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Plant a Thicket

There are so many good choices for
thicket plants that it is hard to pick just a few. Whether you have a small corner in your backyard or the luxury of
a large lot and a nearby detention pond like Miles’s, these California natives
will serve you—and your backyard wildlife—well.


 

Start with
a foundation of coyote bush. This
dense, low-growing bush plays host to hundreds of insects, birds, and other
creatures, and will adapt to almost any growing condition. There are male and female plants; the
females produce cottony seeds in late summer. It can be used as a hedge or as a groundcover to stabilize banks.

 Add some
berry-producing shrubs. Blue elderberry produces blue to black
berries that are sometimes covered in a white powder. By the way, these berries are often used in jams, jellies, and
even wine, if the birds leave any for you to harvest. Snowberry sports small pink flowers in the
spring and small white fruit in fall. Creeping snowberry is a lower-growing option that can tolerate some
shade. Coffeeberry is a large
evergreen shrub that also tolerates shade and produces black berries.

 Next, consider a few treats for the
hummingbirds. Red-flowering currant is
a deciduous shrub that produces small red flowers in spring that are attractive
to hummingbirds. The fruit that follows
in the fall is dark blue, although there are red, pink, and white fruit
varieties, too. California fuschia
sports red trumpet-shaped flowers on lovely gray-green foliage. Allow a little native
honeysuckle to work its way through the thicket.

 Finally, add a few treats for
yourself. I love California
Sagebrush for its wildly fragrant leaves. Sticky-monkey flower is one of my favorite native flowers, putting out
yellow, orange, or red blossoms all summer. California lilac comes in low-growing and taller forms; all bloom
profusely with light blue to deep purple flowers. Flannel bush is more of a small tree than a shrub; plant it at
one end of your thicket and enjoy the hardy yellow flowers over a long blooming
period.

Coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis)

Blue elderberry (Sambucus
mexicana
)

Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)

Creeping snowberry (Symphoricarpos
mollis
)

Coffeeberry (Rhamnus
californica
)

Red-flowering
currant (Ribes sanguineum)

California fuschia (Zauschneria)

honeysuckle (Lonicera
hispidula
)

California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica)

Sticky-monkey flower (Mimulus arantiacus)

California lilac (Ceanothus)

Flannel bush (Fremontodendrom)

California Natives

I have seen native gardens flourish in the
unlikeliest of places: on condominium
patios, in a postage stamp-size front yard in one of those brand new
subdivisions that are springing up all over the Bay Area, and around a corn and
soybean farmer’s ranch house. Sure,
California natives are drought-tolerant, disease and pest resistant, and good
for wildlife. But the fact is, they’re
also beautiful. Whether you love
flowering bulbs, climbing vines, or showy perennial hedges, you’ll find plenty
of native plant options to suit you.


 For small
flower gardens that offer seed, nectar, and attract butterflies and other
insects, try the purple and white Pacific Coast iris, the orange Humboldt lily,
or the orange and white spotted leopard lily. The orange-red and yellow western columbine does well in sun or part
shade, and blue-eyed grass, an iris relative, produces cheerful blue or purple
flowers. Add the California poppy, and
you’ll have a vivid display of flowers in a range of contrasting purple and
blue, orange and yellow. 

 

If you’d
like a low-maintenance front yard or perennial border, start with smaller
flowers in the front and add some medium-sized flowering shrubs that will offer
cover for birds foraging for insects and plenty of interesting berries. Cleveland sage, beard tongue penstemon,
and California lilac offer showy purple
flowers, monkey flower blooms in shades of yellow, orange, and red, and
California fuchsia entices hummingbirds with its red, trumpet-shaped flowers. Don’t forget berry-producing shrubs for a
fall food source: the red huckleberry,
common snowberry, coffeeberry, and elderberry are all excellent choices.

 Why stop
with medium-sized shrubs? If you’ve got
space for a tree or large bush, you can provide shelter, food, and nesting
sites. Consider flannel bush for its
showy yellow flowers, Pacific dogwood with its spring flowers and red fall
fruit, and, if you’re looking for an attractive climbing or rambling vine, the
native clematis ligusticifolia will grow to 20 feet or more.

 California
is a diverse state; a plant that thrives around the shores of Mt. Shasta might
whither away in a San Diego backyard. Check with a local native plant nursery to find just the right plant for
your microclimate. The California
Native Plant Society (www.cnps.org or 916 447-2677) can refer you to a nursery
or local expert.

Fast-Growing Flowers

I visit New Mexico every year and
I’m always enchanted by the perennial Maximillian sunflowers growing along the
side of the road and in front of adobe homes. Although these flowers are native to the Southwest, they also flourish
in California soils and are well-suited to California’s dry summers. The plants bloom from seed in the first
year, forming a dense hedge with their branching habit and small, starry
flowers. Although they are not as
prolific a seed producer as Mammoth Greystripe and other garden varieties, they
are wild, carefree plants that will come back year after year. 


For a brilliant, fast-growing
display of bird-friendly plants, I recommend building a quarter-circle of
flowers in a sunny corner of the garden. Start with Maximillian sunflowers, sowing seed in a four-by-four foot
square in the corner. Around them,
plant a wide swath of purple coneflower, another great seed producer whose
flowers will contrast well with the yellow sunflowers. Purple coneflowers are widely available from
wildflower seed sources, although you might want to buy some seedlings from the
nursery to get things started early. Cosmos also work well as a seed source and an attractive contrast to the
sunflowers. 

Finally, in a quarter-circle around
the purple coneflower or cosmos, plant a perennial salvia that works well in
your area. Cleveland sage is a popular
native; Mexican sage is another drought-tolerant favorite. Most salvia attract hummingbirds and
beneficial insects, and provide good cover for foraging. Scatter a few California poppy seeds over
the whole area; they’ll help fill in the empty spots during the first year and
provide a good food source when they go to seed. You’ll have a bright, vivid display of yellow, pink, purple, and
blue that will be irresistible to birds and butterflies, and will also provide
you with plenty of summer bouquets to enjoy indoors.

But above all, remember: when it comes to gardening, patience is a
virtue! Buying smaller trees and shrubs
will not only save you money, it will provide you with plants that have not
lived in pots so long that they have become distressed and root-bound. Plant them now, give them lots of room, and
in a few years, your patience will be rewarded.

Early Spring Gardening

Here on the California coast,
spring is neither soft, nor gentle, nor delicate: it is a wild and blowsy thing; a confounding season of violent
wind, surprise rainfalls, and occasional spells of warmth and sunshine designed
to lure you outdoors in the false hope that summer is just around the
corner. Just as it starts to seem safe
for the poppies to unfurl their petals, a hailstorm comes out of nowhere and
the gardener is forced, once more, to abandon the garden and watch from the
window while the first green tendrils and the fuzzy silver magnolia buds get
pelted beyond recognition.


But even in these months of
uncertainty, one thing is certain: birds and other wildlife are making a home in the garden, foraging for
food, and scouting nesting sites. Finally, in early spring, the garden comes recklessly and wildly to
life.

Wildflowers in Bloom

I look forward all winter to the
emergence of wildflowers in early spring. California poppies, clarkia (including godetia), and columbine all bloom
profusely around this time, filling in empty spots in the perennial border
where shrubs and vines are still recovering from a winter pruning. If you didn’t plant any wildflower seeds in
fall, it may not be too late: as long
as regular rainfalls are expected for another month or so, it’s a safe bet that
seeds scattered throughout the garden will emerge in late spring and bloom all
summer. The Albright Seed Company
(www.albrightseed.com or 805-484-0551) offers native wildflower seed tailored
to California’s varied bioregions and even has a photo gallery on their website
that allows you to browse wildflowers by color and choose a color scheme that
best complements your garden. Although
most native wildflowers will provide tasty seeds later in the year, columbine
are the real early spring star in my garden. They provide one of the first nectar sources for hummingbirds, and they
bloom in shady, out-of-the-way spots where little else grows.

Spring Berries

 I always thought of fall as the best time for berry-producing
shrubs and trees, but lately I’ve discovered a number of shrubs and trees that
keep offering berries through early spring. Juniper, Pacific wax myrtle, elderberry and snowberry may continue to
offer fruit in mild climates where blooms don’t appear until late spring or
summer. Because the timing of
berry-producing shrubs and trees can vary by microclimate, the best way to
discover good sources of early spring berries is to explore parks, wildlife
preserves, and even alleyway thickets near your house that are still offering
good food sources to birds. Knowing
your microclimate is the key to locating early spring berry sources. Here on the northern California coast, for
instance, a snowberry near my house could still be producing berries while one
a few miles inland might enjoy warmer days, more sun, better shelter, and could
already be in bloom. 

Even if the berry sources in your
garden have already been exhausted for the year, low-growing shrubs provide
shelter and cover for foraging. Although I try to resist the urge to tidy up the garden too much in
winter, sometimes a light pruning of shrubs and a clean-up of damaged or
diseased limbs is in order around this time of year. If you tossed your Christmas tree outdoors in January to provide
winter shelter, the branches and twigs from your pruning jobs should be added
to it now and you’ll have a loose, open shelter for birds and other backyard
wildlife.

Nesting Sites

Now is the time to pay attention to
the activity in the branches of trees and tall shrubs. Nest-building begins in early spring, and
during no other time of the year is it so important to tread lightly
outdoors. Major pruning of trees should
have been completed in the fall and winter; the climbing of trees should be
strictly off-limits to children and pets. A pair of mockingbirds used to nest in my low-growing lemon tree in
spite of the fact that it was located in the middle of a busy vegetable garden
and tragically accessible to neighborhood cats. In early spring I skirted the base of the tree with chicken wire
to keep the cats out, and tried to plan my vegetable garden in such a way that
the beds closest to the tree would not require much attention from me. 

Nest-builders will be busy scouting
locations and materials this time of year. Ornamental grasses may provide useful fibers (California gardeners might
consider native deer grass and purple needle grass), birch and cedar trees
offer peeling bark, and pine trees leave plenty of pine needles at their base
for building nests. You may find that blades
of grass from the lawn are useful, or that wire mesh baskets filled with short
lengths of string and hung from trees are a welcome contribution. I use rice straw to line the paths in my
vegetable garden, and each fall when I take down my bamboo tomato trellises, I
cut away the hemp twine that holds them together and let the short lengths of
string fall to the ground. In spring,
the twine and the rice straw attract nest-builders from all over my
neighborhood.

Remember as you’re inspecting the
trees on your property that holes and rotten spots are often a sign of a good
nesting spot. Woodpeckers excavate
holes that, once abandoned, might be of use to wrens, swallows, and nuthatches
looking for a cozy nesting site. Even
soft, rotten wood in a birch or oak tree could offer shelter to a
cavity-nesting bird like a chickadee. Whenever possible, try to leave these places intact as nesting sites in
spring and summer.

Insect Food Sources

Maintaining a good insect
population is one of the most important things you can do to attract birds in
early spring. Many insects lay eggs in
fall or winter and larvae emerge in spring, just in time for warblers, wrens,
robins, and other insect-loving birds. The key to developing good insect sources is diversity: allowing a few pest insects will encourage
their predators, and the overall result will be a garden that is in
balance. Attract good bugs with
small-flowering plants like yarrow, feverfew, tansy, and oregano. Resist the urge to cut spent flower stalks
or tidy up dead foliage at the base of these plants, since insects may lay eggs
there. Set the blade on your mower high
so that birds can forage in the taller grass for earthworms. Keep a layer of rotted leaves or garden
compost at the base of perennial shrubs, and try techniques such as cover crops
(“green manure” crops like clover, rye, fava and vetch that are planted in fall
and turned under in spring to increase the fertility of vegetable beds) and
sheet composting—shallow, layered compost piles in unused vegetable or flower
beds—to encourage earthworms and other soil-dwelling creatures.

Above all, though, avoid the use of
pesticides in the garden. Harsh
chemicals may eliminate an insect population that birds—and other insects—could
have kept in check for you, but those chemicals also harm wildlife and water
supplies. Instead, visit your local
nursery and ask for all-natural products such as insecticidal soap, or try to
tolerate a little insect damage as part of a healthy ecosystem. The simplest solutions often work best: a strong blast of water can control aphids,
and hand-picking tent caterpillars and tossing them into a bucket of soapy
water will often save my flowering shrubs. Sometimes, when an infestation is more than I can bear, I find I can
simply chop off the limb or stalk that is most heavily infected, seal it in a
plastic garbage bag, and throw it away. The few insects that remain are not enough to re-colonize the plant.

Looking Ahead

One of the great pleasures of
spring is preparing the garden for the heady summer season. Now is the time to turn the compost pile and
mulch around trees and shrubs. I take
advantage of the end of the rainy season and apply some slow-acting, organic
fertilizers to encourage green growth and bloom: kelp meal is a good choice, as is cottonseed meal and alfalfa
meal. Encouraging strong growth early
in the season will help plants to withstand disease and insect predators.

It’s also a good time to put in
flowering plants such as penstemon, coreopsis, and salvia, all of which will
bloom in summer if planted now. Take a
good look at your garden and decide what isn’t working; it seems like every
spring I’m ripping out a climbing rose that I’ve decided is too prone to
disease, or transplanting a shrub that isn’t getting the amount of sunlight it
really needs. The time to make those
changes is now. Look for empty spots
where you can sow wildflowers and other annual flower seeds. In perennial borders, make sure you’ve got
an interesting variety of flower and leaf shapes, nectar and seed sources, and
height and color. Now is the time to
fill in the gaps and get ready for a spectacular summer.

Bird Gardening in a Small Backyard

Many Californians, particularly
those close to the coast, live on postage stamp-sized lots. Planting trees are out of the question and
may even be prohibited by homeowners association restrictions. But that doesn’t mean you can’t offer birds
shelter, food sources, and nesting sites.


First, look around you. Is there an overgrown holly across the
street, a tangle of berries growing in the alley, or an enormous palm tree next
door? Get to know your neighbors and their
bird populations, and plant something that will supplement the wildlife already
living near you.

Consider devoting a small, sunny
area to seed-producing wildflowers and other annuals. One of my neighbors marked out a six foot square in her tiny
front yard, fenced it with small white pickets, and placed her birdfeeders on a
post in the center. Any seed that drops
is allowed to sprout within the confines of the fence, and she scatters the
seeds of poppy, clarkia, and cosmos there for spring bloom and autumn seeds.

Even container gardeners can
encourage birds: penstemon, fuchsia,
and salvia will grow happily in containers and attract hummingbirds, and even a
half-barrel planted with annual flowers will provide an enticing seed source.

Roses, junipers, manzanitas, and
elderberries are all good reliable shrubs that produce berries (or rose hips)
and provide shelter. An ornamental
cherry or plum tree, a dwarf lemon tree, or even a small evergreen like a dwarf
spruce will provide cover and potential nesting sites.

Butterfly Plants

The most important butterfly plant
that California gardeners could plant is asclepias, or milkweed. Monarch butterflies feed on milkweed and
ingest an alkaloid from the plant that makes them taste bad to predators. Adult monarchs lay their eggs in milkweed
and the plants provide the sole food source for the caterpillars. Over time, the monarch’s habitat has been
threatened and there are fewer and fewer open fields of milkweed where monarchs
can stop and lay eggs along their migratory route.


While milkweed may sound
like—well—a weed, it is in fact a sturdy, attractive plant with narrow leaves
and small, star-like flowers that bloom in a variety of brilliant colors. The fact that the plants are visited constantly
by butterflies in the summer makes them all the more beguiling. I recently visited Lake Austin Spa Resort in
Texas, where the gardens were packed with Asclepias tuberosa, also
called butterfly weed. Bright orange,
red, and yellow flowers bloomed on every plant and the air was thick with
monarchs. They landed in my hair and
perched on my shoulder. It hardly
mattered what the plants looked like; if they attracted that many butterflies,
I wanted some for my own garden.

Many seed companies, including
Seeds of Change (888 762-7333) and Renee’s Garden Seeds (888 880-7228) now
offer ornamental milkweeds in colors that range from red to orange to pink, but
choosing a native milkweed like A. californica that is familiar to
butterflies in your area might win you the most winged visitors. Milkweed Farm (www.milkweedfarm.com or PO
Box 8754, Reston, VA, 20195) organizes their milkweed catalog by state,
offering nine varieties for California alone. A California company, Butterfly Encounters (www.butterflyenounters.com
or 925 548-2270) also offers a wide variety of native milkweed seeds. Check with your local chapter of the
California Native Plant Society (www.cnps.org or 916 447-2677) to find out
which species are most favored by butterflies in your area.

The plants are easy to start from
seed, although some native plant nurseries are now selling mature plants in
one-gallon containers. They require sun
and tolerate summer drought well. This
is a plant best left alone since it plays host to butterfly eggs and
caterpillars. If you cut back flowers
in fall, leave the stalks on the ground or in a brush pile: orioles and other birds are known to pull
off strips for their nests.

Bird-Friendly Lawn

I have a neighbor who dreams of
having a lush meadow in her front yard, but she’s not quite ready to give up
her tidy green lawn. She’s found a way
to have the best of both worlds by keeping most of the lawn neat and manicured,
while letting a good-sized section just outside her kitchen window go to seed
for the birds. Here’s how she does it:


The lawn is kept green through
organic means only: she adds a generous
sprinkling of alfalfa meal in the spring and again in mid-summer. Alfalfa meal is an inexpensive soil
amendment that provides nitrogen and many other nutrients that a healthy lawn
needs. She sprinkles it over the lawn
just before a rainstorm to make sure the nutrients soak into the ground. 

Next, she sets the blade on her
mower high—three to four inches—to provide a little shelter for insects and
conserve water. Of course, the grass
clippings stay on the lawn to decompose, further adding to the lawn’s health. 

Finally, she gives the lawn infrequent,
deep waterings, encouraging deep root growth.

The section of the lawn that is
dedicated to the birds has grown a little every year. It started out as a four by four-foot square around a bird feeder
on a pole. Since it was difficult to
mow around the pole, and the birds were dropping seed anyway, she decided to
simply stop mowing the area under the feeder. The following year, she expanded the “no-mow” zone by another few feet,
adding some native California wildflower seeds in fall such as California poppy
and clarkia. A year after that, the
“no-mow” area grew by two more feet, and she continued to let the mixture of
grass and wildflower seed expand. Over
time, she’s kept the area squared off, mowing around it in straight lines so
that it is obvious that this weedy patch is really a well-defined wild spot in
the middle of an otherwise clean, green lawn.

Now her mowing chores have been
reduced by nearly a third, and the area that she’s left for the birds requires
less water and no fertilizer. Very little
maintenance is required: she simply
cuts the dead stalks down with a string trimmer in late winter, after the birds
have had their fill of seeds.

The flurry of activity around her
feeder proves that this strategy is popular with the birds, and with the
neighbors: while they might have been
reluctant at first to share their block of manicured green lawns with a wild
and slightly unkempt bird paradise, they have been won over. Several neighbors have asked for help
getting their own “wild lawns” started.

 

Winter Garden Shrubs

One of my favorite winter plants for birds is a California
native shrub called a snowberry, or Symphoricarpos albus (also called S.
racemosus
). It works well in a
thicket with other plants—think ceanothus, coffeeberry, and vines like the
native clematis—but it can also stand alone in a remote corner of the garden
devoted to wildlife. 


Snowberry is like many California
natives in that it can tolerate a fair amount of abuse. It doesn’t require much water and can even
take a little shade. Most of all,
though, it prefers poor soil. Most
experts recommend that you don’t amend your soil at all when planting a native
plant, and try to disturb the root ball as little as possible when you put the
plant in the ground. 

 The shrub
typically grows to about four feet and spreads by root suckers, so pick a
location where it can sprawl. It will
establish itself easily on a slope, and is often used for erosion control as
well. The shrub produces leaves that
are somewhat round, about three inches in length, and it offers small white
flowers that bloom in late spring.

 In winter,
once the leaves drop, small berries emerge to offer a wintertime food source to
birds. If you leave the shrub more or
less unattended, allowing the leaves to fall and create a nice litter layer
under the plant, you will also offer an opportunity for birds to forage for
insects under the plant.

 Even if you
don’t have space to add a shrub or tree to your landscape, do consider a brush
pile for winter. Autumn prunings,
sunflower stalks, and dead limbs can all sit in a sheltered corner through
winter and provide shelter. You can
even strip the branches off your Christmas tree to add to the pile, or toss the
whole tree on top. This winter debris
will be just as easy to dispose of in spring—perhaps easier, as the pile
decomposes a little and the overall volume reduces. Or you might decide to keep the pile around and integrate it into
your garden. I once allowed sweet peas
to cover a brush pile in my backyard, and there are some lovely
nectar-producing annual vines (like cardinal climber, available from
www.shepherdseeds.com) that will attract hummingbirds in summer. When annual vines are finished blooming, you
can simply pull them out by the roots and allow them to become part of the
brush pile. The birds will appreciate
the added shelter.

  

Troubleshoot Your Garden

My garden woes fall into two categories: poor soil and insect problems. I’m not alone; many California gardeners,
whether coastal or inland, struggle with depleted clay soils. Insect problems are a different story: some battle whitefly and aphids, others
struggle with tent caterpillars, still others carry on a never-ending war
against snails. The key, in all cases,
is to cultivate a balanced insect population rather than eliminate it
altogether.


       

 But let’s
talk about soils first. No matter what
the present condition of your soil is, remember that it is an ecosystem, one
that consists of clay and sand particles, water, air, and tiny soil-dwelling
organisms, from the visible—earthworms, ants, spiders and beetles—to the
invisible: bacteria, fungi, and
protozoa. The best thing you can do for
your soil is to feed it plenty of organic matter to strengthen the complex
community of organisms underground. Many gardeners are turning away from intensive double-digging and
trying, instead, a layering method that is less disruptive to the soil
ecosystem.

 If your
garden is already mature, the best thing you can do for it is to spread a good
thick layer of mulch in spring and fall. Look for free sources of mulch, such as grass clippings, fallen leaves,
and shredded bark or other yard waste. Landscaping and tree-trimming companies are often pleased to deliver a
load of “green waste” rather than haul it to the dump. Friends may have rabbit or livestock manure
to contribute (make sure it has been aged at least six months before you add it
to the garden).

If you do decide to purchase
compost, find out what the composted material is made from, ask if they’ve had
any problems with weeds sprouting from the compost, and ask how long it’s been
composted. Look for balanced, well-aged
compost that is weed-free.

If you plan to add new areas to
your garden, the newspaper-and-compost method that Linda describes is certainly
less work than digging a new bed and less disruptive to the soil
ecosystem. I use this method in my own
garden with great success.

Adding enough organic matter, in
spring and fall, will suppress weeds, keep roots damp and protected, and
encourage healthy plant growth. Over
time, you’ll spend less on fertilizers and your plants will even be better able
to withstand diseases and pest infestations.

Now—about those garden pests. Remember that a garden that is abundant in
insects is more interesting to birds in the first place. Encourage a diverse insect population by
choosing plants with small clusters of flowers: thyme, oregano, alyssum and feverfew, for instance. The tiny insects that feed on small-flowered
plants are often powerful predators as well. They’ll help keep aphids in check and add to the life of your
garden. Flowers with flat landing
surfaces—cosmos, zinnia, sunflower—are attractive to butterflies, and just
about anything that produces plenty of pollen will get bees interested. Think of insects not as a problem, but as an
important part of your garden, whose vitality and diversity should be
supported. 

By helping the insect population
aboveground—and the soil ecosystem belowground—to flourish and grow, you’ll
find that you spend more time managing the health of your garden and less time
battling pests and diseases.

Container Gardens for Birds

I’ll never forget the trip I took
to Vancouver Island a few years ago. Along the main streets in the town of Victoria, enormous hanging baskets
were suspended from wrought-iron poles. Flowers tumbled out in every direction, forming a shaggy mass of blooms
that completely covered the pot. An
eclectic assortment of plants was packed into each container: I counted ten different plants in one
basket, including penstemon, helichrysum, lamium, and fuchsia. I met a woman
who was taking care of the plants; she said that she watered them daily and fed
them weekly. It seemed like a lot of
work, but her efforts paid off: the
hanging baskets were stunning.


Whether you live in an apartment, a
manufactured home, or a house surrounded by a small strip of already-landscaped
grounds, you may have already figured out that container plants are the way to
go. I have seen complete vegetable
gardens arranged in oak barrels, a cut flower garden planted in window boxes,
and gorgeous blooming annuals cascading out of hanging baskets and porch-side
pots. A surprising assortment of plants
will grow happily in a container, and that includes plenty of plants that
attract and sustain birds. Here are some
ideas to get you started.

Selecting the Container

Choosing a durable, attractive
container is the first step. Plastic
pots have come a long way: many are now
made out of molded plastic designed to look like stone, but they cost less and
are significantly lighter, an important consideration if you like to move your
plants around often. Oak barrels are
another affordable and attractive option, and in California, many nurseries
carry wine barrels cut in half, the dark red stain of Cabernet still embedded
in the wood. Stone and clay pots age
beautifully and hold up well; consider getting at least a few for the front of
the display. Finally, don’t hesitate to
get creative about containers: I have
punched drain holes in one-gallon olive oil tins and planted geraniums in them,
and a neighbor of mine uses metal troughs from the feed store for her larger
container plants. 

If you have enough space, and you
don’t think you’ll be moving the container, you can even make your own out of
cement, embedding seashells, glass, or pottery around the edges. It’s best to consult your favorite garden
centers or craft store for detailed instructions before taking on a project
like this, but here is the general idea: all you need is a pair of plastic or
cardboard boxes, one smaller than the other, to serve as molds. Line the larger mold with cement, insert
wooden dowels to create drainage holes, place the smaller mold inside to keep
the cement in place, and let dry for 24 hours. Remove the molds—cardboard works well because you can simply tear it
away from the planter—and let it set for a month before use. 

Now that you’ve chosen your
containers, be sure they have adequate drainage holes and some ventilation
space underneath if they’re sitting on a patio or deck. Garden centers sell platforms on wheels for
plants that may have to move around from time to time; terra cotta “feet” are
also available to elevate the container slightly and prevent unsightly rot or
mold on your deck.

Finally, choose a high-quality
potting soil. Unlike plants in your
garden, plants growing in containers don’t benefit from unlimited space and a
natural community of soil-dwelling microorganisms. Ask the staff at your nursery to recommend a rich, organic
potting soil that will support your potted plants over the long term.

Selecting Plants

Although some plants may be more practical
for container gardening, don’t be afraid to experiment. I have grown large native shrubs in
containers successfully, and many dwarf tree species will live happily in a
container for years. 

Fortunately for hummingbird
enthusiasts, many nectar-producing plants thrive in containers. Fuchsia grow well in hanging baskets and act
as a magnet to hummingbirds, and I have even grown the larger native California
fuchsia, zauschneria, in a large half-barrel container. Salvia, penstemon, and monarda all handle
container life well, and a trumpet vine or the annual cardinal climber vine
will spill out of a container and climb up a trellis if you provide one. If you put out hummingbird feeders, place
them near your container garden to introduce the birds to your nectar plants.

A large planter devoted to
seed-producing plants is a great way to attract sparrows and other seed-loving
birds in the fall. If you put out a
feeder, consider hanging it above a container or putting it on a stake in the
center of a container, so that birds’ favorite food sources can sprout in the
soil below and produce seed in autumn. Sunflowers, poppies, and cosmos provide beautiful flowers in summer and
plenty of seed come fall.

Vines and shrubs that produce
berries and fruit can also grow in containers. I’ve seen blueberries thrive in a large half-barrel, and I’ve planted
climbing roses in sturdy redwood boxes and watched them climb up a trellis,
providing an autumn food source in the form of rose hips. Dwarf species of fig, flowering plum, and
cherry will all grow in large containers, providing both flowers and
fruit. 

Don’t forget winter shelter in your
container garden. For years I grew a
living Christmas tree on my deck, but when the dwarf conifer got too heavy to
bring inside each year, I decided to leave it outdoors through the winter
season and offer it to the birds. Sunflower seed heads, small packets of nesting material, and suet
feeders decorated the tree at Christmas, and birds in my garden used it as a
resting spot on their trips through the neighborhood.

Fillers

The key to a successful container
garden is to keep it looking good year-round. This is easy in a temperate climate like California, where plants like
cineraria and primrose bloom during the darkest months of winter. Alyssum, lobelia, and linaria also fill in
empty spots and attract plenty of interesting insects at the same time. A visit to the garden center every couple of
months will provide you with an abundant mix of annuals that can fill in an
empty space. Also, don’t hesitate to
rotate plants as they go into a stage of dormancy: geraniums can spend the winter indoors to encourage a longer
blooming period, for instance, or Mexican sage can be cut back and moved to an
out-of-the-way location during its winter rest. 

Bird-Friendly Tips

A container garden is often, by
design, located near the house on a deck or patio. It is not easy to move about a container garden without
disturbing its inhabitants, but try to locate your bird-friendly plants as far
from the front door or seating area as possible, so that birds can forage for
food in peace.

A container garden is also an
excellent place to provide a water source, whether it is a fountain built into
one end of a patio or a small birdbath mounted on a deck railing. Birds rely on water throughout the year for
bathing and drinking and will use almost anything—a dripping faucet, a
water-filled saucer—as a watering hole. Most birds prefer a shallow water source, about three inches deep, and
moving water if at all possible.

It’s not easy to provide nesting
sites in a container garden, since many plants that are best suited to
containers won’t get big enough to accommodate a nest. For that reason, you might want to add some
nesting boxes to your garden. Wrens,
bluebirds, robins and swallows all take to nesting boxes. Keep them away from birdfeeders and keep the
birdhouses separated from one another—a pair of nesting birds will appreciate
the privacy. Be sure the entrance to
the birdhouse is pointed away from bad weather and protected from predators.

Ongoing Care

Container plants can suffer some
stress in their confined environment. Be vigilant about feeding plants in pots. I use a balanced, organic fertilizer, mix it with a bucket of
fresh potting soil, and top-dress container plants with the mixture about four
times a year. Use a garden fork to
scratch the fertilizer and potting soil mixture into the container, and water
well. Plants in hanging baskets and
small pots should be repotted every 1-2 years. To refresh the soil in larger containers, such as those holding trees or
large shrubs, try to dig out some soil around the edges of the container and
pack in fresh potting soil once a year.

Regular watering is essential in a
container garden. Fortunately, many
nurseries and mail-order garden supply companies sell “self-watering”
containers with water reservoirs in the bottom, near the root zone. Patio drip irrigation kits are also easy to
install and use, and allow you to keep your garden watered while you’re on
vacation. Be careful about over
watering, though: even pots with good
drainage holes can become waterlogged. Allow the top two or three inches of soil to dry out between waterings.

A container garden is a practical
and beautiful way to garden in a small space, even if you have limited time and
resources. It is always a delight to
see the way that birds will flock to the smallest corner of a patio, or the
busiest balcony overlooking a city street, as long as a few berries, some tasty
seeds, and a little fresh water has been provided. Spring is just around the corner; now is the time to start
planning your own paradise for the birds.