Living with the Wild: The Case for Biodiversity Gardens
by Sarah Fisher
A question I’ve often heard during my time working in the Southern California native plant design world is “What are the best plants for a butterfly/bird garden?” This question is asked so often that many nurseries and online resources have lists specifically for bird, butterfly, or pollinator plants. On those plant lists you can find things like milkweed (Asclepias spp.), buckwheat (Eriogonum spp.), and most plants in the sunflower family (Asteraceae), along with many other plants with known pollinator associations.
Conversely, no one has ever asked about a raccoon garden, or a bobcat garden, and especially not a bear garden. People have also asked about exclusionary gardens, not wanting to attract bees or squirrels or other types of wildlife that could be considered pests. This follows with the idea that I’ve heard many times before that there are ‘good’ types of wildlife (birds, bees, etc.) and ‘bad’ wildlife (coyotes, raccoons, deer, etc.).
Planting a garden for a specific type of fauna with the goal of excluding certain species ignores the fact that we exist in a much larger biotic system. In the Southern California region we’ve sprawled into every corner of land possible – land that was and still is occupied by all types of wildlife, not just the cute or charismatic ones.
Our front yards have become necessary patches of wildlife habitat in an area that is already seeing a decline in ecosystem health and habitat availability. The reality is that if we plant for birds or butterflies, we are also attracting their predators. The presence of other types of wildlife is not something to fight against; it is an indication that the ecosystem is functioning and that nature’s checks and balances are working as intended. We are working towards a valuable goal: increasing the biodiversity in our landscapes.
Biodiversity is defined by E.O. Wilson as “the variety of life at every hierarchical level and spatial scale of biological organizations: genes within populations, populations within species, species within communities, communities within landscapes, landscapes within biomes, and biomes within the biosphere.”1
Take the coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia). A single native tree like an oak has hundreds of interactions with plants and animals. Some of these interactions we see, like the acorn woodpecker, or grey squirrels gathering acorns. But there are plenty we don’t see, like the mycorrhizal interactions happening within the root system of the oak or the small caterpillars that eat its leaves. Each of these interactions is just as important as the others.
The coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) is a keystone species in Southern California and plays an important role in our local ecosystems, where it provides food, nutrients, and shelter to wildlife, insects, and other plants. (Image Credit: Michelle Shanahan.)
Looking to the future, increasing and maintaining our biodiversity is necessary for preserving the health of the ecosystem. Having many different types of life allows for ecological communities to be more resilient in the face of the serious issues we are facing like climate change. The Southern California region is a ‘biodiversity hotspot’ with almost 3,500 plants that are native to the area, and almost 60 percent of those plants only grow in Southern California.2 The biodiversity of this region has been threatened by development and the spread of non-native species, which makes conserving and supporting all types of life essential.
Why is it that we are so eager to coexist with butterflies and birds, yet so hesitant to accept other wildlife when it comes to our yards? There are certain types of wildlife that are easier for humans to coexist with, ones that do not threaten our yards or trash cans. But I’d like to make the argument that we must think about them when designing our gardens and appreciate their presence, just like we would a monarch butterfly or a goldfinch.
So my proposition is this: what if, instead of a butterfly, bird, or pollinator garden, we focused on planting ‘Biodiversity Gardens’? And instead of fearing or excluding certain types of wildlife, we designed for them too, just like we have been doing for birds and butterflies?
1 Wilson, E.O., H. University, C.L. Sciences, D.E.L. Studies, and N.A.S.S. Institution. Biodiversity. National Academies Press, 1988.
2 “California Floristic Province – Species | CEPF.” Accessed September 8, 2020. https://www.cepf.net/our-work/biodiversity-hotspots/california-floristic-province/species.
Sarah Fisher is a Los Angeles native who grew up hiking and exploring in the Angeles National Forest. She has a B.S. in Wildlife Biology from Humboldt State University and is currently in her final year of her Masters in Landscape Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona. She is an avid hiker and naturalist with a passion for California native ecosystems.