California gardeners fill their climate niche with blooms

The Humane Society of the United States

All Animals magazine, September/October 2013

Song sparrows enjoy a citrus snack in Steve Hartman’s backyard. Barry Schwartz/For The HSUS

by Ruthanne Johnson

When an acquaintance told Steve Hartman he was thinking of replacing his lawn with AstroTurf to conserve water, the wildlife gardener was appalled. For nearly 30 years, Hartman has cultivated native plants on his Sherman Oaks property in Southern California—and observed with pleasure the resulting throng of fluttering, flapping, cheeping, buzzing, and rustling animals. “I’ve always felt that my wife and I are in one way planting these plants for ourselves but also for the habitat value that they provide,” he says.

Aesthetically pleasing, low-maintenance options are much sought-after in dry regions. But that doesn’t have to mean plastering the earth with synthetic materials that have zero wildlife value. Native plants adapted to drought conditions fill that niche beautifully in Hartman’s garden, which attracts many admiring second glances from passersby. “I always feel like I want to go out there and tell them about the yard,” says Hartman, a longtime board member for the California Native Plant Society. Instead, he made a sign: “California Native Plants. No Water. No Snails. No Fertilizer.”

  • Lupines draw pollinators, birds, and lizards to Rob Moore’s garden. Rob Moore

Plant and They Will Come:

Plants in the Mediterranean-like climate can look dry and scrappy, so landscape designer Rob Moore adds to the mix cultivars, evergreens, and good design principles. After discovering natives, Moore experimented in a raised bed in his Orange County front yard. “I started removing the nonnatives and plugging in native groupings and rocks and snags and dead wood … and that’s where the critters started coming in.” To avoid complaints about the unconventional look, he replaced vegetation slowly and selectively pruned. “Most people didn’t even notice.”

First to dine on the manzanita, salvia, skylark, and seaside daisy were bees, butterflies, and other insects. Then the blue belly and side-blotched lizards arrived to gorge on the insects. “They appeared out of nowhere and would sun themselves on the rocks and dead wood.” When the city cracked down on water consumption, Moore replaced his back lawn with a wildflower meadow.

  • Indian mallow in Steve Hartman’s garden provides food for threatened desert tortoises. Barry Schwartz/For The HSUS

For the Birds:

As the imported plantings diminished, in came the indigenous birds: towhees, mourning doves, hummingbirds, and goldfinches. Many find perfect nesting material among the native grasses. “It’s funny to watch the birds fly in and land on these upright grass sprigs, pull them out, and fly with this big old stem in their beak,” Moore says.

November’s rains bring a succession of color that lasts through April. One of Moore’s favorite pastimes is enjoying a late afternoon beer on the back porch when the meadow is in full regalia. “The setting sun comes through my yard and lights up all the wildflowers … and all the insects buzzing from flower to flower. I can hear the lizards scurrying under the leaf litter and the birds singing. The air is just alive.”

In Hartman’s wildflower meadow, about 50 wasp and bee species buzz around the blooming buckwheat. Raccoon and opossum tracks circle his backyard pond, where native lilies grow. American bushtits build hanging nests in paloverde trees, and mockingbirds and cedar waxwings flock to the ripening Christmas berries of the toyon plant, a member of the coastal sage scrub community. “We don’t really have pests in our yard,” Hartman says. “The native plants are there for the insects. And the insects are there for the birds.”

  • Steve Hartman. Barry Schwartz/For The HSUS

Take It Slow:

Transforming an entire yard to native plantings can seem daunting. Steve Hartman converted small patches of earth, one at a time. He learned about indigenous vegetation through the California Native Plant Society and Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers & Native Plants, each year carving away at the grass and replacing it with plants preferred by wildlife: California fuchsia, poppies, brittlebush, and desert willow. While the plants filled out, he sprinkled native wildflower seeds, creating a color burst that headed off potential complaints from neighbors. Hartman says the slow and steady approach also enabled him to learn about each plant.

Coastal California gnatcatchers, a threatened species, eat arthropods supported by drought-tolerant California sagebrush. Peter LaTourrette

The Species Connection

Because drought-tolerant California sagebrush supports a high number of arthropods, it’s preferred by the Bell’s sage sparrow and coastal California gnatcatcher, a threatened species. It’s also loved by quail and dusky-footed and desert woodrats, and blue oak seedlings sprout easily under its protection, later providing acorns favored by black bears, band-tailed pigeons, acorn woodpeckers, deer mice, pocket gophers, and black-tailed deer.

But don’t expect Artemisia californica to win many points in the beauty category. “It’s a nice plant and smells good, but its flowers are not quite an eighth of an inch big and they’re green,” says Steve Hartman, who suggests using it as an accent or habitat plant alongside others in the coastal sage scrub community: California buckwheat, monkey flower, California lilac, gooseberry, currants, coyote brush, and manzanita.

Other Wildlife Favorites

Manzanita (Arctostaphylos):  With chocolaty reddish bark and colorful flowers, this evergreen shrub is loved by butterflies, moths, and native bees. Birds eat the flowers and berries. Anna’s hummingbirds even stake out territories around these shrubs when in bloom.

Grey musk sage (Salvia pozo blue): Like most salvias, this horticultural variety is both drought tolerant and fragrant—a must-have wildlife bush that attracts hummingbirds, moths, and upward of 30 butterfly species, including painted ladies, swallowtails, fritillaries, and the California dogface—so named because the male’s wing markings resemble the profile of a dog’s head.

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