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A garden for wildlife

Nancy Bauer of Sebastopol is the author of “The California Wildlife Habitat Garden.”

Published: Friday, April 19, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 18, 2013 at 11:28 p.m.

The landscape around Nancy Bauer's home looks as if it was left to the design of Mother Nature. But this wild place in rural west Sebastopol in fact was cultivated by a gardener's hands.

Little remains of what was growing on this property tucked down a remote lane when Bauer moved in 15 years ago. A hedgerow, some dogwood, a hibiscus, a crabapple tree, some wild roses, a viburnum, were allowed to stay.

But Bauer had no interest in creating a conventional landscape. She wanted to share her small parcel with wildlife. And that meant seeking out natives and Mediterranean plants adapted to this area that would provide food, nectar and cover for birds, insects and other critters.

Bauer had “no use” for a camellia that was shading and stunting a poor struggling spicebush. She ripped that out so the native shrub is now thriving.

“The birds love to perch on it. They use it all the time,” she said on an afternoon in early April.

After leaving Mill Valley in search of more land to garden, Bauer set about planting what Mother Nature herself had in mind for the North Coast of California.

There are drifts of native salvia, like the black Brandegee's sage, and the lavender-colored bee's bliss, native penstemon, wild, maroon-colored Scabiosa, an elderberry bush, Dutchman's pipe, that a host plant for the pipevine swallowtail, native honeysuckle and a Fremontia that will out out massive golden yellow flowers — all among many other plants that will serve wildlife in search of diminishing and lost habitat.

Bauer has been gardening like this for years, as well as sharing what she's learned as an educator and garden writer. It's all about creating spaces that are pleasing to wildlife as well as humans.

Her book, “The California Wildlife Habitat Garden,” published in 2012 by the University of California Press, was recently singled out by the American Horticulture Society for its prestigious Book Award. It was among six books published last year selected for the national award.

Bauer said she hopes it's a sign that “habitat gardening is going mainstream.” And having a regional guide that takes into account the plants that naturally grow in one's own area is essential to inviting the birds, bees, butterflies and other insects that all work together to keep the environment in balance.

“Natives are the plants our wildlife species have evolved with,” she explained.

“They are beautiful and they are the ones best suited for our climate and soils. And if you are planting regionally appropriate non-natives that are compatible with the native plants, then you are growing a garden that is not just wildlife friendly, but environmentally friendly as well.”

Natives also are low water-use plants, which makes sense in California with its Mediterranean climate of cool wet winters and warm dry summers.

In addition to planting the right plants in the right places, a habitat garden needs to be densely packed to provide cover, and it needs water for birds, butterflies and bees.

That doesn't mean you need an expensive water feature. A simple birdbath or other container of standing water that you change frequently will do.

“To me, habitat gardening means seeing your garden as a mini eco-system rather than outdoor decorating,” Bauer said.

“And it's much bigger than just attracting birds and other beneficial creatures. It's about gardening with a sense of place and gardening sustainably.”

That means accepting all comers; even the so-called bad bugs serve a purpose in the cycle, by providing food for the beneficial creatures.

Like many gardeners, Bauer struggles mightily with gophers, but she doesn't attack them. Her approach is dissuasion, using more gopher cages, avoiding plants she knows attract them or planting them in pots, and welcoming visits by a neighbor's cat.

Bauer's work has included helping to create a habitat demonstration garden at the Harvest for the Hungry Garden in Santa Rosa.

At a time of disappearing habitat, every little garden matters, she said.

“We're the last resort,” she said. “Our urban gardens, our suburban gardens, our rural gardens. This is what it gets down to, and it still might not be enough.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 521-5204.

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