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Autumn Wildlife Gardening in the Foothills

Submitted by: Vera Strader

OK, I admit it; I´m a BAT. Like most Bay Area Transplants, I was initially confounded by the challenges of gardening in the Foothills. But soon the frustrations of heat, drought, and freeze were overcome by the pleasures of the area´s wildlife. Years later, I still remember my excitement upon first sighting a bluebird, for I had never expected to see a bluebird other than on the pages of a book.

As forests and fields give way to housing and industry, welcoming wildlife into our yards is one way to help preserve the richness of the Mother Lode. Small steps count, drawing nature in a bit at a time. Right now is an ideal time to start, whether you have a three-foot balcony or sprawling acreage!

PUT PESTICIDES OUT TO PASTURE. Six out of ten animal species are insects; they´re just too numerous to beat. Yet in our efforts to put the bloom on roses and the lush into our lawns, we use tons of toxic insecticides and herbicides as well as fertilizers that eventually find their way into air and water.

Non-discriminate insecticide use kills desirable insects along with the troublesome ones. You may shudder at the thought of inviting insects into your yard, but they are needed to attract birds, frogs, and pollinators—bees, flower flies, butterflies, hummingbirds, and bats too.

Pesticide damage can impact the food chain starting with soil life like the “lowly” earthworm, on to a myriad of insects and even raptors, large animals, and eventually humans. A case in point is the current alarming decline in bees and other pollinators so vital to our food supply; insect-pollinated plants provide about one-third of the foods we eat and the beverages we drink. This decline is thought to be due in part to pesticide overuse.

Resist the urge to blast insects with a toxic spray. Countless insects have beneficial roles in our gardens, including aerating the soil and feeding other wildlife. In fact, an amazing number of insects eat or parasitize other insects at some point in their life. Fewer pesticides will allow these insects to do their job and eventually restore a balance of “good bugs” vs. “bad bugs” in our yards. Visit http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/menu.homegarden.html for less toxic ways to deal with both insect and weed pests.

Lawns do little for wildlife but are a major stumbling block for many when considering a wildlife garden. Perhaps a compromise can work—replace part of your lawn with some of our many attractive native, drought tolerant, and often deer resistant, plants and trees. (See the following section on planting for wildlife.)

A pond or birdbath in the lawn´s stead, or on your patio or balcony, will draw all sorts of wildlife. Do be sure to clean and fill birdbaths regularly and see that the water does not freeze. A birdbath heater is a good investment in colder areas, for birds need water in the winter too.

You can replace most fertilizers with homemade or commercial compost or aged barnyard manure. A mulching lawnmower reduces the need for lawn fertilizers and can chop leaves for the compost pile.

HOUSEKEEPING CAN HURT. Yes, too much housekeeping is bad news for wildlife. A few nibbled leaves will rarely harm your plants. Keeping in mind fire-safe rules, leave leaves and small trimmings lie to form mulch that will improve your soil, give insects and small animals cover, and cut down on weeds.

Undisturbed ground provides home for many wild animals including insects. These creatures make no distinction between “weeds” and “ornamentals,” instead simply searching for pollen, nectar, and a place to make homes. Except for truly invasive weeds (yellow star thistle and Scotch broom for example) consider leaving some long enough to attract helpful insects.

Old tree snags can provide a home for cavity dwelling birds. A brush pile will be cover for many creatures, including California and mountain quail; after the holidays, add your Christmas tree, pinecones and wreaths (first remove all ornaments, wire, etc.).

PLANT FOR WILDLIFE. Autumn is the best time to plant trees, bushes, and flowering perennial plants since cooler temperatures allow roots to develop before next summer´s heat. If you cannot plant this year, start thinking about next fall.

If you have native oaks in your yard, treasure them for they are a wildlife bonanza, providing insects, leaves, bark, and acorns for food, plus spreading branches for shelter and nesting. Our native oaks are well adapted to, and in fact require, summer drought. Do not water under them during the warm months, and avoid compacting the soil under their limbs.

Many modern varieties of plants have been selected for showy blooms but provide little pollen and nectar. On the other hand, plants indigenous to our area formed mutually beneficial relationships with our wildlife over the centuries. Some native plants depend on native pollinators for seed formation and regeneration.

You can help pollinators and other beneficials by providing a continuum of flowers from early spring well into autumn. Some native shrubs provide a double payload of spring flowers and autumn or winter berries for seed eating birds: Manzanita and Ribes (native gooseberries and currents) bloom first, followed by elderberries, coffee berry, snow berry, and Christmas berry (toyon).

Our native poppies also bloom in early spring enticing bumblebees; sages (Salvias) including Cleveland´s and white sage, and Penstemons give later bloom; and autumn sage and California fuchsia (Zauschneria) delight hummingbirds and other pollinators with blossoms until frost.

CERTIFY YOUR YARD. There are many ways to put out the wildlife welcome mat. The National Wildlife Federation has certified over 70,000 backyard habitat gardens, including many Foothill gardens. To help NWF reach their goal of 100,000 certified gardens nationwide, visit http://www.nwf.org/backyard/.

For guidance in establishing a pollinator Mecca in your yard (with both natives and non-natives), go to http://nature.berkeley.edu/urbanbeegardens/general_why.html; to learn to grow a monarch butterfly way station, go to http://www.monarchwatch.org/.

Vera Strader grows dozens of hummingbird plants with flowers that also help feed innumerable bees, flower flies, and butterflies.