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Our Plant Collection Is for the Birds (and Butterflies)

Articles: Our Plant Collection Is for the Birds (and Butterflies)
The larvae of Gulf fritillary butterflies feed solely on the foliage of passion flowers (Passiflora). Photographs by Bob Wigand
The larvae of Gulf fritillary butterflies feed solely on the foliage of passion flowers (Passiflora). Photographs by Bob Wigand

Several years ago, our neighbor, Bob Wigand, began photographing not just flowers, but also birds and butterflies in our North San Diego County garden. We had always known that we had a lot of wildlife here, but we were surprised by his photos, for he had captured more birds and butterflies than we had ever noticed. We began to watch more closely, soon realizing that it was not just our human visitors who appreciated our diverse plant collection. Hundreds of different kinds of ornamental plants that we were growing attracted native birds and butterflies, even though most of those plants were from other parts of the world. This gave us the idea to plant more of these plants in their own separate garden. The result has been a most successful wildlife garden and an exciting plant collector’s gar den at the same time.

Yellow yarrow (achillea) with blue and pink salvias
Yellow yarrow (achillea) with blue and pink salvias. Photo: Bob Wigand

A Garden is Born

As we planned our new Bird and Butterfly Garden, we realized that, like most gardeners, particularly in Southern California, we wanted it all. We envisioned a garden that would display as many different kinds of uncommon plants as possible and also attract as many butterflies and birds (especially hummingbirds) as possible. It would not need a lot of water (never more than once-a-week irrigation, even in hot weather), nor require a lot of maintenance. We wanted the garden to look fairly mature by the first spring and summer, so plants would have to grow quickly. We preferred shrubby plants that would live for a long time, so that we would seldom have to replant anything. And, of course, since both people and animals are here at every season, the garden would have to be evergreen and in full bloom every day of the year. All this might sound like a lot to ask for—but not in San Diego!

Just a little over two years ago, our Bird and Butterfly Garden was a flat, sunny, empty half-acre field on heavy, alkaline, clay soil. Before planting, we rototilled three inches of organic soil amendment and a generous helping of agricultural gypsum thoroughly into the native soil. Because the garden paths would later be paved with a decomposed granite and cement mixture, soil was removed from the future pathways and used to mound the planting beds throughout the site. The garden was planted in December 2004 and January 2005 with over 600 kinds of plants that we had grown in five-gallon and (mostly) one-gallon pots. The plants were fertilized with a three- to four-month, time-release plant food at planting and have needed no further feeding. Less than five months after we completed the planting (when the accompanying photos were taken), the garden was all grown up and ready for its grand opening.

Fluffy seeds escaping from the ripe pods of a milkweed (asclepias)
Fluffy seeds escaping from the ripe pods of a milkweed (asclepias). Photo: Bob Wigand

Winter Planting is the Key

Visitors were amazed at how fast our garden grew, but the “magic” was mainly the result of winter planting. Winter? While the weather really does cool down in October elsewhere in the state, making fall planting sensible, in recent years, here in San Diego, we have enjoyed a lot of warm, sunny weather with little rain well into January. Unless we get an unusual dose of cool and rainy weather, our best planting season is actually a little delayed. Except for frost-tender plants in a frosty area, the best time to plant a new garden in Southern California is from November through February, when both air and soil temperatures are relatively cool, days are shorter, and occasional rain helps to leach salts from the soil and thoroughly moisten the root zone.

This gives newly set plants at least a few months to establish a good root system that will support exuberant foliage and flower production in the spring and allow the plants to withstand the summer heat. Although mid-to-late spring planting is tempting (that’s when nurseries abound in blooming plants), the difference between planting in January and planting in May is enormous. In our climate, those planted in January are usually huge and sturdy by May, whereas May plantings typically do not have enough time to establish before the summer’s heat and (presuming they do survive the summer) may not really prosper until the following spring.

Once planted, our new garden needed little care. But there are two more “secrets” that helped the plants to establish quickly. First of all, when we planted, we were careful to make big watering basins around the plants, and we watered each plant thoroughly with a garden hose. When it did not rain heavily, we continued to water the plants thoroughly and regularly with the hose for the first two months; this deep-soaking method (rather than overhead sprinklers) helps plants quickly establish. It also makes sense for a new planting: there is no reason to water the spaces in between plants, since that will only encourage weed growth.

The second “secret” is mulch. Because of our hot summer sun, mulching is essential for a healthy garden: it keeps the sun from drying out the soil (thereby cutting water use at least in half) and keeps the soil cool during hot weather. To maintain warmer soil temperatures during the cool winter (which helps the new plants grow faster), we did not begin to mulch the new garden until the days started warming up in April; at that time, we spread a three-inch layer of wood chips over the soil and switched our irrigation method to an overhead sprinkler system.

alstroemeria highlight the foreground while butterfly bush (buddleja) anchors the background
Alstroemeria highlight the foreground while butterfly bush (buddleja) anchors the background. Photo: Bob Wigand

A Diversity of Plants

Our Bird and Butterfly Garden features plants with attributes that please humans and animals alike. For hummingbirds and butterflies, in particular, it presents a diverse and ever blooming buffet of nectar rich flowers. The many shrubby plants in the garden provide shelter and nesting areas for birds and other animals. For humans, the plants are both drought and heat tolerant, fast growing, and colorful, with many blooming all year long in San Diego. Yet, it is still a collector’s garden, involving a great diversity of plant families and genera from around the world; included are large numbers of species and cultivars within key genera such as Salvia, Buddleja, Penstemon, and a host of others. These are our stock plants—the “mother” plants from which we propagate— so the garden also helps our visitors to see how the young plants they are purchasing will develop.

Some might argue that a proper wildlife garden should contain only plants indigenous to the area. We have plenty of those native plants in the chaparral near our property, and our Bird and Butterfly Garden contains many of the same plants, but these are not the most popular plants with our wildlife visitors. Because many of our birds and butterflies are migratory, they are not native only to right here. It should come as no surprise that our hummingbirds prefer Mexican food, with the nectar from Cuphea and Salvia leading the list; after all, hummingbirds are native to Mexico, too! There are lots of other plants from all over the world with flowers that have a richer nectar content and a longer flowering period than our local native plants, and these are the most popular items at our buffet. Hooded orioles, for example, love to feed on the flowers of bottlebrush (Callistemon) and kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos), both Australian natives. Famous as “the voice of the chaparral,” our wrentits really like the flowers of the South African Melianthus major ‘Purple Haze’. We’ve never met a hummingbird that did not like Aus-tralian Grevillea flowers; they also cannot resist the flowers of other exotic genera such as African Pentas, Mediterranean Phlomis, and South American Alstroemeria, Delostoma, and Iochroma, to name just a few.

The diversity of a collector’s garden can be wildlife’s best friend. Hummingbirds seem to go after nearly any type of flower and appreciate lots of choices. The flowers of certain exotic plants, such as butterfly bushes (Buddleja) and lantanas (Lantana), are popular as a nectar source for nearly all butterflies; but most butterfly species are quite specific when it comes to food plants for their larvae. Monarch butterflies, for example, require milkweeds (Asclepias) for their kids’ meals; here, we use different color forms of the evergreen and everblooming South American Asclepias curassavica, and the kids (caterpillars) are happy indeed.

Lychnis coronaria and Centranthus ruber appeal to butterflies
Lychnis coronaria and Centranthus ruber appeal to butterflies. Photo: Bob Wigand

Combinations Count

Some proclaim that a collector’s garden can never be attractive, because you cannot plant just “one of each” and expect to make a cohesive landscape out of it. We think differently. Our Bird and Butterfly Garden is planted in “tapestry” fashion, with many kinds of plants weaving through one another. We like the appearance of this “living bouquet;” we also like that it creates protective thickets that shelter the animals. In some parts of the garden, we do have groupings of the same plant, which not only impresses the hummingbirds and butterflies but ensures that the visual scale of our garden is human-size. We also use the time-honored plant collector’s technique of clustering several cultivars of a single species; for example, we have several plantings of penstemon hybrids, but each plant is a different selection. Another example is the many Buddleja species and cultivars throughout the garden—repetition within a theme; again, each one is different. It is also possible to have a cohesive landscape by grouping plants according to ecotype (all the mediterranean-climate plants are in one section of our garden, for example) and by using complimentary flower and foliage combinations. Curving paths around taller shrubs separate groupings, revealing different niches and scenes, each with slightly different ecotypes and color schemes. When all else fails, a blue-flowered or gray-leaved plant moderates any battling colors.

Hummingbirds love Australia’s kangaroo paws (anigozanthos
Hummingbirds love Australia’s kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos). Photo: Bob Wigand

If You Build It, They Will Come

It really is amazing how a garden can not only change your life, but create a brand new ecosystem in the process. Before we planted our Bird and Butterfly Garden, our field was planted in daylilies (Hemerocallis), which, though pretty in flower, did little to attract wildlife, took much more time to maintain, and used more than twice as much water as the new garden.

Almost as soon as our garden was planted, however, it came alive with so many kinds of birds and butterflies that we had never seen before. Some of them are now dependable seasonal visitors; others live here all year and have no reason to leave. A garden that includes exotics will be a different ecosystem than the surrounding vegetation—chaparral or otherwise. But every afternoon, when the “Buena Creek Air Force” (our forty- to fifty-member covey of California quail) flies from the adjoining chaparral into our garden, we feel honored that they feel safer spending the night in our garden thickets than in their native habitat.

Can a plant collection also be a wildlife garden? Yes it can! And, be it big or small, a wildlife garden can also be a plant collection. Our Bird and Butterfly Garden has proven to us that not only humans appreciate diversity. From birds and butterflies to coyotes and worms, it’s the native animals who are really happy that we are plant collectors!

A hummingbird drinking nectar from the curious flowers of lobelia tupa from Chile
A hummingbird drinking nectar from the curious flowers of lobelia tupa from Chile. Photo: Bob Wigand

“Top Twenty” Hummingbird Favorites

Hummingbirds love tubular flowers and bright colors. Although hummingbirds are native only in North and South America, they also enjoy many kinds of flowers that originate on other continents. Sometimes, it seems that hummingbirds will go for nearly any flower, and, indeed, the list of all hummingbird flowers is a long one. Here are some of their favorite genera that we can grow in San Diego—and elsewhere along the West Coast.

Peruvian lilies
butterfly bushes
firecracker flowers
sky flowers
coral trees
coral bells
torch lilies
lion’s tails
Lobelia laxiflora
Mexican lobelia
Pentas lanceolata
star clusters
California fuchsias

Heliotrope in the foreground and butterfly bush (buddleja) in the background are favored by butterflies, while the birdbath serves all forms of wildlife - See more at: https://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/our-plant-collection-is-for-the-birds-and-butterflies/#sthash.FjJ9hLmu.dpuf
Heliotrope in the foreground and butterfly bush (buddleja) in the background are favored by butterflies, while the birdbath serves all forms of wildlife. Photo: Bob Wigand

“Top Twenty” Butterfly Favorites

Heliotrope in the foreground and butterfly bush (buddleja) in the background are favored by butterflies, while the birdbath serves all forms of wildlife

Butterflies favor big flat clusters of small flowers that provide both nectar and a convenient place to land. They also need plants to act as food plants for their larvae (caterpillars). Although many different kinds of butterflies visit the flowers of the plant groups below, the larval food plants (marked with an asterisk) each have specific types of butterflies whose caterpillars feed on them. Here are some of the best butterfly plant groups that are also great garden plants in San Diego and much of the West Coast.

butterfly bushes
Centranthus ruber
Jupiter’s beard
sky flowers
Echinacea purpurea
Foeniculum vulgare*
Gaura lindheimeri
butterfly flowers
Heliotropium arborescens
x superbum
shasta daisies
Pentas lanceolata
star clusters
gloriosa daisies
flat-flowered types
of sages
pincushion flowers
Mexican sunflowers




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