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Turning Your Yards Into Wildlife Welcome Mats

June 03, 1989|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Times Staff Writer

Photographer Jim Gallagher does not have to leave his Huntington Beach back yard to snap pictures of his favorite subjects.

From their living room, he and his wife, Sylvia, can see a rich variety of avian life attracted to the birdbath, feeders and fruit trees in their small suburban garden. Common local birds are joined by migrating species that find the tiny back-yard oasis too enticing to pass up.

In all, Gallagher has photographed 43 bird species in his garden; another 15 to 20 species got away before he could get his camera. Many of his back-yard slides end up in the huge library of the local Sea and Sage Audubon Society (5,000-plus images and counting, more than half taken by Gallagher).

Sylvia Gallagher, meanwhile, leads the group's workshops on birding skills, often illustrating the lessons with slides taken in her back yard.

This had been a particularly good spring for the Gallaghers: "Jim's taken wonderful pictures of lots of new birds," his wife said. "It's been just great."

Attracting wildlife can bring a new dimension to the enjoyment of suburban yards, with birds and butterflies the most popular focus of gardeners' attentions. Approaches vary from simple touches, such as a solitary hummingbird feeder, to an integrated landscaping approach that attempts to duplicate a small slice of nature.

Books on gardening for wildlife have become a common item on bookstore shelves in recent years. The National Wildlife Federation has been promoting the concept since 1976 and has certified more than 8,000 "back-yard habitats" across the country.

But several experts say the wildlife gardening concept has been more popular in the East than locally.

"Southern California, unfortunately, seems to be moving at a slower pace," said Mike Evans, owner of Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano. "Interesting forms of gardening don't seem to appeal to people that much. I don't know what it is."

Tree of Life, a wholesale-only nursery on 15 acres of Rancho Mission Viejo near Caspers Wilderness Park, is the state's largest nursery dealing entirely in native plants. The 10-year-old nursery grows more than 300 local plant species, many of which had never before been commercially propagated.

Evans, active in the California Native Plant Society, has taught classes through UC Irvine Extension on gardening for wildlife. Planting with drought-tolerant native species--rather than thirsty suburban lawns--has been touted in recent years as a way to save precious water, but the practice can also help give a home to critters that are being displaced at an increasing rate by development.

Gardening for wildlife could help make up for some of the lost habitat if it caught on among homeowners and especially developers, who often plant common slope areas in a single exotic plant. "Plants on those slopes are useless to wildlife," Evans said.

Likewise, the traditional home landscape of a neatly manicured suburban lawn bordered with exotic plant species may look lush and green, but to wildlife it can be a virtual desert.

While there are many approaches to making yards more hospitable to wildlife, Evans espouses a comprehensive ideal that stresses "local wildlife in its own season."

The idea of wildlife gardening, he said, "is a whole concept of duplicating nature."

Evans' approach is based on four basic principles:

Use native species. Local wildlife evolved with local vegetation and often can make no use of the exotic plants so popular among gardeners.

Use a variety of plants that provide animals with three basic requirements: food, cover and nesting materials.

Use a layered scheme that duplicates the native coastal sage scrub plant community that predominates in the local hills. The layers graduate from grasses to soft-branched shrubs (two to three feet high), to taller shrubs such as toyon and lemonade berry (six to eight feet high), to native trees, especially oak and sycamore. There should be an edge separating the various layers, Evans said, rather than a mixture of plant sizes.

Do not disturb. As they grow and mature, native plants require little pruning or other maintenance. Raking should also be kept to a minimum because fallen leaves provide a rich environment for insects that attract birds and lizards. Dead wood in trees, if left intact, can provide a home for cavity-nesting birds.

"What you're ending up with is a very natural-looking garden," Evans said.

Contrary to popular misconception, that is not the same thing as a weed lot. Native plants, in addition to requiring little water or maintenance, are green all year and often very attractive, Evans said. Aesthetically, they are especially appropriate in foothills, where development is escalating and where exotic plants can look out of place alongside the planned natural areas.

"They look like they belong," Evans said of indigenous plants. "These aren't inferior landscape plants. They look quite good on their own."

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