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I was working in my garden a few minutes ago, preparing the soil in a new planting area.

If you read this column regularly, you may have noticed that I tend to write about whatever I’m working on at the moment. As I was digging, I was thinking through this week’s column – “misconceptions of soil amending”.

As I toiled in the soil, the column was forming in my head. It would have been a good one, sure to create some controversy. But it will have to wait. It was unexpectedly interrupted; cut short by a few things more important.

For the past four months a pair of Western Bluebirds has been frequenting my neighborhood and my garden. Three months ago, I set out a bluebird box hoping to help the avian newlyweds with their potential family plans. I’ve had great success with several bluebird boxes at a nearby park, so I thought I’d give it a try at home.

Not long ago, bluebirds were in a serious state of decline. In 1984, only ten nesting pairs were located in Orange County. But a few dedicated people came to the rescue. They began installing bluebird boxes at golf courses, parks and gardens. Bluebirds usually nest in the hollow cavities of dead trees. But in an urban area, dead trees are quickly removed. The few cavities that remained were overwhelmed by more aggressive, non-native house sparrows and European starlings, also cavity nesters. Orange County’s bluebirds were homeless. Today, thanks primarily to members of The California Bluebird Recovery Program, over 5,000 bluebirds are fledged in Orange County every year, more than any county in the state.

The two bluebirds in my garden never did use my box, but they found a home nearby and have been bringing their children to my garden for the past three weeks. Bluebirds are very tolerant of people and often land on the ground at almost arms length from where I work. Today, I put down my shovel, sat down, and for the next fifteen minutes watched the parents pluck insects from the ground. My column about soil will wait. Bluebirds are more important.

Western Bluebirds are just one of many animals and insects that are in Orange County because of gardens. As I was taking my 15-minute rest, watching the bluebird family, a bright orange Gulf Fritillary butterfly (Agraulis vanillae) and a brilliant yellow Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) both appeared. The Gulf Fritillary is well known to most local gardeners, but most don’t know that this beautiful butterfly is only in Orange County because of gardens.  

Western Bluebird

Gulf fritillaries lay their eggs exclusively on Passion Vines - nothing else. Of course, Passion Vines don’t naturally occur in California. These beautiful butterflies owe their Orange County existence to the gardeners who cultivate this tropical vine. The Cloudless Sulphur, which feeds exclusively on ornamental Cassia plants, also owes its debt to local gardeners. Not accidentally, I have both Passion Vines and a Cassia in my garden, so Gulf Fritillaries and Cloudless Sulphur butterflies are never far away.

As I sat, still watching the bluebirds pick insects from the soil, I began to log the other wild things around me. A Black Phoebe, bobbing its tail up and down, was on its usual perch on the rear garden wall. A House Wren, which earlier in the year had raised a family in a nesting box I hung from my patio cover, was chattering away in my orange tree. House Finches are never far away, today collecting safflower seeds from a small feeder near my office window.  

In gardens, bluebirds, phoebes, wrens and sparrows compliment each other perfectly. The bluebirds feed on insects at the soil surface. The phoebe catches its meal in mid air, flying from its perch, seizing its prey and landing again in the same place as it started. The wren doesn’t feed on insects of the soil or the air, but on those that reside on the leaves and branches of garden trees and shrubs. Ubiquitous house sparrows don’t feed on insects at all, but on the seeds that fall from garden flowers. It’s really amazing how perfectly nature works.

What else can I notice during my 15-minute rest? In the distance I can hear the clear and varied songs of a Mockingbird. A Nuttall’s Woodpecker and several Common Crows are in some nearby Eucalyptus and a large brown Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) meanders through the garden, looking for an elm or willow on which to lay its brood.

I’m glad I took a break today. Pausing for just a few minutes allowed me to appreciate some of the beneficiaries of my gardening efforts. I’ll get to the soil article next week.

Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar.

Questions from Readers July 4th.

Question: I live in Costa Mesa and enjoy growing several fruit trees in my garden. Can I grow a fruiting pomegranate in my climate? I don’t ever see them for sale in nurseries.

Sharon, Costa Mesa

Answer: Yes. Pomegranates are easy and undemanding fruit trees. They’ll tolerate sandy or clay soil and are even drought tolerant. Although many pomegranates produce better fruit in hot inland valleys, ‘Wonderful’ and ‘Eversweet’ should be good in your climate. ‘Wonderful’ has large, purple-red fruit with a delicious, tangy flavor. ‘Eversweet’ is very sweet, virtually seedless and has a red skin and clear (non- staining) juice. It is a small plant, seldom exceeding eight or ten feet. Both varieties are self-fruitful. If not in stock, any full service garden center should be able to order a one for you.


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