Monday, February 21, 2011

Plant Profile: California Native Bunchgrasses

One of the questions I always ask my clientele during the preliminary design phase is if they like California native bunchgrasses. From a design perspective, bunchgrasses offer a plethora of benefits both aesthetic and functional.  Attributes include contrast, the element of motion, habitat restoration, visual interest, and historical value.

Experts conclude that native grasslands in California are among the most endangered ecosystem in the United States. Due in most part to historical land use and introduced disease, it is estimated that less than 1% of our state’s original grasslands remain. Fortunately, as forward-thinking home and business owners, we can address this issue by including California’s native grasses in our residential and commercial landscapes.

A short list of favorites for the garden include Purple Three-Awn Aristida purpurea, Blue Grama Bouteloua gracilis, California Fescue Festuca californica, Giant Wild Rye Leymus condensates, California Melic Melica californica, Deer Grass Muhlenbergia rigens, and Purple Needlegrass Nassella pulchra (our state grass here in California). Grass-like species such as Sedges Carex spp. are a great addition to a California-friendly, native garden as well.

In their natural environment, native grasses typically occur in groups with bare ground between them where wildflowers grow. Even though some gardeners feel grasses look messy; in consideration of wildlife value, letting things go to seed and having an area that's 'messy' is good for seed-eaters and butterflies.  Alternatively, hand trimming at the appropriate time of year is preferable aesthetically, and an occasional grooming to remove dead leaves and spent flower stalks or a seasonal coppice is perfectly acceptable and will keep them looking tidy.

Most of the aforementioned ornamental grasses will prefer a sunny spot in the landscape and will be tolerant of drought once established, though most species will look better with occasional summer water.

Like many native plants, grasses play an important role in providing cover, nesting materials, and additional food sources for beneficial, garden-friendly wildlife. Coupled with the addition of contrast, the element of motion, habitat restoration, and historical value, I’m confident that you will enjoy the addition of California’s native bunchgrasses to your garden!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Stubby's Story

Statistics show that by the early '90's urban sprawl in California had reduced our coastal sage scrub ecosystem by more than 90 percent. As you may already know, coastal sage scrub is the habitat of the threatened California Gnatcatcher and Cactus Wren. Another lesser-known example of native bird that has been impacted by this statistic is the California Towhee. On top of habitat loss, Towhees and other ground-foraging birds are suffering heavily from suburban populations of feral cats.

I've become fond of these particular birds since becoming aware of their plight. Also contributing to this affection is the fact that a pair of Towhees have been frequenting my backyard now for quite some time. I would recognize them not only by their signature chirp as they flew into my yard, but because one of the birds had a short tail and I would find it humorous to watch as she hopped across the yard before stopping to scratch for seed. I  affectionately referred to this particular bird as 'Stubby' the Towhee.

Whenever I would see this pair, I'd have a sense of empathy and feel a bit of concern because in providing a backyard habitat for local, native critters, I'd noticed that feral cats also had been frequenting my garden more often.

On an afternoon in August, my wife commented that one such regular neighborhood cat was in the yard. When I glanced out the window I noticed that this particular cat was carrying something in its mouth and my first thought was that it had caught a bird. There is quite a bit of bird activity in our yard; mostly mourning doves, house sparrows and the like so I suppressed the urge to go out back and intervene, accepting the harsh reality that nature plays out its own drama in both natural ecosystems as well as ones designed.

I thought about it again and decided to go out and have a look anyway. I found the cat under a shrub and clapped loudly to scare it away-which worked, but upon closer inspection, I realized that I had become a witness to a statistic, and that the bird that had been caught by the cat was Stubby the Towhee. Stubby was still alive but died after an hour or so.

I don't usually become attached to the wild critters that frequent my yard, but I was really sad when I realized that of all of the birds that visit my little backyard habitat, it was not only a Towhee, but just happened to be that funny little, stubby-tailed Towhee that I found so entertaining as I would look out my studio window in the morning.

Domestic cats are pound for pound one of the most efficient hunters anywhere in the world and they prey on rodents and beneficial garden-friendly critters alike. One way you can help with this specific issue is to put a bell-collar on your cat if you let them outdoors. Or better yet, just keep them inside!