|Mediterranean Garden Society|
Wildlife gardening in a mediterranean climate
As Melissa Hamilton reminds us in her article in The Mediterranean Garden No 83, January 2016 which is reprinted below, we gardeners have a unique opportunity to assist our native wildlife to feed and breed. By planting a variety of native plants, avoiding pesticides, providing a little water and leaving undisturbed corners we can easily create a wildlife haven. In the articles below, reprinted from the MGS journal, you will find inspiration and practical advice to achieve that goal.
Going Native - Garden Design for Wildlife
Don’t Let Them Flutter By: Encourage Butterflies into Your Garden
Learning to Love Stinging Nettles and Thistles
Hearing a Healthy Garden
Gardens for Wildlife: A California Perspective
Making native plants the cornerstone of your garden protects our environment, and at a regional level can rebuild corridors of native vegetation in urban and rural landscapes. Moreover as well as having an emphasis on native plants in your garden, there are many other elements that you can try incorporating into your garden design that will assist local wildlife.
The story of storeys
The understorey is very important for the ground-feeding birds. If you have a tree surrounded by lawn, then birds (such as blackbirds and robins) will be feeding in the open with a greater distance to cover to get back to safety. A good understorey will incorporate native plants that provide both cover and food for birds that feed on or near the ground. Plant diversity, in terms of both species and height, will encourage a range of birds in your garden. Where there are only one or two dominant plant species you may similarly notice that one or two types of birds dominate your garden. For example in Australia the popularity of exotic flowering plants and native hybrids with larger flowers has been very beneficial to the Noisy Miner (Manorina melanocephala) but detrimental to the smaller honyeaters which have been pushed out of many urban gardens. A range of flower sizes and types should mean that there are different plants available to different birds.
It’s not just dead wood
Standing water should be avoided because of mosquitoes, so try to plan puddles that can be re-moistened as necessary but which have sufficient drainage. Putting mud in a shallow tray or bowl, or in raised wooden boxes, should do the trick, and could create an interesting feature in your garden. Certainly if you succeed in getting it covered with butterflies it will become quite a talking point… Your mud can be either dirt- or sand-based, but try to use soil with a high mineral content and little organic material. You can even make a sodium solution with sea salt and water to add to the mud for a richer offering. Other wildlife will also appreciate access to a good mud source. Some birds, like house martins (Delichon urbicum) and barn swallows (Hirundo rustica), use mud when building their nests. Many types of bees also build hives or fill breeding tubes with mud. As with feeders and water, make sure your mud puddles are protected from predators and ensure that the soil and water are free from chemicals such as garden herbicides and pesticides.
Rock walls and piles
Cuttings or brush piles
Nesting boxes and homes
“Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks”
Out of 148 of Europe's common bird species 57 (39%) have declined across 25 countries (footnote 1). The total population of birds across Europe, according to a recent study, has decreased by more than 420 million birds over the last 30 years (footnote 2). In North America 20 common bird species have suffered population declines of over 50% in the last 40 years in response to human land-use changes and climate (footnote 3). And in Australia, analysis of changes in bird distribution over 20 years shows a decline in species richness particularly along the eastern corridor; in that time Australia has lost over 10 million hectares of native vegetation (footnote 4). The vast majority of these declines in bird numbers are due to habitat loss or, more bluntly, starvation.
Many species of butterflies are also undergoing population declines, and so too are bats: approximately 25% of the world's bat species are threatened with extinction (footnote 5). In Britain the number of pipistrelles dropped by 70% between 1978 and 1993 (footnote 6).
The websites of the RSPB in Britain, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the United States and BirdLife Australia provide a wealth of information on attracting birds to your garden, feeding them and even making your own nest boxes and feeders. Alternatively you can buy boxes, feeders and food from the RSPB or similar bird societies, such as LIPU in Italy. The websites also detail how to keep your feeders and bird baths healthy for birds. The internet is full of tips for creating something even better than the basic cuttings pile described above, for those who want to attract even more birds (try searching under “brush pile”).
If you garden in the United States you can also consider joining “Yardmap”, a citizen-science project being run by Cornell University. The project promotes bird-friendly landscaping and has already resulted in 25,000 acres of habitat in backyards, parks and urban areas in the United States. For those in the United Kingdom more than 170,000 people have signed up for the “Homes for Wildlife” initiative being run by the RSPB. And in Australia you can join the Birds in Backyards programme run by BirdLife, which was “developed in response to the loss of small native birds from our parks and gardens, the rapid expansion of our urban landscape and the consequent loss of habitat for native birds”.
Each year we add to the list of butterflies found in our garden, as it increasingly provides their larval host plants. Wild and bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) host the large and beautiful swallowtail (Papilio machaon). After planting Etruscan honeysuckle (Lonicera etrusca) a few years ago we have seen it used by the southern white admiral (Limenitis reducta) for its larvae. The stunning peacock butterfly (Inachis io) is a compelling reason to leave patches of stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) along banks and at the bottom of the garden. On a less positive note we identified a geranium bronze in our garden (Cacyreus marshalli) a number of years ago. Though we have no pelargoniums, these butterflies were introduced on these plants from South Africa to Europe, and are spreading due to the popularity of pelargoniums.
The local deciduous oaks in our garden and on the surrounding hillside provide food and nesting sites for great tits (Parus major), blue tits (Parus caeruleus) and the delightful and highly social long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus).
Shrubs and hedging are used by common nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos), whose songs we enjoy throughout spring and early summer, as well as blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla) with their similar but less complex song and Sardinian warblers (Sylvia melanocephala).
We constructed two bat boxes last year, using plans available on the internet. In fact we had happily constructed one and then as we read further through the instructions we discovered that the females and juveniles roost separately from the males, so we launched in to building the second box to ensure we did not create any uncomfortable social situations! We now have at least one resident in the boxes.
While owls are generally more often heard than seen, we have been lucky enough to see a Eurasian scops.
One evening we were surprised by a short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) which landed on the seat of an old bicycle that was standing in the garden.
We are, currently, on the losing side in the “Battle of the Voles” who have eaten the roots of more of our plants than I would like to admit. Our strategy to date has been to cross our fingers and hope that the owls and the non-venomous green whip snakes (Hierophis viridiflavus) that use our shed (literally in fact, when they slough) will enjoy the abundance of food and bring the vole numbers back into balance.
As I indicated at the outset, I felt that many readers of this journal may not want to be questioned about their own gardens: what they planted, if they “over-tidied”, if they used chemicals or killed insects, reptiles or animals. After all, one’s garden is private, and to many people it may seem to be their last retreat. However, in the end we return to that elephant in the room. Using conservative estimates, we are now told that “without any significant doubt [...] we are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event”, according to Paul Ehrlich from Stanford University in the US, one of the researchers in a study released in June 2015 which has, understandably, had a lot of media coverage. One of the four most damaging human activities behind this mass extinction identified in the study is the introduction of invasive species.
One of the most vivid memories I have of the garden of my childhood is that it was full of butterflies. We had a huge buddleja bush (I only have to smell a buddleja to be transported back to our garden in Hampshire) which was covered with butterflies all through the summer months. Later, when we bought our house in the Alpes Maritimes region of southern France, there appeared to be almost as many, but recently it seems that their numbers have diminished. Even in 2009 there were plentiful swallowtails, painted ladies, red admirals and other butterflies here but in 2010 I saw only a very few. Of course populations vary from year to year but overall it is generally agreed that butterfly populations are diminishing. The use of various annihilating insecticides has a lot to answer for but now that several have been banned, let us hope there will be a resurgence of these delightful winged creatures.
I have looked into the feeding habits of several butterflies and their caterpillars in order to try and attract these beautiful, ephemeral insects back into my garden. Below is a list of the most prominent species and their requirements.
Common Swallowtail (Papilio machaon) – This species is found in nearly every region of the world but is a migrant in Britain where it is protected as in some other European countries, notably the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania. Fortunately here in the Alpes Maritimes it is relatively common.
Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius) – This butterfly is quite well known in the South of France, even more so than the Common Swallowtail. In habit it resembles the latter and is widespread in Europe up to about 1600 metres. It lives mostly in thickets and orchards and feasts on echiums, hawthorn, buddlejas, scabious and particularly red valerian. The caterpillars are greenish with yellowish stripes and the chrysalids are usually green. These feed on the same plants as the caterpillars of the Common Swallowtail.
Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) – These are the most widely distributed butterflies in the world, but are migrants in Europe from the tropics, arriving in spring and summer. Their wings are mostly red with brown tips covered with five white spots and they live on mallows, thistles and knapweed, hollyhocks, asters and cosmos, as do their caterpillars. The caterpillars are black with a yellow stripe down each side and as they mature they grow small spines and produce faint white and orange markings. However they are not easy to identify.
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) – This lovely migratory species from North Africa and Southern Europe is found from sea level to 2,000 metres. The caterpillars vary in colour from black to greenish-grey and feed mainly on nettles, so don’t pull the nettles but allow them to flourish where they cannot sting you. The butterflies feed on rudbeckias and other plants of the Asteraceae family, also buddlejas and lavender, and are particularly attracted to rotting fruit. Like the robin, a Red Admiral is very territorial and will chase others off its pitch.
Brimstone Yellow (Gonepteryx rhamni) – Native to Europe, Asia and North Africa, this is the longest-lived butterfly, living up to 13 months although most of this time is spent in hibernation. If the weather is sunny it appears as early as January and the eggs are laid on buckthorn (Rhamnus catharticus) or alder buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula); the caterpillars eat the leaves of these shrubs. The butterflies, which are not usually seen after the end of August when they start their hibernation, feed on nectar from teasels, knapweeds and buddlejas. It also appears that raspberry flowers are a tremendous draw.
Fritillaries are a very large family and are not always easily identifiable. The most common include the High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe), the Dark Green Fritillary (Argynnis aglaja) and the Silver-Washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia). They are very graceful in flight as they swoop from flower to flower in search of nectar. These butterflies generally follow the same habits; mostly they are woodland creatures and lay their eggs on tree trunks where the pupae hibernate until the following spring when they descend, as caterpillars, and eat the leaves and shoots of dog violets and also pansies. These caterpillars are pale to middling brown with pairs of black spots and covered with many spines. The butterflies eat thistles, betony (Stachys), brambles, privet, knapweeds, thyme, lavender, bracken and valerian – in August and September they are often seen on the heads of sedums.
Small Copper(Lycaena phlaeas) – These busy little butterflies are not as common in France as some other species but are usually easily distinguishable because of the deep copper of the forewings. However this colour can vary a great deal, as can the number of spots on the forewings. The adults, who appear either in late April or in early May, feed on fleabane and other Asteraceae plants such as dandelions, thistles and ragwort, as well as on heathers and clovers. They favour open grasslands and anywhere flowers of the Asteraceae family grow. The larvae, which are normally green, feed on sorrel and dock leaves.
Peacock (Aglais io) – This butterfly is, to my mind, breathtakingly beautiful owing to the large round spots on each wing resembling a peacock feather, hence its name. These spots are red surrounded by white on the forewings and blue surrounded by white on the back wings. Peacocks are not nearly as common as they should be even though they live in temperate zones all through Europe; they appear to be localised as I have seen so few, whereas I am told they are much more common in the Var. Some of them appear very early in the year after over-wintering in hollow trees or old wooden sheds, enticed by an early warm sun to lay their eggs – I have spotted one as early as January. They feed on Asteraceae plants and particularly buddlejas. Their larvae live on nettles, like the Red Admirals, and are easily distinguishable because they are black and very hairy.
Comma (Polygonia c-album) – I have never seen this butterfly in the Alpes Maritimes although it is found all through Europe in open woodlands and hedgerows. At one time in the 1930s it became practically extinct in Britain but by good luck it managed to survive and is now relatively common there. It is easily distinguished because of its ragged and tattered appearance, which is supposed to disguise it to look like a fallen leaf when hibernating. Its name comes from the fact that it has, on its under-wing, a white dot resembling a comma. It over-winters as a butterfly and lays its eggs in spring, usually on nettles, and the caterpillars emerge after about fifteen days when they start to munch. They feed principally on hops (maybe the reason it is so rare here is the lack of hops in our region) but they do also feed on stinging nettles and currant leaves. Commas are canny as they disguise their pupae as bird droppings in order to protect themselves from being eaten; their caterpillars, however, are very distinctive, mostly brown with orange stripes and a large black eye in a white surround. They are also very spiny.
Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) – This is a striking butterfly with orange/red wings that have yellow and black spots and a row of blue dots around the rims of the wings. I have never seen one here: perhaps this is because wasps are credited with eating the pupae, and we are surrounded by wasps… The butterflies feed on brambles, scabious, knapweeds, thistles and other Asteraceae family plants, privet, thyme and of course buddlejas. This species hibernates and appears in spring to lay its eggs, normally on nettles. When the caterpillars hatch, usually from May onwards, they devour the nettles. They are black with yellow lines running along their bodies and very hairy spines. I am told that the Large Tortoiseshell is now extinct.
The Graylings are a huge family of rather dull brownish butterflies. They are the commonest of all in this region and, sadly, are not very interesting to look at; this does not mean, however, that we should not try to preserve them. They are found nearly everywhere, on dry, open ground and particularly in quarries, and are very difficult to identify as so many are similar. Also their dull colouring acts as a wonderful camouflage when they are resting. The butterflies and the caterpillars feed on various grasses.
Numerous small blue butterflies also visit my garden but I am unable to identify many of them. The most common ones are Little Blues, and their many cousins; also Skippers, which are brown, and Hairstreaks which are slightly larger and mostly brown. These little fellows all live off lavender and particularly plants of the Papilionaceae family – trefoils, broom, kidney vetches and clovers, and Verbena bonariensis; their larvae eat the same food.
At this point I should mention two rare vagrants which are seen only occasionally in this part of the world.
The second rare vagrant is Charaxes jasius, the Two Tailed Pasha. This is a stunningly beautiful butterfly which I have seen only once. It comes from Africa but has also colonised itself along all the borders of the Mediterranean: Spain, Portugal, Italy, France and the Balkans up to 500/1000 metres. The butterfly is brown and orange and each under-wing has blue and white spots and two tails, hence its name. Surprisingly the undersides are as colourful, with orange, brown and white lines on them. Its favourite food is Arbutus unedo, the strawberry tree, on which it lays its eggs; the caterpillars, when they emerge, eat the leaves. It can also be attracted by rotting bananas or anything sweet and simply cannot resist a glass of beer. The larvae are a very distinctive green with two large yellowish spots and four backwards-bending spikes on the head though they are not known for alcoholism… They over-winter in this form and emerge in the spring. There are usually two generations in a year, the first in May to June and the second in August and September.
Finally, I want to include a charming and endearing little creature – the Hummingbird Hawk Moth (Macroglossum stellatarum). This wonderful moth gets its name from the way in takes nectar out of flowers, drumming its little wings for all the world like a hummingbird. The wings are brown touched with orange and the moth is widespread in southern Europe. It over-winters in holes in rocks, trees or old buildings and is seen even in winter if the weather is mellow. It eats Galium, or bedstraws, also jasmine, buddleja, tobacco, lilac, verbenas and echiums, and does a wonderful job as a pollinator. The larvae are green with two grey and cream stripes and have a little horn at the end of their bodies. These eat bedstraw and other plants of the Rubiaceae family, particularly valerians.
I have only included the principal butterflies in this region of the Alpes Maritimes – doubtless there are hundreds of others. But one can see from what I’ve noted above that in order to encourage butterflies we should all plant nettles! Not the most charming or prepossessing of plants, I admit, but perhaps we should try to find a small corner for them in our gardens in order to entice our flying friends. Several other plants favoured by butterflies are the red and white valerian, Sedum spectabile, echiums and heliotrope. The red variety of valerian grows out of rocks and crevices in my garden and always attracts a large number of butterflies, usually Cabbage Whites, Painted Ladies and the Hummingbird Hawk Moth. The plants grow straggly after flowering and I cut them down to encourage a second flowering in August and September, which, along with the sedums which flower late into the autumn, is beneficial to the second brood of butterflies, such as the Red Admirals. Heliotrope is not much seen in the Alpes Maritimes but grows well in tubs on a terrace; commonly known as “Cherry Pie”, it exudes a marvellous scent which, I am told, acts as an aphrodisiac for butterflies – I dare say for humans as well!
Butterflies naturally enjoy many other garden flowers, particularly buddlejas (often called “the butterfly bush”), lavender, all types of the daisy family and lantanas, which sadly will not grow for me. Last year, near the coast, I saw bushes of this plant simply covered with Painted Ladies. The good news is that one can now find packets of flower seeds chosen especially for their attractiveness to butterflies. The internet – as ever – is a growing resource of information on local butterfly gardening.
Here are two kinds of plants definitely regarded as unwanted weeds by most gardeners – they sting, they scratch and prick, they have little or nothing to offer in the way of beauty or perfume, unattended they grow enormous and they seed themselves all over the garden. Who would want to learn to love them? And yet…
This brings us on to another point. Having saved the dreaded weeds for the sake of the butterflies, can we bear to let them go to seed for the sake of the birds? According to The Bird Watcher’s Garden2, pigeons, tits, jackdaws, sparrows, finches and buntings like to feed on nettle seeds, while dunnocks, tits, rooks, warblers and finches enjoy Carduus and Cirsium seeds. This is a questionable suggestion because most birds take a variety of seeds and the much more attractive seed heads of sunflower will be gobbled up by pigeons, finches and tits, while seeding Euphorbia will also feed the sparrows and the dunnocks. There are, in addition, a number of cultivated thistles which are Mediterranean natives and can be grown for their beauty as well as for the flying visitors. Echinops ritro, the Globe Thistle, is noted for attracting bees with its nectar and bullfinches and goldfinches with its seeds.
Hold on though, if you are someone who likes to try herbal remedies. George Sfikas4 tells us that a brew of nettle tea is a great pick-me-up and an aid in the case of anaemia. In the weekly market in our Athens suburb you can actually buy nettle leaves in the spring to dry for infusions, to add raw to salads or to boil as a vegetable like spinach. Like spinach they are a good source of iron and vitamin C. Our own freshly picked young leaves must surely be the tastiest and healthiest to eat. Actually if we are going to take our wildlife gardening seriously we are told5 that after the first batch of butterflies has been born we should cut back the nettles so that they will grow up again with fresh tender leaves for a second generation of caterpillars and so for more tea and boiled greens for us.
Οι Πεταλούδες της Ελλάδας (The Butterflies of Greece), Λάζαρος Παμπέρης, Μπαστας-Πλέσσος.
The Birdwatcher’s Garden, Hazel and Pamela Johnson, Guild of Master Craftsmen Publications.
The Complete Book of Gardening Tips, Janet Macdonald, Carnell plc.
Medicinal Plants of Greece, George Sfikas, Efstathiadis Group S.A.
The Wildlife Garden Month-by-Month,Jackie Bennett, David and Charles.
How to Make a Wildlife Garden, Chris Baines, Frances Lincoln.
Much has been written about ‘wildlife gardening’ in temperate climates, yet I have never come across anything about that age-old animal of Mediterranean regions, the tortoise. If gardening necessarily involves a never-ending series of compromises between one’s ideal vision and the realities of soil and climate, gardens inhabited by tortoises require some further readjustments in planning and planting.
Three species of land tortoises live in the European Mediterranean countries: the marginated tortoise (Testudo marginata), found only in Greece and Sardinia, Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni) and the Greek or spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca) which, confusingly, has a very limited distribution in Greece.
(Added to these are two species of pond tortoise, Mauremys caspica and Emys orbicularis, which I shall not discuss here). All three species of land tortoises are great wanderers, and may therefore be found as visitors in unwalled country gardens. I use the word ‘unwalled’ rather than ‘unfenced’ advisedly, since tortoises climb, dig and scramble determinedly and are thus not easily kept out – or in – by anything except the strongest fence set in concrete or a well-built wall. Not every gardener is as tolerant as Gilbert White, who noted objectively that his tortoise Timothy “devours kidney-beans & cucumbers in a most voracious manner” and “picks out the heart and stems of Coss lettuce, holding the outer leaves back with his feet”. So if your garden consists mainly of tender vegetables or delicate-leaved annual plants – sweet peas, pansies, petunias and so on – then you are unlikely to want any tortoises in your area to visit it and will probably already have constructed a solid barrier.
Thus the first compromise to be made in a tortoise garden is the selection of plants. One way of not losing plants to tortoises, of course, would be to grow only those that they will not eat – most grey-leaved or felted plants, for example, or those with highly aromatic leaves like marigolds (Tagetes, not Calendula which they love). But in this case visiting tortoises would soon depart, and permanent resident tortoises would begin to starve. Another solution is to grow plants which tortoises eat but which are so profuse and self-seed so rampantly that one never risks losing them; examples of these are common valerian (Centranthus ruber), Acanthus mollis and Cerinthe retorta. Tortoises also enjoy a lot of the wild plants commonly considered as weeds in the garden: dandelions, clover, mallow and stinging nettles. They are very fond of that invasive pest, the Russian vine (Fallopia baldschuanica,syn. Polygonum baldschuanicum); pulling off great armfuls of it to feed to tortoises is a useful way of keeping it under control. They make short work, too, of Oxalis pes-caprae, which most gardeners that I know would consider a great point in their favour.
But what about the plants that you value but that tempt tortoises? A full-grown marginated tortoise – the largest of the European species – has a reach of about eight inches, so anything taller than this which has a tortoise-proof woody stem is safe. Plants whose stems are juicy and succulent can be individually protected with discreet wire mesh, while smaller plants – those petunias whose evening scent you do not want to be deprived of – can be grown in containers.
Tortoises, however, not only eat plants; they also trample on them and occasionally dig them up. I lost a very precious newly established cutting of Teucrium polium when it was uprooted by a female tortoise digging a hole to lay her eggs in; by the time I discovered it the plant had lain in the sun all day and was past resuscitation. Here the gardener’s compromises must be two-fold, aiming at prevention and distraction. Prevention takes the form of strategically placed rocks, stones, bricks or anything else; it is not that a tortoise cannot climb over them to trample your clumps of narcissi or crocuses, but that it will not do so ‘by mistake’ – if the plant thus protected is not a tempting food item the tortoise will tend to make a detour round the barrier rather than march straight over it. Distraction involves, for example, leaving a few bare patches of loose, soft sandy soil in sunny places where the females may easily dig and lay their eggs, or providing a supplementary food supply. Much of what might otherwise have gone on the compost heap in the form of fruit and vegetable peelings is welcomed by tortoises; in return, they provide surprisingly copious droppings to be composted.
So far I have been taking the gardener’s point of view. If tortoises visit your garden, however, and even more so if captive tortoises live permanently enclosed in your garden, it is important to consider their needs too.
First, safety. Land tortoises cannot swim and will drown if they fall into a garden pond or swimming pool; thus any pond except one with the most gently sloping of sides should be surrounded with a tortoise-proof barrier. Tortoises are frequently killed on roads, so should not be kept or encouraged in gardens where there is a danger that they might stray on to busy roads. Although adult tortoises have few if any natural predators – if one discounts the story of Aeschylus being killed by an eagle dropping a tortoise on his head – some dogs pester them or turn them upside down (whereupon they are doomed, as they cannot right themselves) and some cats prey on hatchling tortoises. Other cats and dogs ignore them entirely.
Second, living conditions. Although a pond is a danger, and although they drink sparingly, in the hot weather tortoises need access to water and seem to enjoy sitting in it. A large shallow container which they can easily climb into and out of, like a flower pot saucer, is ideal. If confined to a garden that is not watered in summer, tortoises may need an extra supply of food. When ranging free, however, they are perfectly adapted to life in a dry climate. Indeed, although most books describe them as herbivorous I suspect that wild tortoises are fairly omnivorous in order to survive in their sun-baked habitats; certainly in the garden I have watched tortoises eating a dead mouse (leaving only the empty skin and tail) and the remains of snails that have been accidentally stepped on. Like all reptiles, tortoises are poikilotherms, i.e. they control their body temperature by moving into and out of the sun, and thus need shelter from the rain and shade from the sun. Both are amply provided in the garden by dense shrubs. They also need hibernation sites for the winter. Again, in a thickly planted established garden they will find these for themselves, but I also help them by piling small branches, prunings etc. in a sheltered corner and covering the pile in autumn with dead leaves and grass. A word of caution: take great care if you light a bonfire in autumn that a tortoise has not chosen your pile of material to be burnt as a comfortable hibernation site.
Third, social life. Tortoises are generally encountered singly in the wild, except when mating, and tend to turn up as garden visitors one at a time. Nevertheless, it is clearly not fair to condemn any animal to a permanently solitary existence, and thus single tortoises should not be kept confined in a walled garden. The sexing of tortoises, however, is not an easy matter, particularly in juvenile individuals, and it may be hard to establish whether a couple of tortoises in the garden are a true pair unless they are seen mating. But if the conditions in the garden are right, adult tortoises (from about 8 years of age) will mate and reproduce freely. Mating involves much clashing of shells and loud moaning on the part of the male; the female then laboriously digs a surprisingly deep hole and lays 10 or 12 eggs, the size and shape of ping-pong balls. She covers the hole and leaves the eggs to be incubated in the warm soil for about two months. As they hatch, the walnut-sized babies scrabble their way out of the ground and are henceforth entirely independent, though obviously vulnerable to predators.
And watching the hatchlings emerge, tiny and bright-eyed, is one of the joys of tortoise gardening, which amply compensates for the occasional loss of some valued plant. As more and more of the Mediterranean tortoises’ natural habitat is built on and more and more roads are constructed, safe havens which they may visit or where they may live and breed become increasingly important. Needless to say, this does not mean that one should remove tortoises from the wild to introduce them into the garden, even where this is still legal.
We arrived for a week’s stay at Venzano just past sunset following an eight-hour drive from Provence. It was too late to see much that evening, but we all gathered in the garden the following morning for breakfast. Sunlight warmed the stone walls and terraces and, soon, the California poppies and blue flax opened and welcomed an array of insect visitors. After such a long drive, it felt good to relax in the garden for most of the day. With increasing warmth, the garden came alive with the sounds of buzzing bees in countless shapes and sizes, of scurrying lizards iridescent in the bright light, and of swallows swirling and whistling overhead. Smaller birds, mostly sparrows, chirped nervously in the shrubbery and bay hedges. Distant cuckoos kept rhythmic time to an unseen clock.
That evening brought new sounds to the garden. An old stone horse trough, now used as a water-lily pool, proved home to a chorus of small frogs, whose coarse croaking echoed through the courtyard. Below the garden, a cattail-edged pond was even noisier, with at least three species of frogs in springtime pursuit of the perfect mate. As darkness closed in on our hilltop paradise, moths took over the task of pollinating salvias and other flowers in the garden. Among the many species flitting about were the hummingbird hawkmoths, announcing their dark presence with a characteristic – and misleading – hum. Bats swooped erratically overhead in search of a few early-season mosquitoes. Nightingales sang the night away, their repetitious but melodic notes reminding us of mockingbirds in California.
We learned on our first visit to Venzano, two years previously, that this wonderfully contemporary, mediterranean garden in Tuscany was not irrigated. With the exception of new plantings, the garden survives almost solely on natural rainfall and experiences a distinct dormant season through the long hot summer. In conversations with Don and Lindsay, the garden’s proprietors, we now learned that the garden was, admirably, chemical-free. Only an occasional outbreak of red spiders (spider mites) generates any use of pesticides; the occasional nibbling of leaves and petals is accepted as an integral part of this natural approach to garden maintenance. It struck us, then, that what we had heard on our first day in the garden were the sounds of a healthy garden, alive with wildlife of all sorts going about their daily routines – and keeping pests in check. Perhaps these aural pleasures are the measure of a healthy, earth-friendly garden.
But Venzano is in a rural area of Italy, miles from any semblance of a city. What about the urban garden, surrounded by concrete, steel, brick, and glass with little connection to the natural landscape? I thought back to San Francisco’s Noe Valley, where my own small garden has been chemical-free for two decades. The garden is abuzz with bees throughout the year, birdsong fills the air daily (and sometimes nightly, though not from nightingales), and butterflies add movement and color to the plantings. Raccoons cavort on the roof and along the fence each night, and a skunk periodically waddles through in search of insects and grubs. Were the neighborhood slightly warmer, I’m certain that lizards would be scurrying about just as they did at Venzano.
One of the reasons I enjoy gardening is the contact it allows with nature and her diverse creatures, even in the most urban of situations. I’m perfectly willing to tolerate the few chewed leaves and less-than-perfect blossoms, which may result from avoiding chemical pesticides, in favor of the delightful sounds of wildlife in a healthy garden.
Creating a garden for wildlife fosters a deeper connection with the natural world, from the smallest organisms to butterflies, birds, and mammals. The best way to attract wildlife is to grow the plants that they depend on for food and shelter, which generally means growing native plants. There are many possibilities for creating beautiful and sustainable gardens with California native plants, whether you include a few appropriate species or devote an entire garden to native plants.
Creating a garden for wildlife begins with observation. It takes time to become familiar with the birds and animals that inhabit an area. Some are year-round residents, while others may visit occasionally or seasonally. Many gardens in California are fenced to keep deer out, but I have chosen not to fence our property because I enjoy watching deer wander through the garden. With a thoughtful selection, it is possible to grow a wide variety of native plants that attract wildlife and co-exist with browsing deer. Some of the animals that visit my garden are nocturnal and seldom seen, such as the occasional coyote or mountain lion.
The essential elements for attracting wildlife are water, plants for food, and places to shelter. The widest variety of these elements will attract the greatest number of species. A source of water could be as simple as a shallow basin, a depression in a boulder that collects water, a pool or a creek. Nectar, fruits, seeds, and insects are important food sources for wildlife. Tiered plantings provide habitats for a variety of birds and animals to forage and shelter at different levels, from fallen leaves at ground level to the highest branches. Cavities in trees, fallen logs and thickets also provide cover and places for birds and small animals to nest and raise their young.
Understanding the soil, exposure, rainfall, temperature range and special features of a site is the first step in planning a native garden. Plant communities can be a useful guide to plant selection because plants that are natural companions in the wild make good companions in a native garden. Grassland, coastal scrub, chaparral, oak woodland, riparian woodland and redwood forest are the major plant communities found in California, and all are represented in my garden. Some of California’s plants co-evolved with their pollinators, and incorporating them in gardens is one way to ensure their preservation as many natural habitats have been lost to development.
Late fall is the best time to plant to take advantage of cooler weather and rain. A layer of mulch will help conserve moisture and cool the soil. Once established, most natives will benefit from an occasional deep watering. Native plants generally have fewer pest problems if they are suited to the climate and conditions of the site. Natural pest controls include ladybird beetles, beneficial wasps, birds and small animals. To avoid harm to wildlife, it is best to avoid pesticides and use biological controls, if needed.
A diverse planting of native trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals will attract wildlife to a garden throughout the year. Many hours of enjoyment will follow.
California native plants that attract butterflies
Achillea millefolium (Yarrow)
California native plants that attract hummingbirds
California native plants that attract birds and small animals