First Steps to a Sustainable Habitat Garden

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From Wild Suburbia

The drive home was long and slow. Listening to the radio I learned of another large company that is going into bankruptcy. I turn off the car, step out, and open the gate latch to the backyard. I take a deep, refreshing breath. My eyes scan the yard to see what birds are flitting around. I look for butterflies, dragonflies, and bees. I look to see what has gone into bloom, while ignoring the weeds and grass creeping through the rock border.

When I moved into this century-old Craftsman house, the yard was dominated by water-sucking lawn, and the garden was quiet. Few birds found food or solace in my green desert. Gradually over the past ten years I have been removing lawn and adding water-saving native and mediterranean plants. The result has been dramatic. My water bill declines with each square foot of grass that I remove. The diversity of plants has attracted butterflies, birds, dragonflies, bees, and lizards. And overall my garden is relaxing and enjoyable.

The task of making your yard a sustainable habitat garden may seem daunting but it can be approached in a manageable and fun way. It can start as simply as correcting irrigation practices so that every drop of water you use goes to the appropriate plants. Add a few habitat plants in containers and a small bird bath, and you have the beginnings of a habitat garden.

Make Water Count
Whether watering your lawn or other garden plants, it is important to water deeply and occasionally. Watering a lawn for ten minutes each and every day will keep it green but the roots will grow only where the water is – near the surface. These shallow roots are susceptible to hot weather and are dependent on their daily fix of water. The constant moisture invites fungal and bacterial diseases, and encourages snails and slugs.

Water applied less often, but for a longer period, encourages deeper rooting, and less waste due to evaporation and runoff. Your grass will be stronger and healthier with this watering regime. It is impossible to give an exact watering schedule because it is dependent on sun exposure, daily temperatures, humidity, winds, soil type, and plants. The best way to irrigate is to observe your plants, including grass, and water well when they are just beginning to call for it. For grass, the blades will begin to lose their spring when stepped on.

Water until the soil is wet to a depth of 12 inches or more depending on plants (see California Master Gardener Handbook, Pittenger, Dennis, editor, 2002, p. 71). Initially this takes close attention, but over time it becomes obvious and automatic. Use a trowel or soil probe to check soil moisture in several places. Remember, gardening is a contact sport. You must get down and dirty to do it right! If you use an irrigation controller, turn off the watering days and set it manually to go off when needed. Set the timer for whatever length of time you have determined to be appropriate. In the loamy soil of my South Pasadena garden, during the summer I water a lawn area for about fifty minutes, every seven to ten days. I use half as much water as I would if I followed the ten minutes each day watering schedule, and my lawn, with no fertilizer or pesticides, is quite respectable.

In spite of the water emergency here in California, I see fresh, drinkable water being poured into the street nearly every time I go out for a walk with Milo.

From Wild Suburbia

Follow the same principles when watering typical garden non-native trees and shrubs. The roots for these plants, though, grow deeper, and most do not lose water as quickly as grass. Hence, water should be applied for even longer, less frequent periods.

California native plants that are adapted to our dry summers require a completely different watering regime. Once established, water is generally not given during the summer when plant growth has slowed or even stopped. Rather, supplemental water may be needed during dry winters when these plants are actively growing and preparing to bloom.

It goes without saying – though one might not know it walking through most communities – that sidewalks and streets do not need to be watered. In fact, in addition to the appalling waste, this is a major contributor to pollution in our waterways and beaches. Although it is best to water when it is cool and the winds are calm, it is critical to observe your irrigation system often. Adjust the timing to make sure that you will know when it is malfunctioning. For more information on water conservation, consult the website of Metropolitan Water District of Southern California:

Create Habitat with a Diversity of Plants
Now that you have addressed the important issue of efficient watering of your current landscape, consider adding diversity to your garden. If you want to remove some or all of your lawn, spring and summer are a good time to do this. Prepare your garden and develop a landscape plan so that you are ready to put plants into the ground in late fall when temperatures are cooler and rain is likely.

Milo rests after digging out a bit more spider plant. The lawn will also recede from the avocado tree and California woodland natives will be added in the fall to this shade garden.

From Wild Suburbia

For those not up for a full-on assault of the landscape, consider working in a small area. Your new plants should be on their own watering zone so that they can be watered easily according to their needs. If you are using low-water use native plants, then you may want to water them with a simple sprinkler and hose. Once they are established, they may only require water several times a year, so dragging out a sprinkler and hose will not be a burden.

Other gardeners may want to start with a group of containers. I have had lots of success with monkeyflower (Mimulus), dudleya (Dudleya), coralbells (Heuchera), wild strawberry (Fragaria), and wiregrass (Juncus patens). Larger shrubs can also work well in containers. I have kept toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), California bay (Umbellularia californica), and wild sages (Salvia) in containers for several years. I have had less success with manzanitas and ceanothus, though I am told by horticulturists at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden that these too can be grown in pots. Check out the “Gardening with Native Plants” section of the RSABG website ( for a powerpoint presentation on native plant container gardening. Be adventurous and try different things. Visit the RSABG Container Garden to see some unusual examples.

Small container of monkeyflowers (Mimulus ‘Alexandra’)

From Wild Suburbia

Water Feature
So now you have reduced water usage by watering your plants and not the sidewalk, added some new plants in containers or in a small new garden bed, and are ready to add the next important element for a habitat garden, the water feature. As with everything else, this can be as complex as a re-circulating fountain or stream, or as simple as a birdbath that you clean and fill daily. In my garden I use a large, glass, iced tea container with a spigot at the bottom. I found this in a thrift shop and knew instantly that it would never see tea leaves. I fill it every few days and it drips slowly into a large flowerpot saucer. I also have a simple cement birdbath that I fill whenever I think of it.

Iced tea jar makes a great water feature for birds.

From Wild Suburbia

Birds prefer a shallow birdbath with gently sloping sides and a non-slippery surface. Dripping water or a mister will attract more birds to your yard. Make sure that the bird bath has clean, fresh water. Place it near shrubs and trees so birds can take cover when startled. Try to protect the birdbath area from neighborhood cats.

Each evening phoebes flit around catching insects in mid-air. They seem to enjoy my bench more than me.

From Wild Suburbia

Relax and Enjoy
And finally, make absolutely sure that you spend relaxing time in your garden. Keep your eyes open for interesting visitors and inhabitants. And each time you hear bad news on the radio, make an appointment with your garden. Step in, take a breath, look around, and enjoy.

Another lizard hitchhikes a ride to the backyard on my wheelbarrow full of spider plant.

From Wild Suburbia

3 thoughts on “First Steps to a Sustainable Habitat Garden

  1. Interesting to read about getting rid of your lawn and encouraging wildlife as a result. We did a house exchange with a family from La Canada a few years ago, and we were (naively!) amazed at the amount of water that was sprinkled onto boring green lawns. The wretched water sprinklers woke us up every morning at 4 am! The other thing that puzzled us was having all that lovely sunshine and yet

  2. Couldn't agree with you more. It is a funny thing about Southern California that we created a "tropical paradise" failing to appreciate our local beauty and resources. As far as the clothes line goes, I think there are even some city ordinances that don't allow them – whatever the cause, you rarely see one. I have a great wooden clothes rack, but I plan to put up a a larger

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