maturing.
Year 4 & 5

  • As perennials and shrubs mature, noticeably greater numbers and more species of insect pollinators.  May start seeing some rarer native bees, flower flies.  Photograph and document these – you may be surprised!
  • Insects, including butterflies and other pollinators, begin reproducing in the garden, if larval food sources are available.
  • More pollinator moth species (if dusk- and night-bloom plants present)
  • Dragonflies and damselflies start to reproduce in earnest in dragonfly ponds.  You’ll see more adults even without a pond, due to increased insects.
  • Increased numbers of insect-eating insects (Robberflies; predatory wasps).
  • Insect-eating birds increase noticeably.  Watch for Phoebes, Kingbirds, Swifts, Swallows, Flycatchers, Mockingbirds, Bushtits.
  • Established plants provide wild greens and leaves for tea or medicinal use (depending on what species you’ve planted).
  • If you have hummingbird plants, regular visits from Anna’s & Allen’s hummingbirds. 
  • Hummingbirds may begin to nest in larger, dense shrubs & small trees
  • If trees are large and dense, some common birds begin to nest: Northern Mockingbird, House sparrows, House finch.
  • Regular visits from seed-eating finches, other migratory seed-eating birds. White-crowned sparrows and Lesser goldfinch may become regulars.
  • As leaf mulch and seeds build up, visits from ground feeding birds: California towhee, White-crowned sparrow, Doves.
  • Occasional visits from hawks, seeking prey
  • Increased numbers of lizards due to increased insects, cover (unless there are cats, which preclude lizards)
  • As fruiting shrubs and trees begin to produce, begin to see fruit-eating birds: Northern Mockingbirds, Orioles, song birds in winter

Years 6 through 10: As garden matures, more creatures nest in the garden.

Year 6-10

  • Greater diversity of insect pollinators as flowering plants mature.  Most gardens at this stage supply food for literally thousands of individual pollinators. Consider adding plants that attract specialist pollinators: mallows, Annual sunflower, Malacothrix species, Oenothera species.   
  • Greater number of bird species, including those that specialize in insects or fruits.  You may even see flocks of Cedar waxwings, Bushtits, songbirds in fall or winter.
  • Plenty of edible fruits for your family as well (if you’ve planted currants & gooseberries, elderberries, strawberries, wild rose).
  • More birds nest in large shrubs, woody vines and trees; greater diversity of nesting birds, including Bushtits, Northern mockingbirds, Orioles and others (depending on the trees).
  • Consider adding seating in areas with good views of birds, butterflies.  You can do some serious nature observation from this point forward.
  • Regular visits from dragonflies and swallows, phoebes, flycatchers.  The increased numbers of insects are a magnet.
  • Regular nesting of hummingbirds.  Visits from migratory Rufus hummingbird are possible (they are the really feisty, copper-bronze colored guys).
  • More insects, including butterflies and native bees, complete life cycle in the garden (depending on availability of larval food and nest sites).  Consider providing nest sites for ground- and wood-nesting bee species.

Mature garden is a functioning ecosystem.
Year 11 and beyond

  • The garden should be a functioning ecosystem, both above- and below-ground.
  • Many species of pollinators visit and complete their lives in the garden.  Add seasonal flowering plants – or those that attract specialist pollinators – as needed.   Don’t forget the shady areas of the garden.  Some of the shade-loving perennials are great habitat plants.
  • Replace dead plants with new ones that flower and produce fruits or seeds. Choose species you like, including some unusual ones.  Expect some turnover in garden plants – that’s natural.  Fill in open spaces with annual wildflowers until new plants get bigger.
  • There should be birds in the garden most of the time. Birds can be observed conducting all of their usual activities.  The water sources are great places to bird-watch, utilized by both the ‘regulars’ and exotic migrants.
  • Natural leaf mulch/duff supports wide range of creatures, from insects to salamanders, lizards and others.  Take an opportunity to observe this interesting community occasionally.  The duff teams with life!
  • Congratulations!   You continue to create wonderful habitat for creatures who need it.  As green space shrinks – and climate changes stresses wild areas – garden habitat becomes ever more important.  Keep up the good work!

Want to learn more about habitat gardening?   See:

We encourage your comments below.   If you have questions about habitat gardening or other gardening topics you can e-mail us at :  mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com

1 comment:

  1. Really good article. I'd also like you to write about helping people to prioritize their garden projects - how to narrow down the focus, avoid burnout, be realistic and how to "declare victory" in an area and move on.