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

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

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

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.