Planting A Fall Garden? Read This First.

Santa Cruz naturalist Randall Morgan has some creative suggestions about the best plants to attract birds and insects.

by Hilltromper staff

Oct. 1, 2014—So you want a garden all a-flutter with birds and bees. And you know that fall is a great time to put plants in the ground, since the winter rains help them establish strong roots. That’s all good. But what to plant?

We asked Randall Morgan, our naturalist-in-residence (well, he would be if we had one).

“Frankly, I think California sycamore is one of the finest trees for attracting wildlife, but you’d have to wait a century before it starts attracting birds and so forth,” he said, adding, “They like the height and the cavities to nest in.”

OK. What else? On the other end of the line, we could almost hear Morgan rubbing his chin as he warmed to his task.

“See, if I were to make a garden that was really the best possible combination of plants you could grow—for at least birds, if not other things—I’d plant a persimmon tree and an almond and a walnut and maybe a fig or an apricot, or a late-ripening apple. And I’d have pigweed and giant buckwheats, and milkweed and manzanita, maybe.

“By the way, in terms of creating a lot of food for birds, you cannot beat pigweed,” he added as an aside. “It’s a human food too: amaranth. They produce tons of seeds that birds are just crazy about.”

Morgan made some helpful suggestions: scattering birdseed, which grows into things that, well, make more birdseed, and keeping flowering plants of any kind going throughout the year to furnish nectar for adult butterflies. If you’re really serious, you can plant thistle and nettles, which provide larval food for butterflies (“though those are things people don’t normally want to grow or propagate,” he observed wryly).

Morgan gives a special endorsement of two summer-blooming shrubs that answer to the Latin names Erigonum giganteum and Erigonum arborescens, which happen to be California natives—though both occur naturally only on the Channel Islands.

“I would say if there’s any one shrub you could buy that is really great for attracting beneficial insects, that would be giant buckwheat,” he said. “You’ll see the insects just swarming over them in the summer, when they’re flowering, more so than any other native or nonnative plant you could buy.”

Many of us—Hilltromper included—have embraced the idea that native plants and shrubs provide the best food for native birds, insects and butterflies. Our own salvia garden, consisting exclusively of California natives faithfully lugged home in gallon pots and planted in our yard to combat the obnoxious French broom, has lots of butterflies and hummingbirds, seeming proof of the concept. Plus it’s drought-tolerant.

But so are salvias from all over the world, Morgan says, some of which are even better for attracting birds than the local ones. One of his favorites is salvia greggii, a native of southwest Texas and Mexico, because it has a growth habit that provides good cover for sparrows and quails.

Morgan also believes that most plants are in fact drought-tolerant, and that there’s an overwatering problem in California.

“I grow a vegetable garden every year and hardly water it at all,” he says. “People are often watering way too much.”

But that is an article for another day.

Read Randall Morgan on The Amazing Tern

A fourth-generation Santa Cruz County native and UCSC alumnus, Randall Morgan has for many years worked to protect rare species and ecosystems locally. He is a fellow of the California Native Plant Society and a specialist in Trifolium (clovers), Piperia (rein-orchids) and other genera.