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A Backyard Journey

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

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I’ve always been a gardener in my heart though not always in practice. More than one unlucky houseplant has met its sad fate at my hands, a habit I’ve thankfully unlearned. I’ve always felt charmed by spaces that exist somewhere between cultivation and wild thicket. Couple that with a lifelong dedication to environmentalism and the next logical step of course would be a garden that supports butterflies, bees and birds.

Last fall I embarked on my full blown hobby as a birder. The year before I had subscribed to several internet video channels live streaming raptor nests. The one I watched most was the nesting pair of Great Horned Owls in The Presidio. After seeing the magic of the owls relationship and existence through the cam, I began to notice and watch birds on my walks and hikes. I was hooked. One pair of binoculars, two bird books, and one wildflower book later, and I’m a card carrying member of the Audubon Society & California Native Plant Society.

I live in a rental in a small multi-unit apartment building. The small backyard garden is not mine alone. There are a few other units in my building and each has its own relationship with our shared outdoor space—and their own ideas about how to use the space, and its functionality and appearance. One unit rarely uses the space. The occupant of another unit used to landscape the backyard extensively with an emphasis on exotic non-native plants, but now rarely uses the space. Another unit enjoys the outdoor space and also lets their dog use it as a bathroom. (I totally get it! But, dog pee is toxic to plants.) I take that into consideration for location of plantings and how to protect them.

As a California native, I've grown up with our region’s bisected dual seasonality of sunshine and rain. In their animal bodies, Californians understand the winter time as a season of storage, growth, hydration and lush beauty, and the dry sunny summer as a season of gold, aridness, the smell of hot yellow grasses and, here on the coast, gray fog. The wet winter is a spring board into the everlasting spring bloom stretching from February on through the year until autumn.

As an environmentalist, I feel lucky to have understood from a young age that our Earth is an amazing place. Now in our time of unchecked capitalism we all see the suffering of plants, animals (including humans) and insects. Although the moral responsibility of curbing humanity’s destructive actions rests with those in corporate power, even we little folk must do what we can to heal our ecosystems.

This winter and spring walking in the Marin Headlands brought me inspiration. On these hikes, the life cycle of plants are on full display — moving from green growth, to budding blooming flowers, to now dry pods popping open to fling seed across the landscape. These hikes reveal all of the bees, butterflies and birds living and surviving in this beautiful, richly diverse ecosystem. I want to provide (and protect!) a small piece of that biodiversity and supportive ecosystem here in my small rental backyard in the city. I am planting natives.

Habitat loss is real. Think, imagine, if suddenly you came home one day and your apartment building was razed to the ground. You instantly had no food, no bed, no place to rest. Of course, you would find a new place to live, but in the intervening months you would face real hardship. This is the struggle facing animals and insects and plants today. Right now.

If, in my little backyard, a somewhat weedy, sandy space of 400 square feet, I can make a small buffet for birds and bees, a nice delicious, fragrant and safe resting spot for skunks, possums and other creatures calling human backyard plots home. Why not? It is a very small thing to do. To rewild a backyard (or even a small corner of it!) with the gorgeous blooming native plants of our area.

We live amongst so much incredible beautiful rich biodiversity. So many amazing native blooming plants, beautiful tufted grasses that birds love, and wonderful trees where Anna’s Hummingbirds, House Finches, and Dark-eyed Juncos rear their families. Why not give your garden back to our wild friends so that we all may peacefully coexist together?

Inspired by hiking through the Headlands, I bought a copy of Reny Parker’s Wildflowers of California’s North Coast Range this spring—it has helped me learn about our local native wildflowers as well provide guidance in selecting natives for my backyard. Many sections of my building’s backyard have been taken over by weedy grasses. In my re-nativing of the yard, I go section by section removing weeds before planting so I don’t overwhelm myself with the task of introducing new plants.

Lots of this grass is invasive and will out-compete native grasses.

I made most of my selections of native plants by a simple criteria: Who would thrive in the sandy soil of the backyard? I’ve regularly seen Coast Buckwheat growing on rocky outcropping in the Headlands and thought it would be a perfect fit for the sunny sandy patch at the back of the yard. According to Wildflowers butterflies will drink the bloom’s nectar.

The backyard is home to a pair of nesting Dark-eyed Juncos, a pair of nesting House Finches and one very vocal Anna’s Hummingbird. I also suspect that a skunk nests in the yard at night as there are a couple of shallow nest-like depressions dug into some dirt spots.

To help me decide on where to home which plants I drew a map of the yard so that I could look at which spots had what type of light exposure and open space.

My map especially helped me decide on where to home the native grasses. I bought two types of native grasses from Sutro Stewards to introduce to the yard. I chose grasses as I wanted to support the birds that are already calling the backyard home. Purple Needle Grass and California Oatgrass are the new members of the backyard family. I hope the birds enjoy their seed! I will confess I am nervous about their reseeding success and growth of new grasses. I hope the plants do reseed and colonize the backyard but I am worried about accidentally weeding them out.

Bamboo gardening stakes help protect the new members of the backyard. Because other people use the yard I wanted an easy visual sign to call attention to the plantings and prevent trampling. I found a seaside daisy as well and couldn’t resist bringing it home. I thought the Coast Buckwheat would enjoy the new neighbor.

There was a neglected corner of the yard where I thought something bushy might be happy. I homed a Checker Bloom there and am researching a good planting partner for it. Maybe something berry-producing to give bird friends a little more food.

One section of the yard is very sunny with dry sandy soil and the other section of the yard is full shade with moist sandy soil. I was very excited to bring some shade loving plants to this section of the yard to enhance its forest dell vibe. A Pink Flowering Current calls this spot home now. It will bring its lovely fragrance and nectar-filled blooms.

I wasn’t expecting to bring a Fringe Cup home but the little patch of shady moist soil seemed a perfect home for it. I may bring home some Bleeding Hearts as neighbors for the Fringe Cup. Wildflowers says that Bleeding Heart flowers are “an early spring favorite” for hummingbirds. I love to think of the garden being a refueling respite for those birds migrating through San Francisco on their amazing journey from Central America to Alaska.

The very first native I brought home to the yard was a local variety of morning glory, Western Morning Glory. Inspired by the rambling riot of Nasturtiums trailing through the backyard, I thought Western Morning Glory would be a good companion. The success of the Morning Glory inspired me to dive in the deep end of the natives pool. I was thrilled to stumble across Sutro Stewards Nursery for local native plants.

I know I won’t live in this building forever. In my time here I would like to get some natives happily established. The backyard can be a place of beauty for humans. I’d be thrilled if simultaneously the backyard was also a place of nourishment, rest, and enjoyment for birds, insects and mammals. It’s a small act of environmental stewardship to plant native plants, thereby protecting their existence. A small but richly fulfilling act of kindness.

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