If you have plenty of space and you’d like to let a part of your yard go wild, consider a living brush pile made of juniper or another evergreen. A brush pile offers shelter and cover for small birds and mammals, and will be most welcome if placed near a wooded area or around the edge of a field or meadow. While most brush piles are nothing more than criss-crossed layers of branches, stumps, and even discarded Christmas trees, a living brush pile is made by taking a partial cut through a tree trunk, allowing it to topple over but remain attached to the trunk. The tree will continue to live and be fed through this connection with the roots.
In California, a tree type like California Juniper (J. californica) would work well for a living brush pile, if allowed to grow to about ten feet tall and then cut. Plant some native penstemon (Penstemon spectabilis) nearby for the hummingbirds, scatter some clarkia seeds around, and allow a vine to twine its way through the pile, and you will have a gloriously messy treat for the birds.
Let things go this fall and the birds will thank you. Put your rake away and allow leaves to gather where sparrows and brown towhees can scratch among them for insects. Let your cosmos and sunflower go to seed. Resist the temptation to prune salvia—the flowers provide a welcome food source for hummingbirds in the fall, and you can keep a natural shape by selectively pruning over the winter months.
Fall is an ideal time to plant native perennials.
Try Pacific dogwood for a flowering tree whose red autumn fruit will attract cedar waxwing, purple finch, and pileated woodpecker. Toyon, also called California holly, offers bright red or yellow berries throughout the fall and winter that attract the western bluebird, the northern mockingbird, and the wrentit. For color, add a few perennials such as California lilac and California buckwheat. Native plant nurseries offer a wide variety of perennials just in time for fall planting.
Along the West Coast, unusually cold winter temperatures damaged hummingbird favorites like bougainvillea and Mexican bush sage. Now is the time to replant and welcome hummingbirds back into your garden. Consider drought-tolerant natives such as California fushcia, monkey flower, and lupine. Aloes thrive in both desert and seaside areas and attract hummingbirds with their bright orange blooms. Cottage gardeners may want to consider butterfly bush, bee balm, penstemon and foxglove. Try cardinal climber for a fast-growing annual vine with small, trumpet-shaped red flowers, and in the vegetable garden, plant scarlet runner beans for their bright red flowers and edible beanpods. Species most frequently seen along the West Coast this time of year include Anna’s, Allen’s, Rufous, Costa’s, and Black-Chinned hummingbirds. To see a thriving hummingbird garden in action, pack a picnic and head to a nearby botanical garden such as Quail Botanical Gardens in Encinitas, Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary in Modjeska Canyon, Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden in Claremont, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, or the University of California Berkeley Botanical Garden.
As California gardeners enter the drought season, alternatives to traditional lawns start to seem more attractive than ever. Consider giving a strip of your lawn over to prairie and meadow flowers; you may well find yourself letting it take over the entire lawn over the years.
Start with drought-tolerant natives like California poppy and yarrow. Add Western columbine in filtered shade, where hummingbirds will flock to the bright red flowers, and juncos and song sparrows will relish the seeds. Purple needle grass is a native bunch grass that will grace your meadow with purplish flowers and attract seed-eating birds in the fall.
Don’t forget about milkweed, which not only provides strands of fibrous bark for orioles and other birds to use as nesting materials if allowed to stand through winter into spring, it is also the only plant where Monarch butterflies lay eggs.
Other carefree meadow flowers that will attract birds include cosmos, calliopsis, sunflower, and pincushion flower.