Wildscaping 101

Wildflower HillLiving in California offers many opportunities to travel and experience nature. However, you can also enjoy nature at home; you just need to rethink who your garden is for. "Wildscaping" is the term sometimes used to describe the process of making a garden attractive to wildlife. In exchange, you get to experience the wonders (and whimsy) of wildlife up close, while also enjoying the sites and smells of "wild" plants tamed in your own back yard without having to go somewhere on a hike.

You may be surprised to learn that most urban gardens are as attractive to wildlife as a concrete driveway. That perfectly manicured lawn with the well-pruned, carefully spaced, insect-free plants lack the basics all wildlife crave: food, shelter, and water. Artistically, the result may be a perfect still life, but why settle for a picture when instead you could have a never-ending movie of birds and butterflies constantly darting around? As a bonus, the wildscaping approach often means spending less time maintaining a garden, leaving more time to enjoy it. You'll have to loosen your collar a bit and accept a small amount of disarray, but the result will be rewarding.

One important step is to stop trying to kill every insect that enters your garden. Well over 90% of insects cause no harm whatsoever: Indeed, many of them eat the small percentage of insects that do. It may take a couple of years to re-establish the ecological balance, but after you do, you'll probably have fewer insect problems than before, as ladybugs, lacewings, and other allies wipe out bothersome aphids and the such that attack your prize plants. You can jumpstart the process by adding these beneficial insects to your garden.

Note that many birds don't eat seed - they eat insects! Indeed, birds can be one of your best forms of pest control, as colorful warblers and flocks of bush tits come through scavenging for dinner. Even hummingbirds aren't interested in just nectar; they also need to eat small insects, especially to feed their young. Poison the insects, and at best you're missing out on half the birds that may visit your garden; at worst, you're killing them as well. And don't forget that butterflies are insects too: Lay down the chemicals, and there is no way they can reproduce and create more butterflies to watch.

Many approach creating a “butterfly garden” by putting out dessert: flowers for passerby's to nectar upon. But if you really want to help with butterfly conservation, feed them a real meal – or to be more exact, feed their young. Don't worry, these caterpillars won't eat your roses; they're only interested in their own specialized food or "host" plants, such as milkweed (Asclepias species) for Monarchs. If a female butterfly finds their host plant in your garden, they'll lay eggs on them, which develop into often-interesting caterpillars which will eat the leaves of just that plant. When they're big enough, they'll make a chrysalis; later, a new butterfly will emerge.

Seed is still an important part of the equation. You may have heard “you are what you eat.” In the case of birds, you attract what you feed! The cheap bird seed at the local garden center will only attract a few common birds. You can fine-tune what birds you see by changing what seed you offer. For example, nyjer seed (often incorrectly called "thistle") is a magnet for goldfinches, and the resulting racket will convince other birds that your garden must be a good place to hang out.

If keeping feeders clean and full is too much of an obligation, offer natural seed by suppressing the impulse to deadhead flowers the moment they finish blooming. You'll get a second chance to enjoy the same plant watching the birds dance around it. Plant shrubs which have berries, and you'll further extend the variety of birds you see. Use native plants, and you'll increase the chances that a bird will find something it recognizes in your garden.

Many birds are only looking for something to drink. A birdbath is a good idea, but many are designed wrong: Their steep rims and slippery surfaces are too treacherous for many birds, who prefer to warily dip their toes before jumping into the deep end. Use gravel to make it more shallow; use rocks or more gravel to create a "beach" that gently slopes in from the rim to the bottom of the bath. To ensure you'll attract the birds, make sure the water is moving. This can be as elaborate as adding a pump and filter, or as simple as setting up an old water container to slowly drip into the bath during the day. (See our Birds section for more info and photos of our bird bath.)

Even with food and water, birds may still be wary of your garden if they don't feel safe navigating around it. That big expanse of carefully mowed lawn is simply too risky to fly or hop across if there are predators nearby. If you no longer need all that grass, replace sections of it with shrubs. Think of creating a natural “ladder” of plants and branches at different heights that birds can navigate from the trees down to ground level while keeping a watchful eye. Plan some areas that are partially open, and others which are dense or even contain plants with thorns or prickly leave that the birds can dive into for shelter. When the fire season is over, consider building a small brush pile in a corner: It will provide a nice, warm, dry shelter that also attracts insects for the birds to eat. Again, less work for you; more attractions for them.

We hope this website provides you with a useful resource to help you “wildscape” your garden and make it more attractive to wildlife. Please feel free to explore it, and ask us any questions you may have either via or by attending one of the workshops we do throughout the year.

Happy Gardening -

Chris & Trish

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