By Linda B Campbell-King
This morning I spotted a nesting pair of blue violet swallows as they gathered stems from a weed patch in my garden.
I spotted a California thrasher working through a pile of acorns and oak leaves I had left piled in a heap.
These birds would not have been in my yard if I kept it all cultivated and in proper order.
A garden can be an ongoing struggle against Mother Nature. A gardener must fend off a myriad of competing life forms: weeds, gophers, crows, insects, etc.
A few years back I made a decision to stop battling nature, and instead celebrate and encourage it.
How can a conventional backyard promote nature?
Every garden and gardener is unique, but here is how my little Silicon Valley nature garden came to be.
My backyard was originally designed around an oval lawn for dogs and kids to play on. The lawn was surrounded by fruit trees and flowerbeds. Near the back fence was a vegetable garden with raised beds. Cement walkways circled around the edges. Years of effort and expense had been devoted to creating this cultivated landscape. I enjoyed catching glimpses birds and squirrels as I tended to my garden chores.
My relationship with nature shifted however when I made the difficult decision to save 10% or more of my water use by not watering the lawn. Then I stopped fighting gophers and moles - why kill them if I wasn't going to have a lawn anyway?
I started to enjoy watching the gophers poking their heads up as they dug their burrows.
I began to create dirt paths through the dead lawn so I could get close to where butterflies were fluttering around in what was rapidly becoming a weed patch. I realized birds were attracted to the weed seeds and stopped cutting the weeds. I starting researching and identifying weeds themselves, and was soon appreciating the beauty of some of them, the invasive threat of others. I bought a book on insect identification.
At this point I realized that that my yard was becoming a nature preserve. I made a conscious decision to create a garden with two opposing purposes, 1) cultivate food and flowers and 2) promote nature. There would be conflict, but I would see what I could do.
After several years of paying attention to my new nature preserve and modifying my gardening behavior, I can report some of the results, most of them positive.
When I stopped killing gophers, I found there were limits to their population growth. Gophers sometimes surge, but there are also periods of reduced activity. I suspect predators are at work, especially owls and gopher snakes, though I haven't seen either yet. I have observed hawks cruising my yard; and house cats, usually a Maine Coon, waiting patiently for a gopher to raise its head. Although I haven't seen a bobcat in my yard, neighbors have, and I have every reason to believe they prowl at night for rodents.
As gophers return like swallows to my raised beds, I grow more and more vegetables and herbs in large containers. Container gardening is producing abundant edibles in a sunny corner of what was once the lawn.
A nature preserve banishes the use of herbicides. I enjoy weeding, which is excellent exercise and gets me out of the house. I have eliminated a lot of crabgrass, an alien invader in the Bay Area, with hand-to-hand combat. It can be done.
Bunnies. In the last few years bush bunnies have dug under the fence and chosen to remain.
Bees and Pollinators. Neighbors posting on NextDoor.com keep reporting the death and decline of bees and pollinators. Yet my yard is buzzing with pollinator insects: bees, including endangered Crotch's bumblebees, beneficial hover flies, etc. They love sages especially.
Monarch butterflies are in serious decline in my region, but I see butterflies in my yard every day of the year. All I can do for monarchs is plant native milkweed. But I see fritillaries, endangered swallowtails, painted ladies, skippers, buckeyes, acmon blues, and others less well known.
Ten years ago huge orb weaver spiders were common in my yard in the fall. I had to tear down their webs if I wanted to walk along a path. However, in the last several years their population has declined and I don't have to deal with them. I believe it is because of an increasing population of Bewick's wrens. They feed on quantities of spiders and insects. This is an example of the changing dynamics of the garden.
In the last several years I have enjoyed sharing the garden with a new population of fence lizards. They remind me of miniature dinosaurs. Previously I saw only occasional alligator lizards. Fence lizards claim a sunny spot and wait patiently for insects. It's fun to get to know them as they get used to you.
Things you can do to Promote Nature in a Garden:
1. Go to a nursery on a warm sunny day and watch for butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. What plants are they attracted to? Those are the ones you want to select and plant in your garden.
2. Know your hostile weeds. Make observations and do research. There are plants I keep daily vigilance against because they could take over the whole yard and crowd out nature. Especially guard against:
3. Plant Passiflora, passion vine, as a favorite food for fritillary butterfly larvae. If your milkweed is failing to attract monarchs, at least you will still host lively orange and black butterflies.
4. Mosquitoes. These are not only irritating, they are vectors of malaria, zika, West Nile virus, etc. They cannot be tolerated. But you don't have to spray insecticide all over your property. Educate yourself on how to eliminate standing water, and the proper use of oils to add to water features.
Sadly, because of mosquitoes, I have abandoned lingering in the garden after dusk. We go inside when we hear the slightest buzz. If I really wanted to stay outside in the dark, we would construct a screened-in porch.
5. Rose of Sharon. Many see this as a difficult weed with a hard-to-pull taproot, and it reseeds easily. But I let some live to feed the bush bunnies. It's one of their favorite foods, and at least in my yard, there is balance.
6. Butterflies are attracted to wet clay. This is called "mud puddling." Keep a small wet patch for them.
7. Birdbaths are essential, both for bathing and drinking. Mammals will also drink the water. Wash and refill often, to prevent disease and mosquitoes.
8. A nature preserve does not need bird feeders. The weeds in my yard provide lots of free seeds, and birds are pecking away at them all day.
9. Oaks are so common in California that their sprouted acorns act like weeds. I have two large oaks. I pile up their leaves and acorns out on the meadow. Wild creatures rake, rummage, dig and fight over the acorns all year long.
10. Bunnies. Leave favorite weeds for the bunnies to eat instead of your valued crops and flowers. In my yard they mostly graze on the wild plants in the meadow, which is what we call where the lawn used to be.
You will have to observe your bunnies to see what they eat, and experiment. I have had a lot of fun doing this. They roam the neighborhood grazing on neighbors' lawns and shrubs. I think wild bunnies use my garden as a nesting area safe from dogs. It is futile to try and eliminate them - they multiply like rabbits. Note: information on the internet says bunnies don't eat rose of Sharon. I watched one yesterday chow down on one in my yard.
11. Oxalis. Know your local oxalis strains. Some are hostile invaders; others bring joy and beauty. In spring my meadow is a field of beautiful waving oxalis flowers. After the rains stop the oxalis rapidly dries up, and I rake it away.
12. Set up wire tomato cages out in the open. Birds will use them to perch on, and you will see them easily. Place them over your hummingbird plants and the hummers will rest as they feed!
13. Spend time sitting quietly in the wild yard, and you will make many interesting discoveries. I find that birds, bunnies, even lizards will approach me. They want to figure out if I am a friend who will go about my own business, or an enemy who will give them chase. I have come to believe that if I move slowly and predictably, they think I am a harmless grazer. Birds and small animals like to be near a large grazer, as they stir up the ground and expose grubs, or serve as protection against predators like cats or coyotes. If I quit "grazing" and head for the house, the flock near me will take off too. Not out of fear of a gardener, but of a possible approaching predator.
14. Rats and mice. These are intolerable in the house. Garbage must be tightly contained at all times. But native strains of rats and mice out in the garden are just part of nature, and it is futile to mindlessly trap or poison them.
There is only one way to guard against rats and mice in the house, and that is to keep them out. Every crack and hole in the exterior of a house and attic must be carefully sealed. Keep unscreened doors shut.
15. Coyotes. All over the USA coyotes are increasing in urban environments. Last night at 1:30 a.m. I was awakened by the eerie howling and yapping of a coyote concert in the distance. I'm tempted to leave my gate open so they can prowl and maybe catch some rodents. On the other hand, I think I'll draw the line there and keep the gate locked at night.
I no longer view my garden as a battleground. After several years of letting nature take the upper hand, I am inclined to let nature have its way in my meadow. I will never return to a lawn. I will grow vegetables safe from gophers in large containers. I will use my raised beds for experiments and flowers.
Best of luck with your own Garden of Eden.
Linda B Campbell-King is a writer, gardener, championship barbershop singer, and so much more!