I love watching the birds at my feeders, which are strategically placed away from potential danger and in such a way that I get a great view from my favorite place to sit and read. I’ll notice all the activity in a peripheral sort of way, but when something unusual happens, or a bird appears that’s out of the ordinary, my attention is immediately focused. I get so much pleasure from watching these beautiful creatures un-noticed, but still close up.
Basics of Habitat Gardening
Early in March the Redbud is ready to burst into bloom; the beautiful zig-zagging tracery of its branches soon to be disguised in a cloud of pink flowers. I’ve planted several redbuds in different areas on our property, but the most spectacular is a well developed small tree, now about 15 feet tall, in my front border. As it happens, it is an eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis); a beautiful case of a mistaken identity!
From November through February my chipper pile grows steadily bigger. I begin cutting back perennial plants and shrubs as the fall blooming cycle ends; long, fairly straight stems go to the chipper pile, more twisted branches go to various brush piles along a low wooden fence. The leaves of Coast Live Oaks drop all year long, and many of them get raked off the pathways because layers of these leaves can be quite slippery. I drop buckets full of leaves onto the brush piles, where they drop down through the twiggy stuff to the ground and decompose over time.
Micro-Habitats; Knowing Your Land
My husband and I live on a south facing hillside situated above the Novato Creek floodplains; it’s a beautiful, warm, and sunny spot with a great vantage point. Our hill, called Cherry Hill on some maps, is a part of one of the ridges extending from Mt. Burdell, the 3rd highest peak in Marin County, and we’re directly facing Big Rock Ridge, the 2nd highest spot in Marin. When the skies are clear, we can actually see just a little tip of Mt. Tamalpais, the highest peak in Marin! To the east, we can see the twin peaks of Mt. Diablo, which is the highest peak of all in our area and therefore the base meridian of much of northern California.
The views are wonderful here on our land, but the rainfall is sometimes disappointing; while other places in Marin are measuring and inch or so, we might get ¼ of an inch of rain! We’re in a rain shadow; I can see all the rain falling on the north side of Big Rock Ridge and in Indian Valley, but the clouds are often blown east. If they do get to our side, there’s not much moisture left.
Even so, with not much more than an inch of rain, I’m witnessing an almost instantaneous re-greening of the landscape! Within days thousands of seeds are germinating; lots of grasses, and a great variety of weeds and wildflowers. This is where the fun begins. I love the challenge of identifying these minute plantlets. Sometimes I’m already so familiar with the plant that I know it from the cotyledons, but very often I need to see the first true leaves before I really know what they are.
Thinking About Weeds
Annual grass seeds are amongst the first to germinate, and of course wild oats (Avena species) are well represented. Wild oats, very different looking than the native Oatgrass (Danthonia californica) were introduced from Europe and brought to California, most likely with the very first Spanish settlers who brought livestock, and with them the seeds of these grasses. In Europe, during the olden times, the leafy new spring growth of one wild oat species (Avena sativa) was used as a medicinal to treat various conditions, including diminished sex drive. This is where the term "sowing one’s wild oats" originates from!
Along with the annual grasses come lots of thistle seedlings; their cotyledons are large and somewhat spoon-shaped. I can identify Italian thistles (Carduus pycnocephalus) easily when the first set of small and somewhat spiky, medium-green true leaves have developed. Some of the non-native weeds, including thistles, that plague wild areas in Marin, are thought to have been brought to the county by Samuel P. Taylor in raw materials for his paper mill. At first there was plenty of wood pulp locally available, but as those sources dwindled, and while the demand for paper kept going up, he also made paper using rags that were imported from Europe. It’s within these supplies that the seeds of some European weeds are thought to have "hitched a ride".
Here’s where my thoughts about weeds differ from those of many others; weeds are not all bad!
Milkweeds and Monarchs
I’d bet that we’re all pretty happy that the rainy season is over and cherishing the beautiful sunny days. With a good layer of mulch to help retain moisture in the soil, plus the warm days, plants are now putting on growth that can almost be measured day by day!
The Flickers have now left my oak woodlands and moved to higher elevations in the Coast Ranges; I’ll look forward to seeing them again when we’re camping in the forests this summer. Meanwhile, the Tree Swallows are here already and I’m waiting to hear the first calls of the Ash-throated Flycatchers as they arrive from wintering grounds in Baja California. For the last five or six years they have shown up about the fifth of May, and by June are raising a brood in the nesting box hung in an old Coast Live Oak.
Even if it’s just for an hour or two, I make time to do some work in my garden every single day, and my favorite time to be outside is at dusk when all sorts of creatures are stirring. Since my tasks, like weeding or potting up seedlings, are often simple and somewhat repetitive, I’m in a meditative state and absorbing all that goes on around me.
The Natural World has been my touchstone; a certain intimacy with the land and other creatures that always rings honest and true. When I think about why I like to garden it always comes back to my desire to be a participant with nature. I came to California as a child from the other side of the world, but now I have become ‘native’ to this place, and it suits me to get to really know this hillside that is now my home ground, rather than seek many others to climb.
Seeds so clearly represent the end of one cycle of life and the beginning of another: And the start of the Rainy Season also heralds the beginning of a new year for native plant gardeners. Here in California we really have only three seasons; the rainy season, the wildflower season, and the dry season. We’ve had a mere sprinkling at the beginning of October, and it won’t be long before our hills turn green again. I’ve already noticed annual wildflowers germinating in areas where I hand-water.