The Loma Prietan - March/April 2008

Gardening Green

Gardening for Habitat

How to make your garden a haven for wildlife

Story and Photos by Arvind Kumar

A birdbath framed by checkerbloom, poppy, and black sage attracts year-round avian visitors such as the mourning dove (inset).
A birdbath framed by checkerbloom, poppy, and black sage attracts year-round avian visitors such as the mourning dove (inset).

Most of us grow up in urban environments so devoid of natural elements that we've come to think of them as the norm. We are led to believe that, for cities to exist, nature must yield or disappear. To experience "nature," we drive for hours to a state park or a national park, but those trips are rare compared to the ones to the grocery store or the local mall.

The thinking that humans and nature are somehow separate, forever battling until one or the other must "win," promotes a false dichotomy. We humans are not separate from nature, we are part of it. And it is possible for us to live such that our dwellings preserve, enhance, and incorporate the natural elements of the site.

What can you do, as a homeowner or apartment dweller, to bring nature back to your dwelling?

Start by learning to see your yard in its natural context. Is it located in a valley or on a hillside? Is there a creek nearby? What are the weather patterns—sun, precipitation, temperature? What is the soil like? What is the native plant community of the area? What about wildlife?

Next, think about what you can do to make your garden inviting to wildlife. What wildlife wants, first and foremost, is food, and what's at the bottom of the food chain? Plants! A healthy ecosystem at its base consists of a variety of native vegetation. These native plants feed the lower animals, which in turn feed the higher animals.

What makes native plants special is their long, shared history with native animals. They have co-evolved for thousands of years, adapting to each other and providing unparalleled value to each other. California's native oak woodlands, for example, support more than 300 species of animals, according to the California Oak Foundation.

You as an urban or suburban gardener can make a big difference by doing something seemingly small. Include some locally native plants in the garden, and in so doing link your yard once again to the ecosystem to which it belongs. My experience shows that even one or two well-chosen plants make a difference. If you plant it, they will come!

All life depends on water, and to attract wildlife, make sure your garden has an accessible water source. This can be a fountain or stream or pond. Even the smallest of gardens or patios can accommodate a birdbath. The sound of trickling water is particularly attractive to birds.

In the food chain, insects are second only to plants in importance. If your garden is friendly to insects, it will draw the birds that feast on them.

Insects in the home garden are under siege from pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers. Their tiny metabolisms succumb under the onslaught of these toxins and chemicals. Don't use them. Look into nontoxic methods of pest control such as neem oil and boric acid. Use natural means of weed control such as woodchip mulch and vinegar. Eschew chemical fertilizers in favor of home-made compost. Contact the local Master Gardener hotline at 408-282-3105 for advice on integrated pest management and other healthy gardening alternatives.

Besides food and water, a habitat garden also provides shelter. "Habitat" in Latin means "it dwells": a habitat is where an organism lives naturally. A bird habitat, for example, includes trees and dense shrubs, suitable for building nests and finding cover.

Yes, through mindful gardening and landscaping, it is possible to bring nature back into the city. To paraphrase an old John-and-Yoko anti-war poster: Nature is just outside the window sill, if you want it.

Sierra Club life member and California Native Plant Society director Arvind Kumar has been growing native plants in his Evergreen garden since 2001. Write to him at