Gardening for Wildlife


In a single morning recently, as I sipped coffee on the deck, several of my favorite critters came calling.  An Anna’s Hummingbird drank from a nearby feeder and a red-flowering sage and then, incredibly, flew to within ten inches of my face and hovered there, looking at me, as if to thank me for my kindness (or so I imagined). One of the beautiful, noisy neighborhood Stellar’s Jays splashed and cooled herself in the simple bowl of water and pebbles I placed on the deck railing.  And a butterfly danced all over my newly planted butterfly bush.

I have been thrilled—and at times, restored—by simple visitations like these.  And so, I find myself drawn more and more to the idea of focusing my ever-evolving garden plans as much on creating a wildlife habitat as on designing an aesthetically pleasing landscape.  They aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but to root a garden design in enticing and caring for the wild things first is a different exercise than deciding where to put the petunias.

My inspiration these days is the simple design model offered by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) for creating a Certified Wildlife Habitat in your own backyard.  To plan such a garden, the NWF recommends you focus on providing four things: food (ideally from native plants), water, cover and places for wildlife to raise their young.

FOOD.  Grow as many native plants as possible to provide the seeds, berries, nectar, foliage, nuts, fruit, sap and pollen that local wildlife thrive on. Want the thrill of hummingbirds spring through fall without having to endlessly restock that sugar-water feeder?  Plant these beautiful flowering natives to attract hummers:  California fuchsia, penstemon and columbine (among many others).  If you would like to draw all manner of birds, try plants that produce the seeds and berries they love:  lupine, California poppy (I’ve read that quail relish them), yarrow, Western serviceberry, and wild strawberries.  And to help save the honeybees, consider one of their favorites, the California lilac (Ceanothus), a beautiful, native evergreen bush with smoky purple flowers in spring.

WATER.  If your property doesn’t have a natural creek or pond, birdbaths and well-designed water features will go a long way in helping wildlife get through our hot, dry summers.  And here’s an interesting National Wildlife Federation suggestion:  create puddles. “Butterflies, males in particular, can often be seen engaging in a behavior called ‘puddling,'” says naturalist David Mizejewski in the NWF book, Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife. He explains that “When they find a wet, muddy patch of soil, they gather up the liquid, which is rich in minerals.”

COVER.  Wildlife need places to find shelter from inclement weather and from predators.  Dense bushes and trees are good, such as the California flannel bush, holly and mallows, as are our native conifers and oaks.  Other good cover for birds and other small animals include a rock pile, a bramble patch, or a hollow log.

RAISING YOUNG.  Many of the same trees, bushes, plants and landscape features that provide food and cover for birds, mammals and reptiles also serve them in rearing young.  You can add to your native plantings by adding nesting boxes designed to suit wildlife, ponds for frogs, and host plants that feed the caterpillar stage of butterflies. Milkweed, for example, is the only food the caterpillar stage of Monarch butterflies will eat.

For extensive lists of native plants that draw local wildlife, contact the Tuolumne County Master Gardeners and the California Native Plant Society.  Detailed guidelines and checklists for creating your own Certified Wildlife Habitat at home can be found on the National Wildlife Federation website, http://www.nwf.org.


Make Every Drop Count With Efficient Irrigation

Gone are the days when it was okay to water our gardens and lawns with sprinklers and sprayers that shot six feet into the air, and flooded the driveway and street gutters.  These days, we know we need to conserve, and that means employing irrigation methods that deliver water directly to the soil around or inches above the plants that need it, to minimize or completely eliminate water loss to evaporation or runoff.

Following are examples of more efficient irrigation products for the garden, and the pros and cons of each.

Soaker hose. Courtesy Rick Gilbert.

Soaker Hoses are made from a porous material that delivers water slowly and evenly along the length of the hose—as long as the ground is relatively flat. If placed on a steep incline, gravity and the force of flow will result in more of the water being delivered at the downhill end of the hose. On level ground, the spread of water is typically only a few inches from the hose, so they are best used in very narrow beds or a line of individual plants. The biggest advantages of soaker hoses are that they are inexpensive and easy to set up in the garden.

There are several disadvantages of soaker hoses. They are not the best choice for beds that have widely spaced plants, because you end up watering the empty spaces (or weeds) in between. If your water is relatively high in minerals, the life of a soaker hose will be short, maybe a season or two, as the microscopic holes clog easily.

Similar to a soaker hose is drip tape, a more lightweight product that works well for row crops and raised beds.

Shrubbler drip emitter. Courtesy Rick Gilbert.

Drip Systems are the classic 1/4″ to 1/2″ black tubing into which you attach emitters, pressure regulators, backflow devices, filter screens, and timers if you want them. As a matter of fact, if you want to get your geek on in the garden, a drip system is the way to go because there is a mind-boggling selection of components available to choose from.  A basic emitter head will precisely water the soil around an individual plant.  “Shrubbler” and “bubbler” emitters deliver water in a wider radius, perfect for shrubs and trees. “Micro-jet” heads let you adjust the low-level spray to a quarter, half or full circle for more dense plantings or ground covers. And “turbulent” emitters are said to minimize clogging by the self-cleaning action of the head design.

The disadvantages of drip systems are setup and maintenance, and depending on the size of your garden, cost.  Emitter heads are notorious for clogging and have to be either cleaned or replaced periodically.

Inline spray emitter. Courtesy Rick Gilbert.

Adjustable Sprayers can cover a radius of up to 12 feet or more. They can be installed in a drip system on risers, or, as with “rain birds” or other high-performance sprayers, attached to a PVC pipe or even a hose end.  These sprayers lose a little more water to evaporation than do basic drip emitters, but they are more effective at watering lawns and large, dense plantings of ground covers and ornamentals.  Plus, if like me, spider mites are the bane of your gardening existence, these taller, far-reaching sprayers help minimize spider mites’ favorite conditions on plants:  hot, dry and dusty.

Here are some basic tips to increase the effectiveness and durability of any of the watering systems mentioned above:

  • Bury tubing and hoses under mulch to slow damage from direct sun and extreme temperatures.
  • Choose emitters that are ideal for the plants/areas you need to water.
  • If you want to set up a drip system on an incline, consider purchasing the pressure regulators and emitters that will produce an even flow of water.

I have fond, far-away memories of running through six-foot-high sprinklers in summer as a child.  But some things, alas, should be left in the past.

Make Gardening Failures Lessons Learned

I was driving to work recently, feeling disappointed about my gardening failures this past year, when a segment on National Public Radio lifted my frustrated gardener spirits.  A scientist was talking about how most of his ilk actually embrace failure because it always offers new data and, most importantly, raises new questions (and what is a scientist if not someone who always wants to know Why?).

It occurred to me that that attitude toward failure is a great mindset for gardeners, because let’s face it, pests happen, plants die, and one way or another, Mother Nature always seems to have the final say.  Better to accept the fact that gardening is, and always will be, a trial and error undertaking.  Best to focus on what you can learn from this year’s disappointing bounty or another year’s curious blight.

Here are a few gardening failures I learned from (or relearned) this year:

DeerDeer-proof, schmeer-proof.  I live on a third of an acre that is largely unfenced.  My attempts to protect veggies and ornamentals from the huge, adorable deer families frequenting my yard were marginal at best.  Liquid Fence?  Sure, it works for a few weeks, until the deer catch on and munch away anyway.  Wire cages?  Yes, if you anchor them down as if you were expecting a tornado (or a big buck’s insistent nose), and if you NEVER forget to put them back on after tending to the plant underneath.  And as for “deer-resistant” plants, my experience is that there are only a few, mostly because they’re toxic if eaten:  foxglove, daffodil, oleander and some iris.  If deer are hungry, they will eat almost anything.

Lesson:  In my neighborhood, you really, really need to have a strong eight-foot fence if you want to keep the deer from decimating your garden.

“Natives” aren’t always foolproof.  For one thing, many gardening books and online sources define native plants broadly as those that are indigenous to the U.S.  Problem is, a plant that is native to the Florida wetlands, the humid-summer Midwest or the cool-summer, foggy California coast is probably going to fail miserably in the Mother Lode.

Lesson:  To reduce gardening failures, choose plants that are native to the foothills or areas with similar growing conditions, such as many Mediterranean plants.

Better plant tagsDon’t rely on nursery plant tags.  Read 95% of the tags that accompany nursery plants, especially at big-box stores, and they will say, “Sun to part shade.”  My guess is that those overly generalized tags are simply a cost-effective way to stay in some vague, safe range of growing advice for vast inventories of plants.  I have tried and failed more times than I can count when trusting plant tags that don’t address the specifics of my locale.

Lesson:  If you aren’t familiar with a plant’s ideal growing conditions, look it up first in the Sunset Western Garden Book or the UC Extension website at http://www.ucanr.edu before buying it.

When life gives you lemons . . . Because much of my large front yard is not yet landscaped, the trees and shrubs I have planted enclose mostly bare land.  Read: weeds.  Vast swaths of weeds that I battle spring through summer, mostly by pulling.  At the end of this summer, though, I got smart.  I bought an affordable, lightweight weed whacker.  After the first Saturday of “mowing” the weeds down to about an inch, I stood on the front deck, looked down at all of that controlled greenery and finally saw it:  a free lawn!  Without the endless watering and fertilizing!  Okay, so it didn’t look like fescue up close.  But it WAS a nice, flat green covering instead of bare dirt, or worse, unkempt weeds that produce foxtails and burrs that plague my dogs.

Lesson:  Until I finish my years-long work of landscaping, I will treat myself to a free “lawn” by timely, artful weed whacking.

tomatoes on vineIf you want it, never give up.  As in, tomatoes.  I swear, I swear, I swear, I watered my five tomato plants in half-whiskey barrels deeply and consistently this past summer.  Still, half of them got blossom end rot (from inconsistent watering, say the experts).  But I absolutely refuse to give up on my dream of growing so many tomatoes each summer, I have to give away the excess.

Lesson:  Try again next year.  Failure schmailure.


Peony: An Old-Fashioned, Easy-Care Beauty

Peony BushPicture this:  A blooming bush with flowers as heartbreakingly beautiful as roses, that deer won’t touch, that loves the extended cold of our foothill winters, and that can live up to 100 years.  Pure fantasy?  Nope.  Let me introduce you to the amazing peony.

Beloved in old-fashioned cutting gardens, the peony is the official flower of China, the state of Indiana, and the 12th wedding anniversary.  The plant was used in ancient times for medicinal purposes, when it was thought to soothe headaches and treat asthma.

Most garden peonies are perennial hybrids native to China, but species peonies are found in Asia, southern Europe and the western United States.  Peonies grow to a neat, rounded bush from two to four feet tall with large, dark green leaves that make it attractive even when not in bloom.  But speaking of blooms, they are spectacular, coming in every color except blue and unfurling in spring or early summer, depending on the variety.  Many peony flowers look a lot like the centifolia or “cabbage” roses, which pack up to 100 petals per bloom.  The difference is that some peony flowers can reach 10 inches across.  A few are fragrant, reminiscent of old-fashioned roses.

Peony Magenta and Light PinkThe most widely available garden types are herbaceous and tree peonies.  Herbaceous peonies die back to the ground each fall, while tree peonies have permanent woody branches.  Peonies do best in Zones 7 to 9 and prefer full sun; however, in areas with extremely hot summers (like ours), it’s best to situate them so they get light afternoon shade.  They don’t like to dry out, but I’ve found if they get a little shade in the afternoon and are generously mulched, they require only moderate water.

Peony SorbetWhile peonies are relatively carefree once established, they are very persnickety about how they are planted.  Site preparation is everything.  They prefer relatively rich, deep soil that is regularly fed with phosphorus.  And here’s the real deal-breaker:  their thick roots must never be planted too deeply, or they won’t flower.  Make sure to read up on the variety you choose; one inch difference in planting depth can make your plant refuse to bloom.  As with most perennials, it’s best to plant in fall, several weeks before the first expected frost.

I have found peonies to be relatively pest free—and that includes deer.  My peonies are almost 20 years old and not once have the neighborhood deer touched them.  Nor have they ever been attacked by insects or snails.  There is a curious thing that happens with ants, though.  The year my peonies first bloomed I saw the fat round buds covered in ants.  At first I freaked because I knew about the symbiotic relationship between ants and aphids.  But the aphids never came.  I later learned that experts speculate the buds secrete some kind of “nectar” the ants harvest; then once the flower fully opens, the ants depart.  Some think the peony might produce this substance to enlist the ants’ help in opening the buds.  Whether or not this is true, what is true is that the ants do no harm.

Now, about the peony that is native to the western U.S:  It’s Peony Browniicalled P. Brownii (with a subspecies called P. Californica) and grows in dry sagebrush and Ponderosa pine country in the West.  It doesn’t put on a flower show as dramatic as the Asian hybrids, but it has its own subtle beauty.  I’ve never seen the native in nurseries but have read they can be grown from seed.  If you’d like to try, the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) site offers photos of the plant and has a short list of seed companies that carry them:  http://calscape.org/Paeonia-brownii.

Peony White w Yellow CenterUntil a few years ago there was a nursery in Calaveras County called Dragonfly Peony Farm, which evidently carried over 100 varieties of hybrids.  Sadly, I never made it out there before it closed.  Another disappointing thing is that peonies aren’t all that common in local nurseries.  Consequently, I’m on a quest this year to find nurseries and growers in Northern California so I can satisfy this new flower lust.

A long-lived, nearly pest-free beauty that thrives in my foothills garden?  Count me in.

Succulents that Thrive in Foothill Gardens

It’s mid-June, and I’m thinking about how, so far, our spring and early summer have been relatively mild.  But I know the brutal, 90- to 100-degree weather is coming (I’m not a fan), so my gardening thoughts are turning to a group of plants that have evolved to thrive in long, hot, dry summers:  succulents.  From the soaring saguaro cactus to the “baby toes” groundcover, succulents are tough, sun-loving, long-lived plants that are great for drought-prone areas.  But not all succulents can withstand our cold, wet winters and heavy soil, so it’s best to know which ones can.

Cactus 1But first, a few definitions.  The word “succulent” comes from the Latin word “succulentus,” which means juice or sap.  They are defined by their ability to store moisture and are represented by more than 40 botanical families around the world.   While native succulents can be found worldwide, one family is indigenous only to the American and South American West:  cactus (Cactaceae).   What makes cacti different from all other succulents are round, cushion-like structures called “areoles,” from which spines, branches, hair and flowers grow.

If there’s one trait all succulents share in addition to their capability to store moisture in their fleshy leaves and stems, it’s that they must have excellent drainage.  A rocky and/or sandy soil is best, so if your soil is heavy clay, you can add coarse builder’s sand and/or gravel to lighten it.  Most succulents will thrive in a rock garden that gets plenty of sun.  Another plus is, because of their tough, sometimes prickly or fuzzy “skin,” succulents aren’t typically appealing to garden pests or deer.

Generally speaking, only gardeners in the lower foothill elevations will have success growing desert-born cacti because higher up, it’s often too shady and/or cold and wet in winter for them.  Most other succulents evolved in cooler, wetter places than deserts, so they’re better candidates for foothill gardeners.

Here are some succulents that, if sited correctly and not overwatered, should flourish here:

SedumSedum – Also known as “Stonecrop,” Sedum is a large genus (400-plus species) of flowering plants in the family Crassulaceae.  Some of the most attractive, hardy—and unusual—groundcovers around are varieties of Sedum, and because there is such a range of leaf and flower colors, you can create a veritable tapestry with them to replace a lawn, cover a hillside or adorn a rock garden.  A few popular varieties include:  S. angelicum (“Angelina”), with delicate whorls of green to yellow leaves reminiscent of pine needles, only in miniature; “Firecracker” Sedum with tiny, oval, burgundy leaves that form what look like dense flowers; and “Tricolor” Sedum, with green leaves edged in pink and Sedum autumn Joywhite.  Taller than the 3” – 6” varieties above, the beloved “Autumn Joy” Sedum grows to 18” to 24” and is a show-stopper in fall, as its large, showy flower clusters emerge mauve-red and soften to a dusty pink.  Autumn Joy in bloom, like many Sedum, attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.

Sempervivum – “Hens and chicks” is the more popular name for this more cactus-looking plant that is also in the Crassulaceae family.  Ground huggers, hens and chicks have grey or green leaves that form around each other in a rosette, and they propagate by forming offsets. The “hen” is the main, or Hens and Chicks Sedummother, plant, and the “chicks” are the offspring, which cluster close to the mother plant.  Echeveria is a similar-looking succulent, although it’s a different genus and has been hybridized extensively.  Graptosedum is related to Echeveria and has the same bluish-grey, thick, fleshy leaves; but it propagates by sending out a stem from the center of the rosette.

The Sierra Nevada mountains and foothills are home to a number of native Sedum, including “Canyon Liveforever” (Dudleya cymosa) and “Bitter Root” (Lewisia rediviva).  The California Native Plant Society’s Calscape website (calscape.org) is a good resource for researching native Sedum, as is our local CNPS chapter website (sierrafoothillscnps.org).

It occurred to me that I could literally plant nothing but succulents in my garden and end up with everything I would want—color, texture, variety, food for the butterflies and birds—minus the water bills, pesky insects and the need to fertilize.  Hmm. . .

Low-Maintenance Plants for Slopes


The view from my kitchen window was really ugly for years:  a very steep, rocky slope that, I admit, I left to the weeds for too long.  I didn’t have the money or energy to consider terracing or installing a solid fence.  And until I learned otherwise, I assumed that hot, dry hillside was just too harsh an environment to plant anything I’d want to look at as I washed dishes.

Slope garden
No, this is not the view out my kitchen window, but I hope someday . . .

Slopes are definitely challenging, garden-wise.  Watering and drainage are problematic, not to mention access in general, for plants that need deadheading or any other routine maintenance.  Fortunately, I learned in time that there are scads of low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plants that can cover a hillside with attractive foliage and flowers.  They also provide the added benefit of preventing soil erosion, which is a very good thing if the hillside is just ten feet from the back of your house (like mine).

Following are either western native or drought-tolerant, low-growing plants that make light work of routine “gardening” on slopes.  Most grow to six to 12 inches tall, but a few can reach 24 inches.  Most can take direct sun, but a few look their best with a little afternoon shade.  The list is loosely organized by virtue.

Concha ceonothus

No-water wonders.  These three top my list for low-maintenance plants that are happy on a hot, dry hillside: creeping California lilac (Ceanothus), with smoky purple flowers the bees love;  creeping manzanita (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), with tiny, bell-shaped pink flowers and red fruit; and prostrate rosemary, with pale blue blooms and scented foliage.  All three bloom in spring, and once established, require zero supplemental water.  The only downside is that these plants are relatively slow growing, so if you want to cover a slope in a hurry, choose from other plants mentioned below.

Fast coverage.   Native dwarf coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) is one of the fastest-growing, toughest groundcovers around.  Low-growing wall germander (Teucrium chamaedrys) sports small, glossy, dark green leaves and teensy lilac flowers.  Creeping St. John’s Wort (Hypericum calycinum) will easily cover a problematic slope, and its fairy-like yellow flowers are lovely; but it can be invasive, so site it with that in mind.  St. John’s Wort is one of those hardy groundcovers that looks better if it receives some afternoon shade.


Dazzling flowers.   Most of the plants mentioned above have lovely blooms, but there is nothing like the car-stopping appeal of a carpet of pink-flowering, creeping thyme.  Rockrose (Cistus) is a small, mounding bush that is covered with pink or white crepe-paper-like flowers in spring and summer, and probably wins the prize for a plant that thrives on neglect.

“Angelina” Sedum

Interesting texture.  If you like a more rock garden/desert look, there is a mind-boggling selection of succulent Sedums, many of which flower in late summer or fall.  “Angelina” and “Dragon’s Blood” are two favorites.  Creeping junipers can provide dramatic, almost sculptural texture, as well as being evergreen.  Artemesia californica “Canyon Gray” is a low-growing, native sagebrush that has feathery grey foliage and is a nice companion to the pink-flowering rockrose.

There are many more options for slopes and hillsides than you might think, so don’t give up on them too quickly.  Here are some resources for finding more suitable plants:  University of California’s “The California Garden Web” at www.cagardenweb.ucanr.edu  The local chapter of the California Native Plant Society at www.sierrafoothillscnps.org.



Control Garden Pests With Inexpensive, Safe Methods

The first day of spring is 17 days away, which means it’s time to start thinking about the best ways to battle the insects and diseases that plague us gardeners once temperatures start to rise.  These days, I go for simple, cheap and safe.

Here are a few favorites:

Spraying waterWater.  Starting in spring when those pesky aphids start to appear, get in the habit of giving aphid-prone plants (can you spell r-o-s-e-s?) an all-over blast of water in the morning.  A hard spray, including the undersides of leaves, knocks off and often kills soft-bodied insects on plant surfaces such as aphids, mites and thrips.  The trick to this tactic is commitment; it won’t control the populations unless you do it every day.  Spraying in the morning ensures plenty of time for the moisture to evaporate, which will help avoid molds and fungus.

Vegetable Oil.  There are two things you can do with inexpensive veggie oils.  First, fill an empty tuna can about three-quarters full, add a scrap of any kind of leftover meat, then set the can next to any plant that has been plagued by earwigs or slugs.  They climb into the can and drown in the oil.  The second use is in making homemade horticultural oil, which, when sprayed onto the plant when insects are present, basically smothers them—without leaving a toxic residue.  Some gardeners also swear by homemade sprays as pest deterrents, mixing oil and water with ingredients like dish soap and cayenne pepper (for leaf-chewing insects) or garlic (for deterring deer). While these homemade concoctions are not proven scientifically, they are inexpensive, harmless tactics that just might help in combination with other practices.

(Tip:  I’ve learned to give plants a shake before aiming the hose or spray nozzle, to give any ladybugs and other beneficial insects on the plant a chance to escape the blast.)

copper tape in gardenCopper.  Wrapping copper foil or flashing around tree, shrub, and woody perennial trunks and planter boxes will keep snails away for years.  According to the UC Davis Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program, “It is believed that copper barriers are effective because the copper reacts with the slime that snails and slugs secrete, causing a disruption in their nervous system similar to an electric shock.”  Another use of copper is in a “Bordeaux” mixture, which is a combination of copper sulfate, lime and water.  It’s been used for decades as an effective fungicide and bactericide, especially on fruit and nut trees, vine fruits and ornamental plants.  It’s used to prevent or control leaf curl, fire blight, black spot on roses and downy and powdery mildews, among other diseases.  The mixture is best used in fall or winter when plants are dormant because it can damage leaves.  “Fixed copper” fungicide sprays are another variant, but they don’t withstand winter rains as well as Bordeaux mixture.

Plastic Sheets.  Using heavy plastic sheets to solarize soil not only kills harmful soil-borne pests, but also kills many weeds, pathogens and nematodes, making way for beneficial microorganisms to quickly repopulate.  In addition, solarization actually improves soil, say the experts at UC IPM.  “It can improve soil structure by increasing the availability of nitrogen and other essential nutrients for growing healthy plants.  Plants Solarizing weedsoften grow faster and produce both higher and better quality yields when grown in solarized soil. This can be attributed to improved disease and weed control, the increase in soluble nutrients, and relatively greater proportions of helpful soil microorganisms.”  Solarization involves heating the soil by covering it with a plastic tarp for four to six weeks during a hot period of the year when the soil will receive the most direct sunlight.   When done properly, solarization will kill soil-borne pests up to 18 inches deep.

To get more details about these and other simple, environmentally friendly pest and disease controls, visit http://www.ipm.ucanr.edu, the UC Davis Integrated Pest Management website.