It could be said that the most important component of what we as native plant gardeners/designers do is educate people. We feel an inherent value, Joy, and necessity to set an example for others; to provide for wildlife in our suburban landscapes.
Historically some claim the idea of the native plant wildlife garden began in California with Theodore Payne. He is widely acknowledged as the father of the native plant movement in our country.
Payne recognized the value of the designed native garden with its promise to attract beneficial garden-friendly wildlife, and to conserve precious natural resources. His interest was peaked when he saw a large display of California native plants at The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in England–in 1891!
The idea of the developed garden/landscape being aligned with the ecosystem it was to be implemented within made perfect sense to him.
Today in the western states, this premise is supported with more relevant data than ever before. With dwindling water resources a stark reality, and plant communities, such as our coastal sage scrub, dangerously depleted; choosing native plants for suburban gardens has become imperative.
It is important that we as forward-looking homeowners, gardeners, and landscape professionals implement good land management practices. It is equally pertinent that we advocate on behalf of our natural environment. We can start today by transitioning the land surrounding our homes to native gardens thus addressing these issues directly.
The current state of our native flora and fauna
US Fish & Wildlife Service statistics show more than seventy five percent of riparian woodlands in the west have been destroyed, and that this loss has caused several bird species to be placed on the federal Endangered Species List.
In San Diego County it’s estimated that over ninety percent of native grasslands have been developed. Sadly, an equal percentage of sagebrush habitats in the southwest and inter mountain west have been overgrazed, resulted in significant degradation of nesting bird habitat.
Experts say that by the early 1990’s urban sprawl in California had reduced the coastal sage scrub ecosystem by more than ninety percent.
As you may already know, coastal sage is the habitat of the threatened California Gnatcatcher and Cactus Rhen. Other examples of native birds that have been impacted directly are Belding’s Savannah Sparrow, San Clemente Sage Sparrow and the Willow Flycatcher. The latter specie’s breeders are virtually absent from this region due to habitat destruction.
Moreover, the California Towhee and other ground-foraging birds have been heavily impacted by suburban populations of feral cats. Western Bluebirds have suffered from competition for nest sites from European Starlings and House Sparrows.
Although there are less than ten endemic bird species found in the California Floristic Province, out of a total of more than three hundred forty recorded, more species of birds breed in this region than anywhere else in the United States, thus underscoring the importance of designing home gardens with the needs of our native and migratory feathered-friends in mind.
Populations of birds aren’t the only ones suffering from decades of unchecked development. Butterflies have also fallen victim. For example the Bay Checkerspot historically inhabited numerous areas around the San Francisco Bay.
Most have apparently disappeared due to the explosive development of the Bay area over the past century. Populations are now known only from San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. Changing disturbance regimes (i.e. fire, grazing) as well as introduced grassland plants have caused declines in host plant populations as well.
The good news, there is something we can do about these grim statistics. A key component to turning the tide are healthy gardens stocked with native plants, plants which are adapted to a particular region’s soil and climate. Species that are part of your local plant community will require a minimum amount of supplemental water, fertilizer and maintenance. Plants that produce seed, berries or nectar for birds and butterflies are especially desirable.
Many of the best plants for attracting hummingbirds, butterflies and other beautiful creatures are the native plants they have co-evolved with over thousands of years.
As I’ve been citing, land development reduces natural habitat. To balance development activities and loss of natural habitat, it is imperative that people plant native vegetation on their property. Native plants in suburban areas can provide extensions to nearby remaining natural ecosystems. Urban areas can provide pockets of habitat to supplement reduction in naturally occurring ecosystems.
There are more benefits for homeowners to consider. An abundance of insect pollinators can improve fruit set in the home garden, while a variety of beneficial insects and birds will assist in keeping a landscape virtually free of mosquitoes and plant-eating bugs all but eliminating the need for insecticides and pesticides.
A common misnomer is that native plants are hard to find and that they don’t perform well in suburban gardens. In actuality, there are native plant nurseries located throughout many states, nurseries that propagate native species specifically to grow—and flourish—in suburban landscapes.
An abundance of these varieties are evergreen, look great year-round, are adaptable to soil and micro-climate variations, and are perfectly suited for use in the suburban garden. To top it off, they can do so with a fraction of the water required to sustain a landscape stocked with thirsty, imported species.
Most indigenous plants have a longer life span than traditional nursery cultivars. Commonly used varieties can live from forty to two hundred plus years and have less need for fertilizer and amendments. They have increased aroma and require far less maintenance all but eliminating the need for noisy, gas-powered yard maintenance equipment that pollutes the air we breathe.
As forward-thinking citizens we’re all becoming more and more aware that our environment has become seriously degraded. Statistics clearly show that decades of unchecked, rampant development and urban sprawl have not only impaired the quality of life for us, but polluted and destroyed much of the natural habitat of our indigenous animals, their breeding grounds, sources of food and water, and protective cover. It has become clear that we as individuals need to take action. Fortunately, we have both the means and the wherewithal to act swiftly to affect this dynamic, simply by changing our gardening practices.
A native garden has so much more to offer than mere aesthetics. Emulating naturally occurring plant communities, we can create a deeper relationship with the land that surrounds our homes. I like to put forth, that by simply altering our thought process with regard to our gardening practices, we can transition from being part of the problem to becoming an active part of the solution.
Invite change into your garden. Artfully design a beautiful native plant wildlife-friendly garden on your property. In doing so you will discover the essence of an authentic landscape; thus restoring a sense of regional identity to a suburban setting that has forgotten the unique, natural beauty of our native flora and fauna.
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