Five years ago, Jim and Meredith Howard bought a 1971 slab house with a flat concrete-paved backyard in the Bay Area and began transforming it into a habitat garden.
They wanted to create an interesting and functional space that attracted native birds and insects, learn the local native plants, improve drainage and do it all on a budget without wasting materials or hauling truckloads to the landfill.
At a recent Gardening with Natives talk, Jim Howard demonstrated how they did it. As the district conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in San Mateo County, Howard was already attuned to nature, but the South Bay environment was new.
Starting with the front yard, the Howards consulted with Acterra, a restoration nursery, to choose appropriate native plants. Because the goal was to attract wildlife, they focused on species rather than cultivars.
“You don’t know what you’re breeding out and what ecological functions you’re impairing” if you use a hybrid or cultivar, Howard said.
For instance, he said, monkeyflowers bred or selected for larger, more colorful flowers are less attractive to hummingbirds than the ones found in nature. But, he noted, ceanothus and salvia cultivars seem to be as full of insect life as the species.
“We couldn’t believe how quickly” and how many birds found the garden, he said.
Birds came instantly when they installed the native plants.
They noted a huge increase after adding a water feature. Following Audubon Society recommendations, they placed the water feature within 10 feet of a shrub where birds could seek cover to elude predators.
“There’s always something going on in the yard,” Howard said.
Bushtits, for instance, will consume 40 percent of the bugs in a mature shrub. California Towhees especially like purple needlegrass seeds. Howard has observed a Townsend’s Warbler eating caterpillars from hummingbird sage plants and robins resting under yellow lupines. At least 37 species of birds visit the garden. Though crows, jays and ravens populate the neighborhood, they don’t come to this garden.
The biggest task was to improve drainage in the backyard. The Howards rented an electric pavement breaker to cut the tons of concrete into slabs, many of which they dry stacked into raised beds and used for stepping-stones. For the rain garden, they dug a hole and filled it with cobble-sized concrete chunks and then gravel, topped by geotextile. The rain garden has successfully let rainwater soak into the soil onsite rather than pooling or flowing into the street.
Howard offered advice for others contemplating an ecosystem restoration garden.
• Stick to natives. Native plants are the best food source for native insects and other wildlife.
• Go for complexity of structure, flower color and flower type. Use shrubs, trees, ground covers and perennials that offer a range of habitat niches. A variety of flowers will attract different pollinators.
• Do whatever you can. Start small, but start somewhere. It took only three summers for the Howards’ garden to look “done.”
• Learn as you go.
“You could spend a lifetime investigating what to do and know less than when you started,” he said.
Don’t be afraid to experiment.