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Gardening: Why We Need Insects and Birds

A Sherman Oaks garden enthusiast learns about saving the world right in her own back yard.

A visit to the doctor last week made me think about mortality, and what my role is on earth. I’m getting older, and after spending time with a 7 year old, I realized that I really do want to leave this earth better than when I arrived.

How does all this tie in with the birds and the bees? It’s simple, making a hospitable environment for birds, bees and other insects, and doing that right here in my Sherman Oaks garden.

Did you know that 90 percent of all insect species can eat only plants native to their region?
I sure didn’t know that, and that most of the plants found at local nurseries are non-native to our area. Could you imagine eating plastic and cardboard instead of fresh fruits and vegetables? That is the basic mistake made by every gardener around the world. That’s a scary thought, for sure.

Professor Anthony Barnosky published an article entitled:"Has the Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction Already Arrived?" This article was published in the March 3, 2011 edition of Nature, and is a must read for everyone. Professor Barnosky explains the food chain of insects, birds, plants, and that we need to do all we can to help save what species we can through the restoration of habitat.

For example, insects convert leaf matter to protein and most animals depend upon insects in some way for their survival. The early bird catches the worm, right? Without native plants, most butterflies and moths would become extinct, meaning less food for the birds. This would be terrible, as baby birds eat caterpillars, which is their equivalent of baby food. The bird population of North America is only 10 percent of what it was in 1960, according to Professor Barnosky's article.

Hate mosquitoes? Providing birds with a safe environment in your own back yard will reduce the need to keep deet and other bug sprays on hand. The seven dollars you spend to buy those sprays can be spent at the Theodore Payne Foundation to buy several packets of native seeds, which can cover a large area. The best part is, those flowers from the packets naturally re-seed, meaning you won’t have to buy more seeds, saving even more money.

California is home to one-quarter of all native plants in North America, and has about 6,000 species of native plants, which is more than any other state in the U.S.

Native plants have survived 40 centuries in dry climates, and use only one-seventh of the water that most non-native plants use. Most oak trees in California feed up to four hundred species of beneficial insects and uses less water than the typical maple tree, found lining the streets of Los Angeles.

Native plants and trees do not require fertilizers and soils that many of our non-native plants require. They prefer nitrogen poor soil, so don’t plant any legumes, or root nodes close by, or the natives will not be happy.

According to Lisa Novick,  the Outreach Director at  the Theodore Payne Foundation, Urban and Suburban native plant gardens will be the make or break difference for the support of bio-diversity.  the only true nursery in the San Fernando Valley which educates, grows and sells native plants to our area. Novick stated that “people don’t understand insects and why we need them. We need birds to eat the agricultural pests which destroy our crops.”

Novick also states that seedlings can be planted at any time of the year, however, the best time to plant is autumn or early winter. Seedlings need to be watered deeply once a week, and once plants are established, they can go months without watering, further saving on your water bill.

The rule of thumb for native plants: they sleep, creep and eat. The first year they are planted, they sleep, which means they are putting down roots, so you won’t see a lot of growth or flowers. The second year, they creep, which means you will begin to see growth, and flowers. The third year, they leap, which means that many are mature, and have grown to their full size.

Novick recommends the landscaping class which the Payne foundation offers for a fee, to learn about native plant groupings, to provide year-round blooms, and participants are assisted in developing a landscape design tailor made for their land. Many landscape architects charge thousands of dollars for their services in designing your landscape and planting.

Do you have noise issues in your neighborhood? They can even provide plants which can block noise and street traffic.

Did you know that some plants can even thwart home robberies? Ms. Novick related a story that a Nivens Barberry, another California native,  prevented a break in on her property. Her neighbors saw the would be robbers trying to fight their way through the thorns, and called police. The police arrived a while later, while the robbers were trying to figure out another way into the house. No need for bars or a security system, native plants and neighbors to the rescue! I guess those robbers will make sure to bring some pruning shears with them next time.

Last year, I wrote a piece about beginning an emerald lawn, and spoke about artificial lawns. One important fact, which is omitted by nurseries, is that artificial lawns are actually detrimental to the environment. They require regular watering during the summer, or else they will shrink. Yes, you read that correctly. These lawns require almost the same amount of water that a regular grass lawn uses, and are un-friendly to the environment, as they do not decompose, as grass does.

Have a hillside which requires brush clearing every year? How about planting natives such as Monkey Flower, or the yarrow? They provide blooms almost year round, and does not need to be cut back. These types of plants also naturally provide a landing pad (a wide flower base) for pollinators, which means more honey for Pooh!

I try to be as green and natural as possible, which also means I really dislike using over-the-counter medications. Did you know that a bay leaf (yes, a native tree) can cure headaches? See the attached photo of Lisa Novick demonstrating the use of bay leaves in her nostrils. The Native Americans used native plants such as sage to make teas to ward off aches and pains, many remedies used by homeopathy.


The Theodore Payne Foundation was established in 1960, however, Mr. Payne began his own nursery and seed business in 1903. Once again, California leads the way for conservation efforts, thanks to Mr. Payne, and his education and outreach. Most of the gardens around Los Angeles have Mr. Payne’s touch; as he planted many  public and private gardens (such as the Descanso Gardens, and Exposition Park) with only native plants.

Think those are beautiful gardens? Go see the gardens at The Payne Foundation, where mature groupings of plants grow, and get great ideas for planting your own native garden. Better yet, bring a picnic lunch with you, and dine while taking in true natural beauty: Listening to wildlife such as turkeys, roosters, woodpeckers and others beats LA city traffic noise!

For those of you who want to exercise and look at native gardens, the 9th Annual Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour takes place Saturday-Sunday​, April 14-15, 10:00am-5:00pm.
More information can be obtained by going to: http://www.theodorepayne.org/calendar.html.

I would love to hear about California natives in your garden. My neighbors are all buzzing about my poppies, and since they are self sowing, I have plenty of seeds to share.
Enjoy, and let me know how your native garden is coming along. Would love to meet all of you, so perhaps we could plan a meet and greet picnic on the grounds of the Theodore Payne Foundation and take a tour? Let me know what you think!

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