There are few things in life as simple, and as rewarding, as gardening. With little time and effort, you can create a wildlife garden. You don't need much land to do this.
"You can create your own environment, no matter where you live," says Ron Yeo, an architect whose Corona del Mar property was certified as a backyard habitat by the National Wildlife Federation in 1980. "Even in a housing tract you can work wonders."
But how to get started in attracting wildlife to your yard?
The following tips should help:
First, advises Yeo, decide on your goal. Do you simply want more greenery around you? Do you want to attract "good" bugs, butterflies and birds?
"You could just plant a lot of everything and see what comes," says Yeo. "Planting trees is always a good idea. We're such postponers, and time disappears before you know it. Trees grow fast. So, put them in first."
Another suggestion is to stack vegetation. Critters live low, under cover, and birds live at different altitudes. Having low shrubs to tall trees in your yard will attract a variety of wildlife.
After the seedlings are in, create a water garden or a pond. If digging up the earth and laying a fiberglass liner isn't your cup of tea, create use a bucket or tub. Van Ness Water Gardens in Upland, one of Yeo's favorite places, can help you get started.
Running water is the key for attracting wildlife such as birds, spiders, lizards and mammals.
"The mammals that frequent us a lot are considered nuisances to some people: skunks, possums, raccoons," says Yeo. "But they're all God's little creatures. The skunks have come down here from the Irvine hills with their little babies, and it's fun to watch. When we encounter them, we both get scared and head in the opposite direction. But our pets have never been sprayed, and they never come in the house, although we leave the doors open. The possums with their little babies hanging on . . . it's a lot of fun."
If you want to encourage different types of birds to visit, plant flowers, trees and shrubs that birds like to eat, such as black-eyed Susans, sunflowers, hawthorn berry shrub and fig trees. Hang feeders, preferably with seed-catching trays--unless you don't care about attracting rats or weeds sprouting. (Roasting bird seed for 30 minutes at 250 degrees will stop seeds from germinating.)
"A variety of food attracts different kinds of birds," says Kristi Jackson of Armstrong Garden Center of Newport Beach. "Seed will attract birds, and while they are visiting, they'll help control the insect population."
She also recommends involving children in your wildlife efforts by giving them stale chunks of bread and stale potato chips to place on fence posts for birds.
If you'd like your winged guests to stay, provide nesting materials--twigs, hair from your brush, bits of string.
"Don't keep your yard so immaculate that the birds can't find anything useful for their nests," says Jackson.
Once the birds depart, leave their nests in place--the same birds most likely return and nest again next year.
You don't even need a yard to attract wildlife.
Apartment dwellers, says Jackson, can put up bird, bat (yes, bat--read on) and butterfly houses. If bare bones is where you want to start, buy a simple hummingbird feeder and hang it near a window where you can watch the hummingbirds dart about at lightening speed.
If you feel a little more daring, you can attract hummingbirds with container gardening. Using the appropriate container (wood, plastic, fiber or clay, depending on desired portability and whether you are gardening on a balcony or the ground), grow hummingbird favorites such as fuchsia, trumpet honeysuckle, Texas sage, certain azaleas and morning glories.
When it's time to move, you can take them with you.
If a yard comes with your rental, Yeo suggests you just plant anything that grows and not worry about it. "Plants don't cost much, and you get so much love out of them."
At that magical hour betwixt the darkness and light, and on through until sunrise, nature's night life takes hold. Night blooming jasmine smears the air with its scent. Moths escape their daytime hide-outs to flutter about the cool night, opossums forage for food and bats circle above the trees.
Bats have received a lot of bad press, but the truth is they have little interest in tangling your hair or infecting you with rabies. In fact, the much-despised bat is a gardener's blessing.
In a single evening, one bat, using its natural radar, gobbles up thousands of harmful insects. The more you learn about bats, the more you'll appreciate them. You may even come to like them so much you will construct a bat house to encourage full-time residency.
For evening drama, plant moonflowers. These relatives of the morning glory open in the early evening, attracting moths. A tropical perennial that grows on a vine, the moonflower can reach 20 feet.
Spiders are another creature we've learned to fear. But spiders, along with lizards, control the insect population.
"If you want to get rid of a web," says Jackson, "relocate the spider, but there's no reason to kill him."
Control snails with frogs, ducks and turtles, or put out pie tins full of beer, and they'll drink their way to oblivion.
Lizards are fond of ants. Dragonflies eat mosquito larvae. Assassin bugs like flies, bees, leafhoppers, Japanese beetles and tomato hornworms. Brown lacewings devour mealybugs and aphids.
"In short, encourage good bugs, and they'll overcome the bad bug population," says Jackson.
Attract good bugs by planting thyme, parsley, marigolds, baby's breath, mustard and dill. "Good Bugs for Your Garden" by Allison Starcher (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1995) is a must-have for any aspiring wildlife gardener.
"If there is a rule of thumb," says Jackson, "try the least toxic method of pest control first.
"If you must use pesticides, use a small amount only around the plant with problems. Keep plants clean to prevent problems from beginning.
"Build healthy soil with mulch. Lots of organic matter in soil attracts wildlife. Manual control of insects is best," says Jackson. "You don't want to knock out the smallest segment of the food chain circle with toxic pesticides, because it's one big circle. Removing one part of the segment by unnatural means will cause an imbalance in the food chain."
Life burgeoning around you will be your reward. "We love watching a variety of animals rear their young," says Yeo. "There's the whole process of life going on before our eyes. It's always a wonder. Even without the animals, we've created a bit of paradise here. You'd never know we were a block from Pacific Coast Highway."