Marin Master Gardeners
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Habit gardens really will boost dwindling pollinators

October 10, 2014
Marie Narlock

Every day in my garden feels like opening night on Broadway where I'm surrounded by an assortment of entertainers: comediennes, stuntmen, dancers, singers. I've gone out of my way to invite these visitors in because, frankly, it might get a little boring otherwise. Of course, the performers I'm talking about don't charge for admission. These are the tiny but splendid flying creatures that zip in and out of my garden, adding fleeting but spectacular moments that I would not be without.

It's remarkably easy to attract songbirds, bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and welcomed insects into your garden. All you have to do is grow the plants they need to nest and eat and provide a sip of water. These so-called habitat gardens are a joy to grow and maintain because colorful organized chaos is usually the name of the game. Think about it: if you were a hummingbird, would you dive bomb for a scarlet tubular flowers dripping with pollen or a mowed lawn? If you were a cedar waxwing, wouldn't juicy elderberries grab your bird's eye more than a clipped boxwood hedge? If you were a bee, wouldn't you adore ferociously buzzing backflips from bud to bud on a thicket of bright blue California lilacs?

The sad truth is these little critters don't have a clue how critically important they are — and how precarious their existence has become. The National Audubon Society reports that more than half the bird species in North America face a severe threat to survival. This includes the Rufous hummingbird, a tiny zooming cinnamon-colored beauty whose population has dipped 60 percent. This year there were only half as many monarch butterflies in their winter hangout south of the border. Bees, the only insect in the world that makes food humans eat and which pollinate over a third of our food, are in serious decline. By some accounts, this reduction poses a threat to global agriculture.

We know the reasons for these cautionary reports: climate change, habitat loss, development, herbicides, pesticides.

Question is, will making minor changes in your garden really make a difference? The answer is unequivocally yes. Empirical evidence proves that enticing these profoundly valuable pollinators benefits our gardens as well as the animal and human food supplies that we cherish.

You can experience a habitat garden up close and personal — and take away a blueprint for creating your own bird and bee sanctuary — at the Master Gardener's upcoming Habitat for Humanity Redefined workshop from 9 to 12 Oct. 11, at the Falkirk Cultural Center in San Rafael. Speakers include birder Bob Mauceli and bee expert Celeste Ets-Hoken, creator of the Wild Bee Gardens app, as well as Janet Duncan who developed Falkirk's habitat garden.

You will learn how to attract some of Marin's most prominent birds using the right plants, birdbaths, feeders and (cat proof) birdhouses. You will also have the opportunity to ask questions about your own garden (bring photos), enjoy hands-on demonstrations, enjoy coffee and snacks while roaming the lovely Falkirk grounds, and leave with a list of plants and resources to make it all happen at home. Participants gain a solid understanding of which birds you can expect to see in which season, and as well as an appreciation of California's native bees and our beloved honeybees.

But don't come just because you want to help heal the planet. Come because you want to experience a bustle of bees dancing loop-da-loop with mathematical precision, or a flock of chartreuse goldfinches grabbing autumn's final seed heads, or a determined swallowtail floating and flapping in the wind, or a whirring jewel of a hummingbird taking a rare breather as it dips its feathery wings into a cool pool before rocketing skyward. I guarantee that it won't be long before you join me in giving these fantastic actors a well-deserved standing ovation.

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