Bring Nature Home

One of the sponsors for the San Francisco Garden Show in March was the National Wildlife Federation and April Owens, Charlotte Torgovitsky and I joined up to create their backyard wildlife habitat exhibit.  On a 20 x 30-foot space, we put together a native habitat garden replete with bubbling stream, hedgerow and meadow, and called it “Bring Nature Home”.    

The entryway to the garden was a large twig façade made from recycled fence posts and manzanita and oak branches.  A hedgerow, edged with a rock wall, showcased trees and shrubs that would bloom in different seasons and provide food sources for birds and pollinators.  Several large live oaks in 36-inch boxes anchored the hedgerow area:  oak leaves, gathered from the oak woodlands that border Charlotte’s property in Novato, were scattered underneath.   Trees and shrubs such as California buckeye, Ceanothus ‘Blue Ray’, Catalina cherry (Prunus lyonii), toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), pink-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) and fuschia-flowered gooseberry (R. speciosum ‘Rana Creek’) were densely planted together to create our hedgerow habitat.

Among the understory plants were several manzanita species  (A. ‘Sentinel’ and ‘Emerald Carpet’); quail bush (Atriplex lentiformis) and low-growing, mounding groundcover such as coyote brush (Baccharis ‘Pigeon Pt’) and Ceanothus maritimus ‘Valley Violet’  and C. gloriosus v.  ‘Emily Brown’).  Nestled among the trees and shrubs were several bird nests that Charlotte had discovered and saved as well as nest boxes for chickadees and western bluebirds.  A native bee nest box hung from a branch on our twig façade.

Downslope  from the hedgerow we planted various native salvias — Salvia ‘Bee’s Bliss’, S. clevelandii ‘Allen Chickering’, S. leucophylla ‘Amethyst Bluff’, and black sage (S. mellifera).  Scattered within a small meadow of grasses (Calamagrostis foliosa and Festuca rubra ‘Molate’) and perennials (Penstemon heterophyllus and Eriogonum latifolium) were various wildflowers, such as tufted California poppies, white tidytips, and buttercups.  Pots of Juncus patens and horsetail (Equisetum) were placed among the rocks in the stream where water clover floated on top.

Probably the garden’s most wildly popular plants were two blooming fremontias (Fremontodendron ‘Ken Taylor’).  They got everyone’s attention. This cultivar has beautiful, deep golden yellow flowers and grows up to 6 feet tall and 10 feet wide, much smaller than other forms.   Though deeply rewarding when happy, fremontias can be difficult to grow; certainly not a good option for heavy clay soils.  I had good luck with ‘Pacific Sunset’, which is growing in sandy soil in an area that receives no supplemental water.  However, its roots have most likely tapped into a naturally moist area about five yards away.  Over the years it has shot up to possibly 20 feet, always reaching for the sun, much taller than it is wide.   It started blooming in late March with deep golden flowers from top to bottom; a dazzling display in spring!

Another plant that fascinated garden show attendees was slender hair grass (Deschampsia elongata).   The very thin leaves and stems are surprisingly soft — when walking by these plants few of us could resist touching them.  This bunchgrass needs a shady, moist place to grow; otherwise, it will die back in the hot months.  In the wild it is found in many native plant communities: coastal sage scrub, mixed evergreen forest, mountain meadows, for example.

            In our small garden exhibit we managed to include caterpillar host plants for  at least 14 species of butterflies.  Feedback from garden show attendees was enthusiastic and we’re pleased to announce that our native plant habitat garden won Sunset’s Western Living Garden Award!