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Back Yard Habitats

Want to attract more birds and other wildlife into your garden? Plant California natives this fall or next spring and you will be rewarded with more birds in your own back yard. Bring nature to your own home by growing a variety of native species—truly if you plant it they will come.

indigo bunting

An indigo bunting in an Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana); Pine Flat Road, Sonoma County.
Photo: Thomas Reynolds

Fall is an ideal time to plant natives because the soil is still relatively warm but days are shorter and rain is (one hopes!) on the way. One way to support both wildlife and native plant growers is to buy locally native plants at one of the fall plant sales. Before you go, be sure you know what your soil is like (sandy, heavy clay, loamy) and what the exposure is (does the planting area receive full sun? shade? filtered light? is it windy?). Although you may find a knowledgeable volunteer to assist you, plants sales can be hectic and chaotic, which can be infectious and quite fun unless you are trying to get specific planting information. Keep in mind the adage to “plant the right plant in the right place,” and do a little homework before you embark.

Ideally, you will have an idea of what you are looking for by looking at books, searching online, talking with friends, consulting an expert, visiting private or public gardens, or knowing what native plants occur in our area. Several of our fine local nurseries carry native plants and are good places to buy from year round; most also help supply some of the sale plants for organizations like CNPS (California Native Plant Society). Local native plant nurseries include: Cal Flora, Sommers & D Streets, Fulton; Mostly Natives, 27235 Highway One, Tomales; and North Coast Native Nursery, 2710 Chileno Valley Road, Petaluma. All three of these nurseries have websites with availability lists.

A few notes of caution: deer have evolved with native plants and enjoy browsing them, so protection will be required if plants are exposed. Also, all container-grown plants, including natives, require thorough and regular watering until they are established. This could be anywhere from two years to four years depending on the initial planting size, soil type, exposure, planting time, etc. There are many variables to watering intervals and plant establishment. Don’t let this discourage you, just keep in mind that new plants need tending in order to do well. And remember that plants still in containers dry out especially quickly; rainfall alone won’t keep the root ball sufficiently moist.

Habitat favorites for birds include several local species: oaks (Quercus spp.), willows (Salix spp.), big-leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis), toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), elderberry (Sambucus caerulea), huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), native blackberry (Rubus ursinus), salmonberry (R. spectabilis), coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica), currants (Ribes sanguineum and others), gooseberries (Ribes speciosum and others), manzanitas (Arctostaphylos spp.), and California lilac (Ceanothus spp.).

In addition to the larger woody plants listed above, good habitat plantings include native perennials such as California fuchsias (Epilobium spp.), buckwheats (Eriogonum spp.), seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucus), woolly sunflower (Eriophyllum lanatum), asters (Aster spp.), sages (Salvia spp.), and goldenrods (Solidago spp.). Bunchgrasses are also very popular as garden plants and plants sales often have quite a number of them. Our native grasses are especially beautiful, and finches and other seedeaters enjoy the seed during summer months. Look for California fescue (Festuca californica), and melics (Melica spp.), and grass-like natives such as rushes (Juncus spp.), and sedges (Carex spp.).

Hummingbirds are quite fond of California fuchsia (Epilobium sp.), any of the species or named varieties, but especially the darker flowered ones. They are also fond of bee plant (Scrophularia californica) flowers and those of manzanita, gooseberry, and currant. Finches love the buckwheats, asters, and goldenrod. California quail seem to prefer nearby cover (especially layered tree, shrub, and bunchgrass cover) when foraging, often near coyote brush, manzanita, ceanothus, and poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum).

Ah, poison oak. I recall hearing of a study conducted by the National Park Service many years ago, and they determined poison oak to be utilized by more species of wildlife than any other plant. I doubt you will find it at a native plant sale, but it is beautiful—from a distance. So why not try some of our beautiful and more people-friendly natives in your garden from one of the native plant sales or nurseries this fall; bring your own boxes and flats and head out­—both our wildlife and you will be glad you did.

A nice list of native plants and birds that are attracted to them: www.marin.edu/cnps/birds

A dark-eyed junco nest constructed of grasses and horsehair.
Photo: Thomas Reynolds












Local and Regional Plant Sales: 

Milo Baker Chapter CNPS

Second Saturday in October, 9-1 at Santa Rosa Vets Building


Tilden Regional Park

Third Saturday in April from 10-3, and weekly on Thursday mornings from 9-11


Berkeley Botanical Garden

Sunday, September 30, 2012


Strybing Arboretum, San Francisco

September 8, 2012 10am-2pm


UC Davis Arboretum

Saturday, September 29, members only, 9-11; public 11-1

Sunday, October 14, 9-1


Merritt College

Oakland, CA

First weekend in May, and first weekend in October

Saturday 9-3, Sunday noon-3



Lark Greenhouse & Bech Lot Nursery

Tuesday, October 16, 2012, noon-5pm


Jail Industries

Ordinance Road, Santa Rosa

Spring sales, usually mid-April and early May


This article will appear in the summer/fall issue of the Madrone Audubon newsletter.

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