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A Garden for the Birds--and Other Wildlife

November 19, 1989|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

There's always cracked corn scattered on the ground for the blue jays and quail, and water nearby for browsing deer and rummaging raccoons.

There are plants just for hummingbirds and butterflies, and even the hawks and coyotes are welcome in this garden designed to attract wildlife.

But the animals do not have the run of the whole place. There are also roses, sweet peas and vegetables for the human inhabitants. These and a number of other ornamental plants wouldn't stand a chance in the wild, so they grow in a small area enclosed by walls, fences and the house, and patrolled by an old hound dog named Star.

Where the roses have grown above the walls, they are neatly nibbled off as if pruned by the gardener, an indication of their fate if grown outside the walls.

"I'm just trying to come up with a balance where everyone is happy," said attorney Stephanie Lynn who, with husband David Mills, oversees this private garden/wildlife refuge in Bel-Air.

Everyone seems quite happy. "Look, there's a falcon right now!" exclaims Lynn, as a small raptor with pointed wings gracefully glides through the garden, just a few feet away.

Dozens of smaller birds take flight from grapevines growing not too far away. Common table grapes, the 'Golden Muscat' and 'Concord' varieties, are grown in this garden just for the birds.

"The garden is really designed to attract birds," Lynn said, "but all other animals are welcome. Well, almost all. I discourage the ground squirrels from tunneling near the house. I've found that all I have to do is fill in their holes as fast as they dig them, and that keeps them away."

A thriving but small colony lives just down the hill, but not in the garden. "I think the coyotes also help control the number of rabbits and ground squirrels," said Lynn, who does have cats but keeps them indoors except when she is outside with them, so they cannot frighten the birds or get eaten by the coyotes.

"I think it is a crime and self-destructive to poison the coyotes. We'll be overrun with rabbits, ground squirrels and rats if people succeed in killing them off," she said.

There have been concessions and sacrifices. A small orchard of fruit trees intended for human use was given over to the animals after several attempts to protect the fruit. However, the deer, and even the birds, don't touch the figs, so there is some fruit for the table.

Other fruit trees, including citrus, grow inside the walls next to the house. And, the birds have helped with pest control. "We had a major infestation of white flies on the citrus, but one day a flock of tiny gray birds with very little beaks descended and ate them all in a few hours," Lynn reports.

Because of the wildlife, Lynn does not spray or use poison baits: "Snails used to be our biggest problem, but we've had incredible luck with the decollate snails."

These are the predatory snails that eat common garden snails. "The starlings also help, eating lots of snails. A lot of people think they are trash birds because they are not native to the Americas, but I think they are speckled saviors." She doesn't spray anything, not even the roses.

"One of my neighbors can't believe we can grow roses without constant spraying, and she is convinced that the gardeners spray when I'm not looking. Of course, they don't. It is possible to grow roses without resorting to chemical sprays. I think that all the other vegetation encourages predatory insects which keep the plant-damaging insects in control. And the birds also help," Lynn said.

Outside the inner garden's walls, all of the plants are deer-proof and drought resistant. Most were planted just two years ago. Sandy Kennedy of Sassafras Nursery & Landscaping in Topanga Canyon did the design and selected most of the plants.

"We do a lot of work in the Topanga and Malibu area and have developed a good list of plants that the deer will leave alone and that need little or no water," Kennedy said.

The plants were put in with little soil preparation so they would quickly grow roots out into the native soil and they are being watered while they become established with big impulse sprinklers, though the goal is not to water them at all. The fruit trees have their own drip irrigation system.

There are few trees, and large plants are spaced far apart so fire will not sweep through the garden. Many of the plants are from lists of fire resistant plants or are low-growing so they do not provide much fuel. The trees and large shrubs are at the very edges of the property, well away from the house.

Though the garden is seldom watered, water is an important part of the garden.

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