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MontecitoHeights, Sonoma, CA

Featured Site Created By shgeiger

A vision can guide us to create a landscape that inspires, soothes, and supports wildlife. These homeowners in California have spent years transforming their yard into a sanctuary for themselves and the flora and fauna they share their space with. The results are breathtaking. Imagine coming home to a space like this after a long day. Our landscapes can be revitalizing and healing if we take the time to envision, plan, and implement.

EcoRegion: California Coastal Chaparral Forest and Shrub Province
Planting Zone: 9b

What work has been done to improve this site for birds and other wildlife? How long did it take?

We live on a south facing hillside acre of land overlooking the city of Santa Rosa, California. The home was built in 1948 and we purchased the parcel in 1999.


Photo © shgeiger

We were attracted to the property by the informal oak woodland setting along with areas suitable for gardening–all close to the city limits. The bucolic surroundings were not without shortcomings. An asphalt driveway encircled the home which complicated management of the hillside runoff and behaved as a hardscape barrier to the natural habitat. A subtler problem was the health and makeup of the predominant oak woodland. While the acre was inhabited by 50+ oaks there were a number of undesirable non-natives including voluminous Monterey Pines, a stand of suckering Black Acacia and nearly impenetrable thickets of Ligustrum, commonly referred to as privet.

For the first year we were content to get acquainted with the site, to simply observe how the property responded to northern California’s torrential winter rains and long, dry summers. We prepared a modest garden, started a digital photo chronicle of the landscape and conferred with a landscape architect and arborist.


Photo © shgeiger

In the Spring of 2001, work began on a backyard design as we carted off 1500 sqft of asphalt behind the house. The objective was to create a sort of transitional landing between our home and the native landscape. The layout featured an adjoining patio, cascading ponds to take advantage of the slope, an abundance of space for flowering plants, and a series of rock/clay paths connected to the surrounding woodland. The plantings were selected to invite additional wildlife (in particular hummingbirds and butterflies) while dissuading the ubiquitous deer. Coaxing the former would prove easier than deterring the latter. The garden was designed to be an amalgam, mixing newly-introduced with pre-existing plantings (both natives and cultivars). There was also considerable latitude in the design to accommodate changing strategies and tastes. By the end of the summer the work was complete.


Photo © shgeiger

The once occasional Anna’s Hummingbird are now ubiquitous, at times seen as a shimmer in the oaks overhanging our patio gardens. These days it’s rare to step into the warm season garden without seeing a variety of butterflies purposely moving between the flowering cultivars. We have a number of hedges providing protective cover and coupled with bird feeders there is continuous activity and interaction among seed-loving visitors (Dark-eyed Junco, Lesser Goldfinch, Oak Titmouse, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, squirrels etc.). Our three small ponds are connected by cascading waterfalls. A shallow stream bed serves as a bird bath while a deeper koi pond has been known to attract long legged fishers like the Great Blue Heron and Common Egret. At three feet deep the koi pond discourages fishing even by the tallest bird (or raccoon). Much of the woodland remains part of the neighborhood wildlife corridor and provides plenty of hidden nesting opportunities for wild turkeys and occasional visits by red fox and other suburban adapters.

What are some successes that you've seen since the improvements were made? (alternatively, "What are you most proud of, or excited to share about this site?")

kitchen view

Photo © shgeiger
Like most gardeners, we like to think that our land use decisions have been made thoughtfully with a sense of caution. While the backyard work (removing the driveway, adding patio/pond, etc.) had a dramatic effect it directly impacted a relatively small portion of the property. Otherwise, we have treaded lightly on the bulk of the surrounding woodland. In fact, as our approach to gardening has evolved the woodland natives have had a powerful effect back into our original garden design. We have learned to appreciate the relentless emergence of native volunteers like Toyon, Manzanita, among others, into our cultivated landscape. This has blurred the distinction between garden and woodland with the benefit of reduced water requirements and less fretting over appearance.


Photo © shgeiger

Irrigation usage and practices have always been a critical concern in Sonoma County. Our region receives very little precipitation from May into October so water is a precious resource in the warm seasons. The saving grace is that summer’s sunny days give way to cool evenings often accompanied by coastal fog. Even so, droughts, which have always cyclically plagued the state, are now longer lasting and, perhaps, permanent. We inherited a manually controlled irrigation system composed of underground 3/4” galvanized and pvc pipes feeding above ground
sprinklers. It was both inefficient and inadequate to address the range of watering needs even for the original landscape. The new garden design relies on a drip delivery system providing far more efficiency and precision. Even with garden expansions our water needs have not substantially increased beyond that of the old system. Drip irrigation is not always smooth going and can pose a maintenance headache. Without some vigilance it’s easy for a problem to go unnoticed for a number of watering cycles. The good news is that the basic skills required to identify and repair problems are well within the reach of most gardeners. And so, with practice, we’ve become proficient in most aspects of repair including the diagnosis of subtle problems. So from our perspective, maintaining an efficient water delivery system has become a necessary gardening skill in drought prone northern California.

Photo © shgeiger

Finally, we have discovered great value in maintaining a photo catalog of the landscape. In effect the cataloging serves as a visual timeline, a photo-diary providing priceless insights into the dynamic garden canvas. It’s encouraging to be able to see how much you have changed the landscape over the years. Also being able to see individual planted areas at varying points of time during the year helps the gardener know what needs to be moved, added or rearranged. We have been consistently surprised at the not so subtle changes in the garden that would be completely forgotten without a photo record.

Favorite bird or wildlife spotting?
A seasonal favorite are the flocks of Cedar Waxwings that descend on our backyard in February to strip the red fruit from Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) and Milkflower Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster lacteus) bushes. Along with flowering plums and fields of yellow mustard the appearance of Cedar Waxwings is a much anticipated harbinger of spring.

Are there any tough decisions that had to be made regarding its management? How were they handled?

When we moved onto the property there was no fencing so deer roamed and
grazed freely. Our new garden was stocked with plants meant to deter the
deer from foraging but the results were mixed, at best. As the cost and
frustration involved with replacing plants increased we reluctantly gave
in to fencing a portion of the property. Still, most of the property
remains an unrestricted wildlife corridor where we now experiment with
“deer proof” plantings. Much to our surprise and delight we’ve found that
at our location deer completely sidestep rhododendron including azalea.
And over the years we’ve had success with a variety of resistant plantings
among them Salvia longistyla benth (Mexican Sage), Phormium tenax (New
Zealand flax), Acer palmatum (Japanese Maple) and Leptospermum scoparium
(New Zealand Tea Tree) and a range of ornamental grasses.

Pump Shed

Photo © shgeiger

Our approach toward improving the health of the woodland has proven to be a 17 year marathon. We budget yearly to address prioritized problems but it’s costly and can be sidetracked by other landscaping needs. The good news is that many of the targeted non-natives have been removed which has revitalized affected areas. Oaks and native shrubbery once struggling to compete with the faster growing Monterey Pine and Black Acacia are now flourishing. And while there are oaks that still require an arborist’s attention overall improvement has been steady even if slower than we would like.