Top Picks for the California Wildlife Garden

Yesterday, Ms. Country Mouse and I finally had a chance to get together -- I hadn't seen her since before I went to Boulder, she's been soooo busy. We had signed up to take a class about gardening for wildlife at Tilden Botanical Garden, and Country Mouse picked me up bright and early.

After an hour's drive, we were away from the freeways and up in the hills above Berkeley. On the bay side, a layer of fog obscured the view of San Francisco, but on the other side we could glance golden hills dotted with oaks. We parked the car, went over to the botanical garden, and had a quick look around. Then the class started.

Both teachers were passionate and very knowledgeable wildlife gardeners. Interestingly, almost all of the students were also passionate and quite knowledgeable wildlife gardeners, which made for thoughtful questions. The teachers first showed a slide show and told us the most important things for wildlife:
  • Don't use pesticides and herbicides. 
  • Grow a diversity of plants that produce nectar, pollen, seeds, berries, nuts, and fruit in different seasons. 
  • Offer water sources year round.
The teachers also encouraged layers of trees, shrubs, flowers, and vines, and provide snags, logs, and brush piles. That advice might need to be taken with a grain of salt by the suburban wildlife gardener: I do have a few small, fairly tidy looking log piles (see this post). But a brush pile would not be aesthetically pleasing. I'm hoping the birds choose the live plants instead.

In the second half of the class, the teachers introduced us to a few plants up close and personal, and with a very informative handout. We learned about some top wildlife plants in different habitats. I was glad to find that I already had many of the plants in the garden, and I'm now thinking of getting a few more in the coming week. Here are the top picks for riparian plants:

Sambucus mexicana (Blue elderberry) offers flowers in spring and berries, to be enjoyed by birds and people, in the fall. Native peoples made flutes from straight canes.  Below, a photo of elderberry in my garden -- clearly, the birds enjoyed the feast.

Ribes sanguineum va. glutinosum offers nectar for hummingbirds in early spring and berries for migrating songbirds in the fall. This plant is also truly a show-stopper and delights the humans that are tiring of the grey winter days. Here's a picture from my garden in early April.

Vaccinium ovatum (Evergreen Huckleberry) offers early spring flowers that attract insects and hummingbirds and berries in fall that feed birds and other wildlife. The fruit can also be enjoyed by humans though, like some other native plants, this one takes a while to mature. I've had a huckleberry in the redwood habitat for 5 years and I'm still waiting for flowers or berries. But who can argue with a full shade plant that gets by with very little water? Here a photo I took of a mature Vaccinium in the SF Arboretum.

Oenothera hookeri (Yellow evening primrose) offers an abundance of seeds for birds in the fall. A truly stunning plant, up to 5 feet tall, and a great choice for large gardens. I must admit, though, that I have reservations about a plant that reseeds quite so readily. I'm not sure it's a good choice for the suburban garden, where neighbors might not appreciate free plants, and for the wildlands, it's only appropriate in areas where it's native. But it really is a stunning plant, and everyone at the class was in love with it.

Sysyrinchium californicum (Yellow-eyed grass) offers nectar for bees and butterflies and seeds for birds. This plant like plenty of sun and water and, like many riperian plants, will spread nicely. I had one in my wine barrel water garden for a while, but I've had to move it out because I have to cover the barrel over night to deter the raccoons from digging out my waterlily bulbs.

It was great fun hearing the teacher talk about how to propagate each plant, and I also enjoyed the questions and comments from my classmates.

Coming soon: oak woodland and chaparral plants for the wildlife garden.


rebecca sweet said…
I have a gorgeous 4-year old Ribes sanguineum in my garden and it's one of my favorite spring-bloomers. Even when it's not flowering, its leaves are so beautiful it really looks good for many, many months. But in the spring - ahhhh....true beauty!
Country Mouse said…
Wow, great post on our day out. It was also fun to spend time with Christine of Idora Design. Oenothera hookeri is native in Santa Cruz County and I did bring back a plant. Now my conundrum is - what kind of restoration gardener am I? Yes, a conflicted one is the right answer!
susan morrison said…
Sounds like a great class. I haven't been to Tilden in a couple of years. If you're interested in natives, it's one of the best places in the Bay Area to go to find out what they really look like in a garden setting. I took several plant ID classes there when I was in design school.
Diana Studer said…
Evening primrose is invasive all the way to South Africa (but more refined than our Oxalis ;>)
Gail said…
We need more regional classes like this one in our part of the garden! Love the yellow evening primroses and find the pink ones far more of a problem! gail
Sounds like an interesting class. I have the Ribes, although it's fairly new, and not very large yet. Almost bought a huckleberry the other day, but had to prioritize a plant purchase that day. I think we have the wood/brush/rock piles covered...maybe a little too much on the woodpiles :P Looking forward to your Oak Woodland post!
Barbara said…
I bought and planted a Ribes after a nature-loving garden neighbor recommended it as beloved of birds and bees. What a fun class that must have been! I've also discovered how important a source of water is for both birds and insects after seeing how gratefully they visited our birdbath. The smaller birds seem intimidated by it, so for them I always put out a shallow plate of water in a sheltered space. I fantasize that the chickadees cock their head at me in thanks before imbibing.
Lynne said…
We built a brush pile at the back of our lot (had lots of branches to deal with) and were amazed at the number of small critters and birds that use that pile! The real challenge was persuading the neighbours that this was NOT a pile to dump their garbage on.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for sharing the basic principles from your class. Although I live in a different part of the country from you, I can apply these principles. (I wonder if my "old Christmas tree graveyard" in the woods qualifies as a brush pile?) -Jean
The elderberry berries are a treat, but even their flowers can be used to make a subtly flavored tea that some of the local Kumeyaay used medicinally. I keep resisting the tall yellow primrose for precisely the reason you state, that it can wander all over a garden, but I think it'll just be a matter of time before I plant one--or maybe one will wander into the garden from the nearby canyons. That'd be a great reversal of garden plants escaping to the wilds!
Kimberly said…
What a fantastic class and post! There should be more educational opportunities throughout the country...great idea! I'll take it to my local extension office and master gardeners.