Create a wildlife sanctuary in your own backyard

Photo courtesy of Reginal Durant. Used by permission.


After weeks of being holed up inside, we Southlanders are now venturing out into the warmth of spring and think of getting the tomatoes in the ground, restocking the bird feeder and seeing how our existing plants have fared through the days of rain and cold. Our kids, on the other hand, go outside and try to figure out why their soaked volleyball won’t bounce.

With all this frenetic activities going on, don’t forget that this is also a good time to make your back and front yards a little more critter-friendly. Creating homes for birds, bees, lizards and butterflies doesn’t mean a complete garden make-over; according to Rachel Young, native plants horticulturist at Descanso Garden in La Canada, there are some simple steps to welcome wildlife into your domicile, such as:

  • Don’t be too much of a neat freak. Leaf piles in the garden, a small collection of dead wood – they are homes to bugs, insects and lizards. Don’t deadhead every flower –they can contain seeds for birds that will gladly take care of the offending seeds. Make sure you’re pruning trees at a time when the birds aren’t nesting.
  • “Water is a big attraction,” says Young, but that doesn’t mean a giant fountain or waterfall. Simple bird baths work well. A spot in your yards that seems to always be wet or muddy is just the thing for butterflies and bees that, when the heat of the summer comes, will congregate in these mini watering holes.
  • Rocks are homes for small beasts that hide underneath and for those basking lizards.
  • Build a mason bee bundle (see here for directions.) Native bees are wonderful additions to your garden and don’t worry – natives are typically docile and often stinger-less. (Click here to find out more about native bees and the kinds of flowers they adore.)

Young wholeheartedly agrees with Reginald Durant, Director of Back to Natives Restoration in Orange County, that keeping pesticides out of your yards is the top way to make your land a mecca of biodiversity.

Durant is a big proponent of using native plants to encourage native butterflies, bees, birds, etc. Usually fall is the best time to start native plants, but with all our recent rain and cool days, gardeners still have some time to get those plants going right now, he says. (Remember, to augment your new native plantings with water to help them establish their roots this year; next year, they will take off like a rocket.)

Here are Durant’s top native plants for home gardeners:

  • Make a meadow with bunch grasses which are favorites of numerous butterflies including skippers, sulphers and common ringlets. The showy purple threeawn (Aristida purpurea) can get to be 2 ½ feet tall and feature with delicate flowers. Drought tolerant and proud of it.
  • What could be more Californian than California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum foliolosum)? This pretty plant needs little maintenance but loads of space, once it gets going. Practically anything that loves nectar will be drawn to this plant. Bees, hummingbirds, blue hairstreaks butterflies. You name it. You’ll see it.
  • Deerweed (Lotus scoparius) has beautiful yellow flowers and is a host plant to numerous butterflies, most often the smaller ones.
  • The fast growing bush mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus) is show stopping plant, reaching up to 7 feet tall and can be covered with pink flowers. Be patient after you plant it; it may take 2-3 years before it comes into its full glory.
  • You can’t go wrong with any variety of California lilac ceanothus; hairstreaks and pale swallowtails are big fans. Choose from long growing shrubs to ones that resemble trees.
  • With its tiny golden yellow flowers, the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) has a two-fisted punch – it’s a host plant to numerous flutters and it can be brewed into a delicious tea that’s been known to help allergy suffers.
  • Finally, monarch lovers, beware of blood milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) a plant low in alkaloids that provides less protection for butterflies against predators. Opt instead of these graceful milkweeds: Asclepias californica, Asclepias eriocarpa, Asclepias fascicularis.

Both Young and Durant are facilitating upcoming workshops. Young’s “Build a Wildlife Garden” takes place on Saturday April 2 from 10 a.m. – noon at Descanso Gardens and costs $15.

Durant will lead “Designing and Installing Sustainable Native Plant Landscapes” on April 10 from 9 a.m. – 2p.m. in Tustin. Workshop is free.

— Brenda Rees, editor