Build It and They Will Come
By Tanya Kucak
Five years ago, Jim and Meredith Howard bought a 1971 slab house with a flat concrete-paved backyard in the San Francisco Bay area and began transforming it into a habitat garden. They wanted to create an interesting and functional space that attracted native birds and insects, learn the local native plants, improve drainage, and do it all on a budget and without wasting materials or hauling truckloads to the landfill.At a recent Gardening with Natives talk, Jim Howard showed how they did it. As the District Conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in San Mateo County, Howard is attuned to nature but was new to the bay area.
Starting with the front yard, they consulted with Acterra, a restoration nursery, to choose appropriate native plants. Since the goal was to attract wildlife, they focused on species rather than cultivars. “You don’t know what you’re breeding out and what ecological functions you’re impairing” if you use a hybrid or cultivar, Howard said. For instance, he said, monkeyflowers bred or selected for larger, more colorful flowers are less attractive to hummingbirds than the ones found in nature. But, he noted, ceanothus and salvia cultivars seem to be as full of insect life as the species.
“We couldn’t believe how quickly” and how many birds found the garden, he said. Birds came “instantly” when native plants were installed, and they noted a “huge increase” after adding a water feature. Following Audubon Society recommendations, the water feature was placed within 10 feet of a shrub where birds could seek cover to elude predators. There’s “always something going on in the yard,” he said. Bushtits, for instance, will take 40 percent of the bugs in a mature shrub. California towhees especially like purple needlegrass seeds. He’s observed a Townsend’s warbler eating caterpillars from hummingbird sage plants and robins resting under yellow lupines. At least 37 species of birds visit the garden. Though crows, jays, and ravens populate the neighborhood, they don’t come to this garden.
The biggest single task was to improve drainage in the backyard. The Howards rented an electric pavement breaker to cut the tons of concrete into slabs, many of which they dry-stacked into raised beds and used for stepping stones. For the rain garden, they dug a hole and filled it with cobble-size concrete chunks and then gravel, topped by geotextile. The rain garden has successfully let rainwater soak into the soil onsite rather than pooling or flowing into the street.
Jim Howard offered some advice for others contemplating an ecosystem restoration garden.
- Stick to natives. Native plants are the best food source for native insects and other wildlife.
- Go for complexity of structure, flower color, and flower type. Use shrubs, trees, groundcovers, and perennials that offer a range of habitat niches. A variety of flowers will attract different pollinators.
- Do whatever you can. Start small, but start somewhere. It took only three summers for the Howards’ garden to look “done.”
- Learn as you go. “You could spend a lifetime investigating what to do and know less than when you started,” he said. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Tanya Kucak (firstname.lastname@example.org) gardens organically.
Photos by Jim Howard