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Try to imagine a garden where the only thing alive is plants. I can't.

I could hardly call it a garden without some birds, insects, lizards and other small creatures.

Planting trees, flowers, shrubs, and vines is easy. But with a little more planning and the right plants even a suburban Orange County garden can be a magnet for vanishing wildlife. It is very satisfying watching birds in your garden snack on berries, or seeing a lizard basking on a warm stone or butterflies dancing among your plants. That’s a garden. Not a sterile, stagnant place made for the stillness of a photograph, but a living, breathing place. This kind of garden begs for you to get involved, to step further into it. It’s a place that asks you to look more closely.

A garden full of life is exciting. The thrill of discovering a new nest is even greater when one day it is filled with baby birds; then watching them learn to fly. Bright blue or orange dragonflies, melodious Pacific Treefrog’s and playful Western Bluebirds can all be brought into a garden. By day, Cliff Swallows glean the air of small insects, while Mexican Free-tailed Bats take up the task each evening.

To create a backyard habitat a garden needs four elements: food, water, shelter and places to raise young.

Every animal needs to eat! Planting native or other appropriate shrubs, trees and vines is the easiest way to provide the foliage, nectar, pollen, berries, seeds, and nuts that many of our local animals and insects require. Salvias, oaks, toyon, milkweed, currants and gooseberries, golden yarrow and native grapes all provide food, in one form or another, for the creatures in your garden.

When natural sources of food aren’t enough, supplies can be supplemented with bird, hummingbird and squirrel feeders. These can be home made or purchased and can be a significant source of nutrition for both resident and migrating wildlife.

Wildlife will need a source of fresh water for drinking, bathing, and reproduction. Water may be provided from natural appearing features such as a pond, a small recirculating stream, puddling areas for butterflies or a hollowed out large stone. Or clean water can be provided by human-made features like bird baths or the addition of a dripper, a device that allows a drop or two every few seconds to fall into a small pool of water. Drippers can be very attractive to small animals, especially birds.

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Wildlife needs places to hide in order to feel safe from people, predators, and weather extremes. They also need a sheltered place to raise their offspring. The easiest way to provide cover for wildlife is by using plants, both dead and alive. Arrange plant in clusters, and levels. Shrubs should lead to small trees, alongside larger trees. Wildlife is attracted to multi-storey plantings for shelter and forage. Diversity in the landscape is necessary. Some plants provide food but very little cover; others provide cover but little food.

You can also create hiding places for animals by using logs or rocks. Birdhouses specifically made for the types of birds you would like to attract can be helpful. Even roosting boxes for bats and owls provide them with a place to rest and raise their young. Places for cover also become locations where wildlife can raise their young. Locate birdfeeders and birdbaths near cover. Birds need escape routes, especially from cats. Overhanging branches from nearby trees are ideal.

Finally, after providing the basic needs of wildlife - food, water, shelter and nesting - you may also want to consider the maintenance strategies of your garden. Pesticides should be used carefully, if at all. Likewise, noisy leaf blowers and power equipment can be quite disruptive. Where possible, let the plants and the garden relax a bit. Tightly clipped hedges, immaculate shrubbery and hospital clean flower beds should give way to a more wildlife friendly appearance. Where possible, leave some leaves where they fall and let a few branches grow as they wish.

Pretty flowers, vines, shrubs and trees aren’t the sum of a successful garden. Sprinkle in some wrens, toads, lizards, butterflies, dragonflies, opossums, orioles, squirrels, bumblebees, warblers and bats and now you have a garden. . . a living garden.

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

Questions from Readers November 29.

Question: After I saw one in a neighbor’s garden I want to grow a couple of artichokes in my own garden. Any tips? Gus Costa Mesa

Answer: Artichokes are easy in our climate and now is the perfect time to plant them in Orange County. Pick a sunny spot with at least about four or five feet of space. Mix plenty of organic compost or amendment into the top foot of soil. Fertilize occasionally and keep the plants well watered, especially during the warm summer months. Artichokes are perennial plants. After the tops are harvested, cut that stalk down to the ground and another will take over. With a little luck and by following this process you may get both a spring and fall crop.


Articles about Habitat Gardening (Click for Full List)

Western Bluebird
Habitat Gardening Ron Vanderhoff

A Fifteen Minute Gardening Break

I was working in my garden a few minutes ago, preparing the soil in a new planting area.
Swarm of Bees
Habitat Gardening Ron Vanderhoff

As Busy as a Bee

Over the past few weeks we have had two or three honeybee swarms here at the nursery.

Beyond Bees: How many other pollinators can you identify in your garden?

8839 Meredith French
Metalic Sweat Bees
Did you know that 98% of our flowering plant species need animal assistance for…

Gardeners can Contain Newport Beach Back Bay Pollution

15373 Ron Vanderhoff
Newport Bluffs
I’m fired up. Mainland California's most polluted beach of 2008 was right here in Newport…

Landscaping might be for the Birds

3884 Ron Vanderhoff
Heteromeles arbutifolia - Toyon
There are about 450 species of birds that have been recorded in Orange County. How many…

Lizards are Good Garden Neighbors

43658 Ron Vanderhoff
Western Fence Lizard Fremont
I have a neighbor that I see almost every morning. He’s a fitness buff and spends most of…

Native Pollinators can help with Fruit and Vegetable Yields

3556 Ron Vanderhoff
Mason Bees
If you’re like many home gardeners, over the past couple of years you may have added some…

The Great Bee Rescue

5161 Meredith French
Bee Removal Knife
Upon learning our home of so many years was probably going to make it through an escrow,

Want More Birds in Your Garden? Add Water

3966 Ron Vanderhoff
DIY Bird Saucer
I’ve probably never met a gardener who didn’t also enjoy the delightful sounds and sights…

Whose Garden is it anyway, mine or the Wrens?

3191 Ron Vanderhoff
House Wren
At the time, I was watering a young plant that I had just put in the ground.

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