Killing Our Lawn

This guest post written by my wonderful husband George McRae is very timely as California’s long-term drought worsens and it becomes more critical for people to conserve water.

Killing Our Lawn: Or, How We Made the Transition to a Wildlife Refuge, by George McRae

When Heidi and I moved into our house, I saw gardening as a selfish endeavor: vegetables, fruit, flowers were for the enjoyment of humans only. I even installed a lawn, from seed. Then I got involved in local environmental issues in El Cerrito. Creek restoration was at the top of the list, as a branch of Baxter Creek was at the back side of our home. Not wanting to get involved in a “lawn-envy war” with our neighbor, I roto-tilled our parking strip. I terraced it and planted what started out as an English cottage-style garden, but has evolved into a wildlife habitat. The photo on the left is our neighbor’s lawn, our native garden’s on the right.

Front lawns

I started to read National Wildlife Federation literature about how local back and front yards, and even apartment balconies, are the best hope for many endangered species considering how much habitat is being destroyed by development.

Monarch butterfly depositing an egg on milkweed

Monarch butterfly depositing an egg on milkweed

I began planting native California plants everywhere I could fit them in. Our philosophy evolved into, “if a local critter eats it or needs it, we’ll plant it.”

California grape

We registered as an NWF wildlife habitat. We provide food and water.

Squirrels at feeder

Also required: shelter and places for critters to raise their young. We’ve been rewarded many times over by birds, in particular hummingbirds, raising families here year after year.

Hummingbird mother on nest

And insects galore! Monarch, Swallowtail, Skipper, Red Admirable (Admiral), Painted lady, Dragonfly…. an endless list of species, come here to lay eggs on the plants we provide them.

Anise swallowtail butterfly laying egg on fennel

Other benefits? With the abundance of California native plants, our water bill is extremely low. We use no pesticides or fertilizers, so we’re not adding downstream pollutants to the biosphere. We evaluate any weed as a possible food source. If not, we hand pull. We use no herbicides, as they are proven amphibian killers. We rarely use power gardening tools, reducing our addition to air and noise pollution and global warming. We prune our trees and weed carefully and during seasons when we won’t upset nesting cycles of birds, insects and mammals.

Towhee eggs in nest

Towhee eggs in nest

W H A T  C A N  Y O U  D O ?

1) Plant local native plants in as many varieties as possible, from grasses to flowering trees, like ceanothus. California bunch grasses have deep roots and hold soils together, preventing erosion and drawing deep moisture to the surface for other plants. Many butterflies use them as larval food sources. Grasses are the basis of a sound ecosystem.

Some local nurseries to learn more and buy natives:

California Native Plant Society (East Bay), Native Here Nursery

Watershed Nursery

Bay Natives Nursery

Honeybee on fennel flower

2) Before you prune, thin or remove trees, shrubbery or other plants, make sure you’re not disturbing nesting sites or life cycles for birds, insects or other critters making a home there. Late August through late November is best, but be aware that hummingbirds can nest all year long!

3) Certify your garden as a wildlife habitat through the National Wildlife Federation

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The Four Elements of Habitat

George and I took our “pup and pony show” to the El Cerrito Garden Club today.  He spoke, and we showed my photos on the topic of maintaining a garden to attract and nurture butterflies.

George speaking about Gardening for ButterfliesWe prepared some handouts and I want to share some of the information with you, so here is George’s explanation of the elements that you need to provide habitat for wildlife.

The four critical elements are: food; water; shelter; and places to raise young. All four elements are intertwined and necessary for wild life. No one element stands alone, and without all four successes at providing for wildlife suffers.

1) Food: All wildlife enhancements absolutely require this. Animals of all species will avoid areas unless they can be guaranteed a reliable food source. A balanced ecosystem needs to sustain everything from plants for larval insects to seeds and prey species, etc.

Anise swallowtail butterfly caterpillar eating fennel

Anise swallowtail butterfly caterpillar eating fennel

2) Water : The second partner in the pas-de-deux of life. Many animals need water to even feed, or to provide the food they need.

3) Shelter : The greatest variety of wildlife occurs at the interface of distinct habitat types. Example: an open field adjacent to a wooded area. Birds can feed in the field while having the woods to escape if necessary. And there needs to be shelter for them for waiting out inclement weather, or for night-time. Brush, trees of all types and heights, brush piles, high grasses, rock walls, and deep leaf litter and undisturbed forest “duff” all provide shelter and for the last item below:

4) Places to raise young : Success at proving habitat comes in a reward: succeeding generations of young! Tadpoles, baby birds, spawning fish, a skunk and her kits, emerging butterflies ovipositing and the emergent adults from cocoons or chrysalides is the perfect indicator of habitat success.

Monarch butterfly chrysalis

Monarch butterfly chrysalis

As for shelter, again provide brush, trees of all types and heights, brush piles, high grasses, rock walls, and deep leaf litter and undisturbed forest “duff”’, and gravel beds for many anadromous species of fish.

Notes: it is essential that the above provisions are consistent, removal of one or many of the elements will cause unnecessary suffering and waste of valuable energy for animals. Make all changes to the environment gradual and incremental. Many animals will flee a changed ecosystem and not come back.

ABSOLUTELY REFRAIN FROM USING HERBICIDES AND PESTICIDES. They have no part in habitat preservation. Most long-term effects are unknown and the current load already in the environment is doing irreparable harm.

Thanks, George, for this concise explanation. Dear reader, are you gardening for wildlife – butterflies, bees, birds, and other critters? What are you doing in your garden to provide the four elements of habitat?