First Gardens

My first garden had little to offer the birds that inhabited
my coastal California neighborhood. Most of the gardens up and down my street overflowed with cheery
flowering shrubs and small trees—all the lots were tiny but densely planted—and
mine was nothing but bare dirt. There
was a lemon tree and an orange tree, an overgrown wisteria, and an enormous
floribunda. Apart from that, the garden
held nothing but bare dirt and weeds.

 It was a
rented garden—not a piece of land I could ever hope to own. I knew that whatever I planted would someday
have to be left behind. But that didn’t
stop me from investing in tough perennials that would thrive in the garden long
after I was gone. Drought-tolerant salvias,
native clematis vines, and fuchsias—the hummingbirds’ favorite—all worked
together in a happy jumble with annual cosmos, poppy, and scabiosa. A pair of mockingbirds took up residence in
the lemon tree, and the monarch butterflies paid a visit on their annual
migration down the coast.

 If I could
have done one thing differently in my first garden, it would have been
this: I would have made a sun map right
from the start so I’d know, with complete certainty, what areas get full sun
and which spend part of the day in shade. This may seem obvious, but I have been fooled too many times. A nearby house or shed casts a shadow, and a
tree that’s bare in winter leafs out in summer and throws half the vegetable
bed in shade, where it’s least desired.

 To make a
sun map, go outside early in the morning with a ball of twine and some stakes
or, if you want to feed the garden while you map it, use a highly visible
powder like bone meal or diatomaceous earth. Mark the boundaries of the shade cast by the house, the fence, and the
trees. Repeat the process at noon and
again in the late afternoon. At the end
of the day, you’ll have a map of the garden that shows you the sunniest, and the
shadiest, areas for planting. Try to do
this four times a year—the summer and winter solstice and fall and spring
equinox would be good times. For many
plants, particularly natives, a few hours of sun makes all the difference.