Imagine all of the habitat we could create in our cities and neighborhoods by planting native plants. Animals and plant species struggle to survive when their habitat is destroyed or fragmented into disconnected islands. By bringing native plants into our own backyards, we provide food for insects and birds, and by extension, the critters that depend on those insects for food. Together, we can transform our urban environment, integrating resilient ecosystems into the fabric of Bay Area life.
Here are a few things you can do to get started. Subscribe to our newsletter for additional tips and to hear about hands-on workshops.
- Don’t just go native, go “locally” native. What’s the difference? California has an unusually wide diversity of habitats, so a California native plant found in one area of California won’t necessarily grow well in another. For example, a plant from the high sierras may not grow well in Silicon Valley, nor will it feed as many of our local birds and insects, which have coevolved with these plant species. In addition, if the same species but different variety grows here, hybrids that are not locally-adapted (e.g., to local pollinators) may spread into wildland areas. To ensure your garden plants are well-adapted to our unique local conditions and ecology, plant species and varieties that are native to your area. Download our free app to learn about what garden-worthy native plants will work in your situation. To purchase locally native plants, come to our spring or fall native plants sales.
- Leave the leaves. Instead of removing dead leaves from your garden, allow as many leaves as possible to stay on the ground once they fall. This added layer of leaf matter will suppress new weed growth, hold moisture into the soil, and restore precious nutrients to the soil as the leaves break down. If you need to remove leaves (e.g., that are on top of groundcover plantings) compost them in a bin or just a pile in your yard. Consider a worm bin or other rodent-free compost bin for your kitchen scraps as well. Compost will add needed carbon to your soil, and keeping your kitchen scraps on site will reduce the carbon footprint of the garbage service hauling it away.
- Lose the lawn. Lawns consume too much of our precious water and time. By replacing your lawn with locally native and drought-resistant plants, you will save water and eliminate the hassle, noise, and pollution involved with mowing and maintaining your lawn. For more information, check out Grassroots Ecology's helpful guide, How to Convert Your Lawn to A Native Plant Garden.
- Nix the sprays and chemicals. Pesticides, herbicides, rodenticides (rat poison), and chemical fertilizers can have a devastating impact on wildlife — not just on the plant or animal you are trying to target. Owls, hawks, bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, and other animals that prey on rodents can be killed or harmed when they eat rodents that have consumed rodenticide. Fish and other aquatic life are harmed when pesticides and chemical fertilizers applied to our lands leach into creeks and ultimately, the bay. And those beneficial insects in your garden — such as butterflies and ladybugs — can be harmed by pesticide use. Not all sprays are equally harmful, but when in doubt, cut it out! And if you use fertilizer, choose organic instead of synthetic/water-soluble fertilizers that leach into groundwater.
- Be water wise. If you are using a conventional sprinkler system, upgrade to high-efficiency sprinkler nozzles or drip irrigation to cut back on water use while still keeping your landscaping alive. Water before or after the heat of the day to minimize evaporation, but make sure you are watering at a time when you will notice any leaks.
- Don’t introduce a pest! Thank you for having a heart, but if you use live traps to catch garden “pests” such as raccoons and gophers, please do not release them on our public lands and open spaces. Some of these species can become invasive and throw the ecosystem out of balance, harming other wildlife in the process. Invasive plants are another type of “pest.” In spite of the serious problems they cause, they are sold at most conventional nurseries. Make sure you don’t plant a pest in your garden. To find out whether or not a plant is invasive, check the California Invasive Plant Council Inventory. However, some common ones used locally that you should avoid planting and even consider removing from your garden include:
- Perennials such as pampas grass, Mexican feather grass, fountain grass, ivy, and periwinkle
- Shrubs such as broom, cotoneaster, Italian buckthorn, and privet
- Trees such as eucalyptus, acacia, tree of heaven, and privet
- Did we say privet? Yes, but let’s say it again: privet!!!
- Make cardboard your friend. Reused cardboard is a free and environmentally friendly resource for a simple weed suppression method called “sheet mulching.” Got a particularly weedy patch in your garden? Cover it with a layer of cardboard boxes and then 2-3 inches of woodchips to block out the sunlight. With rain and time, the cardboard will break down to improve soil health, and weeds will have a much harder time growing there. If you want to put new plants in the sheet mulched area, break a hole in the cardboard and plant into the soil beneath. Your new plants will benefit from the increased protection they get from other weeds as well as increased soil moisture.
- Add a habitat. Aside from native plants, there are other habitat features that you can add to your garden:
- A log located in a shady, quiet spot is great for salamanders.
- Water features (such as bird baths or ponds) bring new species of birds and butterflies to your yard.
- Keeping some bare soil for bees is also important, as about 75 percent of our native bee species nest in the ground. So, find some areas to leave unplanted and unmulched.
- The other 25 percent of native California bee species nest in holes in wood. You can drill holes in your porch railing (has been done!) or drill holes in blocks of wood that you can then fix to a fence or tree. The Xerces Society has a handout with instructions for creating these habitats.
- Capture the rain! Make your home and garden more resilient to drought and help recharge groundwater by installing rain barrels or a rain garden. A rain garden is a low-lying area of land that collects and filters rainwater — decreasing stormwater runoff, recharging groundwater, and providing wildlife habitat. A rain barrel captures water from your roof that would normally flow into a storm drain. This water can then be used to irrigate your garden, allowing you to save water and help recharge local groundwater supply. To learn more, attend a Greening Urban Watersheds event.
- Go dark sky compliant. Urban lighting impacts our ability to enjoy the night sky, impacts birds and other wildlife that fly at night, and wastes energy. Consider reducing your outdoor lights to a minimum and use fixtures that shield the light from going up. For more information, please visit the International Dark Sky Association website.
Need some help? Following are links to a list of professionals that you can find for your project:
If you'd like to get your gardener or corporate landscape crew certified in sustainable landscaping, you can find more information on local training courses at: