By T. Eric Nightingale, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
Gardening is fun, of that there is little doubt. It begins with a trip to the nursery, picking out those perfect plants from the multitudes of foliage. Then the dirty work begins.
Digging, planting, pruning and harvesting all make up an experience that speaks to something ancient within us. Gardening has been shown to reduce stress and have long-term positive effects on depression. And, of course, it brings the potential for increasing the beauty of your home and yard.
When planning a new garden, or considering changes to your existing one, take a moment to consider the wider world beyond. The choices we make in our home gardens have an effect on the world around us, more than most of us think about while having fun playing in the dirt. Garden structure, plant choice, and management practices all affect our environment and the health of our communities. One way to think ecologically about your garden is to plan to support native wildlife such as birds.
Many of our urban and suburban areas are sorely lacking in habitat options for birds. Birds need trees and shrubs to nest within, protect them from the elements and shield them from predators. While trees provide some habitat, many California native birds prefer shrubs and hedges for their homes.
This preference is convenient for us, as these plants are more accessible and easily integrated into our gardens. Myrica californica is a great California native with dense leaf growth that provides shelter for birds. What's more, this shrub is a nitrogen fixer, improving the health of your soil. It also grows well in our clay soil, so there is no need to do any amending or berming as you would with some other plants. Left to its own devices it can reach twenty feet in height. Unless you need a privacy screen or noise break, you may want to keep it pruned to a more manageable size.
Muhlenbergia rigens, a native bunch grass, also makes a great bird habitat. It also brings a softness and sense of motion to a garden.
The urbanization of wild areas has also reduced the availability of food sources for birds (the health and prosperity of crows notwithstanding). Choosing plants that provide seed, berries and nectar, as well as those that attract insects, can have a beneficial impact on your local ecosystem.
Manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.) is an attractive, drought-tolerant shrub that will also provide food for birds. Manzanitas produce pinkish-white flowers that produce nectar for hummingbirds. Later, the berries left by the flowers will provide a tasty snack for other birds.
If you like succulents, Dudleya species, also called “live forevers,” are whitish rosettes that add some flair to a native garden. Their yellow flowers are held aloft by pink stems, and hummingbirds often visit them.
Pesticides can sicken and kill birds so should be used sparingly in a bird-friendly garden. Many times people feel the urge to act, often in the form of chemical bombardment, at the discovery of an unknown insect in their garden. Often such an encounter requires no interaction from us. A booming insect population will soon draw the attention of other insects, lizards and birds that will be glad to do the extermination work for you.
If you decide that using chemicals is absolutely necessary, a specific, targeted response will be least damaging to wildlife. Broad-spectrum insecticides sprayed indiscriminately around a garden can give dramatic results. They also greatly disrupt your garden's ecosystem, leaving the door open for new pests who may want to move in. A pest-specific approached, applied conservatively, will cause the least collateral damage, keeping your garden a safe and healthy habitat for birds.
Pruning and other maintenance should also be done with care. Many birds build their nests inside shrubs and trees, nests that can be damaged or disturbed during pruning. You can avoid this calamity by careful observation prior to pruning.
Whatever you do in your garden, just keeping birds in mind will help you make decisions that benefit them. In the end you will find that this mindfulness benefits you as well, bringing the beautiful sights and sounds of nature to your home.
Next workshop: “Cool-Season Vegetables: Now is the Time to Plan and Start” on Saturday, August 10, from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., at the University of California Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. Repeated on Sunday, August 11, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. in Yountville. For more details & online registration for the Napa workshop: http://napamg.ucanr.edu. Or call 707-253-4221. For the Yountville workshop, go to Online Yountville registration or telephone the Parks & Recreation Department at 707-944-8712.
The UC Master Gardeners are volunteers who provide UC research-based information on home gardening and answer your questions. To find out more about upcoming programs or to ask a garden question, visit the Master Gardener website (http://napamg.ucanr.edu) or call (707) 253-4221 between 9 a.m. and noon on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays.
If you are looking for attractive and low-maintenance additions to your garden, look no further than California native plants.
Most of California falls within a zone known as the California Floristic Province. Defined by the Sierra Nevada range on the west, this area is considered to be a biodiversity hotspot. Its many types of terrain and climate have given rise to around 8,000 endemic plant species. Consequently, you have many choices for native plants in your garden, whether you are looking for a delicate flower such as the California poppy or a tough survivor like manzanita.
Native plants offer numerous benefits. Many are drought tolerant, a popular attribute in recent years. However, even drought-tolerant plants need some water until they're established. Deep watering the first year will encourage deep root growth so the plant can access the water it needs in the future. This early attention will pay off by saving you time and money for years to come.
While native plants enhance your landscape, they also provide food and shelter for local wildlife. Many birds relish their berries and seeds and use them for perching while hunting insects, hiding from predators and nesting. Development has removed large amounts of native habitat, but as gardeners, we can help by recreating those living spaces in our own yards.
Native bees will also feel at home in a garden filled with California natives. They pollinate plants (especially important if you are growing edibles) and are a food source for birds and lizards. Most native bees do not sting unless provoked, and they do not form large colonies, so there are no nests or swarms to manage.
One iconic Napa Valley native is the majestic oak. We have nine native species here, but the most common are the coast live oak, the scrub oak and the valley oak. "Live" means the tree is evergreen. It is impossible to travel around the valley without noticing their beauty.
Often I have accidentally come upon an oak, approaching it at such an angle that its full shape is suddenly visible. I am awed by its beauty. The thick, continually branching arms stretch to the sky, as if holding it aloft. From a distance, the blanket of waxy leaves appears soft and fluffy. These are unique trees that, as natives, require particular care.
Like many native plants, oaks are drought tolerant, which means that they are sensitive to over watering. They do not want any summer water, so irrigation lines or plants with high water needs should not be placed under them.
While the effects of too much water are not immediately visible, long-term over-watering can kill an oak tree. Mulching around the base is also discouraged. The leaves and other litter that drop from the tree, if left alone, will naturally prevent weeds from sprouting and also return nutrients to the soil.
You can learn more about native plants on the California Native Plant Society web page. There you will find lists of plants native to Napa Valley and nurseries that stock them. The society holds twice-yearly plant sales where you can learn more about California native plants.
Workshop: U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will host a workshop on “Oaks and Natives” on Saturday, May 13, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., at Skyline Park, 2201 Imola Avenue, Napa. Enjoy a guided tour around the park to appreciate and learn about oak woodlands and the stresses they face. Then continue with a stroll in the Martha Walker Garden to see oaks and native plants in a garden habitat. Learn about plant care and using native plants under oaks and elsewhere in your own garden. Take advantage of this opportunity to enjoy two of Napa County's woodland gems. Online registration (credit card only)
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County