Helping a Canyon Landscape

For the past two and a half years, a group of gardeners and I have volunteered to rehabilitate the landscape of a five-home cul de sac in Trabuco Canyon. The site is 12 acres in size and is owned by a non-profit, The Teen Project, that shelters women who were subject to human trafficking and homelessness.

The property was formerly owned by Boys Town, a Catholic charity that helped troubled teens. Boys Town put the property up for sale and, in late 2018, The Teen Project acquired the site.

When we first saw the site in January 2019, we identified invasive plants that had overtaken much of the natural landscape, including fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides), ice plant (Carpobrotus edulis), and sea lavender (Limonium). Black mustard (Brassica nigra) was also present on the property.

Fountain grass overtaking a hillside. (E. Wallace)

The Teen Project was busy getting the homes repaired and ready for residents to move in, and the landscape needed help. The new owners considered using artificial turf to solve some of the problems in the landscape, but I stepped in with a couple of partners to offer an alternative: Plant a natural landscape instead of using artificial turf. The natural landscape would be healing for the land and for the future residents.

Sea lavender growing in the middle of a native yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei). (E. Wallace)

We offered to plant three front yards with California native plants. Native plants belong in the canyon, are beautiful, and require minimal water once established. In January 2019, with the help of volunteers, we began removing invasive plants and planting 300 one-gallon native plants. We removed about four semi-truck loads of invasive plants the first four months, and by April we had landscaped three large front yards and more.

That first year, we completed all of the work by hand. As the project progressed, we hired a landscape contractor to help with drainage and more complex designed areas like the butterfly garden shown below.

If you would like to learn more about the project, you are invited to attend a presentation I am giving at the San Clemente Garden Club this Wednesday, September 1, at 2 p.m. at St. Andrews by the Sea United Church at 2001 Calle Frontera in San Clemente. Join us and enjoy some dramatic photographs of our progress and hear about future plans for the site.

Flowers in Bloom as Summer Wanes

Spring in southern California is the biggest and showiest blooming season for native plants. Poppies, verbenas, and penstemons are strutting their stuff after a cool, rainy winter.

Verbena de la mina, seaside daisies, poppies, sages, and penstemon in bloom last May. (E. Wallace).

But by late summer, the plants are pulling back, waiting out the long dry season and protecting themselves from the 90 degree days.

How do our pollinators, birds, and butterflies find enough nectar during the long, hot days of summer and early fall when our native plants are hunkering down to make it through?

I took a walk around my garden recently to see which flowers are still in bloom. And what I found surprised me because these blossoms are subtle but still very important to pollinators:

I also have three small trees that are covered in blossoms right now:

My garden is a cultivated environment of native plants that I water deeply once a month. The extra water helps prolong the blooming season of some of the plants that populate my home landscape.

But what is happening with plants in the wild that get no supplemental irrigation?

I hiked in a local park and explored a wild land interface to discover native plants in bloom now:

A roadrunner and California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) in the heat of summer. (E. Wallace)

My favorite late summer blooming plant is Menzies’ goldenbush (Isocoma menziesii). This plant shines during the hottest months of summer no matter how little water it receives. Yesterday afternoon, I noticed new goldenbush plants sprouting in the hot, dry compacted soil of a wild land interface. The goldenbush’s profusion of blooms is a gift to pollinators.

Next time you go for a hike in the park, take a look around and see what flowers are blooming. Even the tiniest flowers matter to butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees.

Summer Blooms for Butterflies

You may be aware that milkweed is the only food that monarch caterpillars eat. Monarch butterflies, however, need more than just milkweed to sustain them. Monarchs and other butterflies need gardens that have different species of summer-flowering plants to provide nectar.

Today’s post features five terrific summer-blooming California native plants for butterflies that are great additions to your garden.

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is from the rose family. This plant grows quickly, becoming a small tree up to 25 feet tall. In the hottest days of summer, toyons are covered with white blossoms that butterflies love.

Toyon blossoms and the monarch butterfly. (Kevin Alison)

After the toyon’s white flowers are pollinated, they form bright red berries at Christmas time. The abundant holly-like berries are the reason that one of toyon’s common names is California Christmasberry. Migrating birds like cedar waxwings come to Southern California in the winter to munch on the red fruit.

Two cedar waxwings eating toyon berries. (E. Wallace)

Coyote mint (Monardella sp.) is an easy-to-grow shrub that blooms throughout spring and summer with pink flowers that attract butterflies.

Swallowtails feasting on nectar from coyote mint. (Kevin Alison)

Another low-growing flowering shrub is Verbena lilacina. Verbena’s blossoms are butterfly magnets throughout the summer months.

Western white butterfly finding a sip of nectar. (E. Wallace)
Painted lady butterfly on Verbena lilacina. (E. Wallace)

You can count on native Milkweed’s (Asclepias sp.) creamy white flowers to provide nectar for butterflies and other pollinators. The leaves and seed pods also feed hungry monarch caterpillars.

Monarch butterflies on narrow-leaf milkweed. (Rachel Whitt)
Monarch caterpillar eating narrow-leaf milkweed. (E. Wallace)

Lastly, the classic California native plant, Buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.), with its beautiful white snowball blossoms, provides nectar for butterflies and pollinators all summer long. There are many species of buckwheat that are great additions to every garden.

Marine blue butterfly visits buckwheat. (Kris Ethington)

Toyons, coyote mint, verbenas, milkweed, and buckwheat are just a few of the many lovely California native plants that flower in the summer, supporting butterflies and other pollinators. You can bring nature to your landscape by planting these easy-to-grow, low maintenance plants in your garden.

Late July and the Woolly-Pod Milkweed

Every year in late July, I hike along Vista Trail in O’Neill Regional Park to observe two healthy populations of wild milkweed growing along the trail. Last year at this time, the woolly-pod milkweed (Asclepias eriocarpa) plants were in full flower and bustling with bumblebee activity and hungry caterpillars.

Bumblebees (Bombus crotchii) gathering nectar from milkweed late July 2020. (E. Wallace)
Monarch caterpillars munching woolly-pod milkweed last July. (E. Wallace)

This year, I was surprised to see that the woolly-pod milkweed blossoms were dry and seed pods were already forming. And I didn’t see any monarch caterpillars on the plant.

Pods forming in late July 2021. (E. Wallace)

Did last winter’s drought (only 5 inches of rain) and this summer’s heat cause the woolly-pod milkweed plants to set seed early? And is this year’s change in the milkweed blossoms detrimental to the monarch butterfly population?

Seed pod development started early this year compared with last July. (E. Wallace)

A recent article in Popular Science magazine discussed findings from scientists who studied 25 years of data from more than 18,000 monarch counts to try to determine whether increased herbicide use, mortality during migration, or changes in climate might be most responsible for the decline in monarch numbers.

The magazine article summarized findings recently published in the July 19, 2021 scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. The findings concluded that breeding season weather was nearly seven times more important than other factors in explaining the changes in summer monarch butterfly populations.

Michigan State University scientist Elise Zipkin and her team found that “monarchs tended to thrive when weather conditions stayed close to average in their spring breeding grounds, and when temperatures in the northern and southern parts of their summer habitat weren’t too cool or warm.”

The Nature Ecology & Evolution report concluded that “If observed changes in spring and summer climate continue, portions of the current breeding range may become inhospitable for monarchs. Results highlight the increasingly important contribution of a changing climate to insect decline.”

Although the study focused mainly on data from the eastern monarch population, it is likely the changing climate is also contributing to the precipitous decline of the western monarchs that inhabit our California landscapes.

Monarch visiting my garden. (E. Wallace)

I hope that we can learn from recent scientific studies to create change that will help support monarch butterfly populations. As I write this post on a hot summer afternoon, I see monarch butterflies in my yard. They are doing their best to cope with changing conditions. Let’s do what we can to help monarchs thrive.

What is Milkweed?

Milkweed is a flowering plant named after a milky latex substance that is exuded when the plant tissues are damaged. Milkweed’s scientific name (genus) is Asclepias, named after Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine.

Narrow-leaf milkweed growing in the wild in Southern California (E. Wallace)

Milkweed is the host plant for monarchs because the caterpillars rely solely on milkweed for food.

The latex in milkweed plants contains cardenolide, a substance that can be toxic if ingested by humans and some animals. It has a bitter taste that most animals will avoid.

Two monarch caterpillars eating native narrow-leaf milkweed. (E. Wallace)

When monarch caterpillars eat milkweed, they ingest some cardenolide, which gives them a protective advantage from predators. If a bird tries to eat a monarch butterfly, the bird will have a bitter taste in its mouth and may throw up.

Even though milkweed plants contain a toxic substance, they are beneficial wildflowers that are important to birds and many insect species. The image below shows milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) enjoying narrow-leaf milkweed flowers.

Milkweed bugs feeding on milkweed blossoms. (E. Wallace)

Endangered bumblebees (Bombus crotchii) are gathering nectar from woolly-pod milkweed flowers in the image below.

Bumblebees (Bombus crotchii) gather nectar from native milkweed. (E. Wallace)

In Southern California, native milkweed plants go dormant in winter and die back to the ground before re-emerging in the spring.

Many nurseries sell non-native, orange-flowered tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) because it’s easy to grow and appealing to the eye. Unfortunately, it has a deleterious effect on monarchs. Scientists have found that tropical milkweed causes monarchs to be under-weight and parasite-ridden.

Tropical milkweed can harm monarch butterflies. (Monarch Butterfly Garden)

If you live in Southern California, resist the urge to buy tropical milkweed.

Instead, search for nurseries that offer milkweed that is native to your area. The healthiest milkweed you can buy in Southern California is narrow-leaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) at Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar, or at Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano.

This year, Tree of Life Nursery is also selling a beautiful native milkweed called woolly-pod milkweed (Asclepias eriocarpa shown below).

Woolly-pod milkweed. (E. Wallace)

Summertime is a great time to plant native milkweed, and it is one of the easiest things we can do to help monarchs flourish. Visit Roger’s Gardens or Tree of Life Nursery soon and try planting a native milkweed in your yard.

Monarch butterfly at rest. (E. Wallace)

A Chemical-Free Garden for Monarchs

Is it possible to have a beautiful garden without using pesticides and herbicides? In my experience, it has been easy to have a healthy garden that doesn’t require chemical pest control.

Reducing our reliance on chemicals protects butterflies, and invites wildlife to step in and manage the unwanted insect population.

Birds feed their offspring mostly insects and caterpillars because insects are easy to digest when the baby birds are young and vulnerable. One nest of baby birds need more than 5,000 caterpillars to develop and be ready to fledge.

Adult birds, including hummingbirds, also rely on insects for protein and calories.

The images below show a kingbird after it captured a potato bug. The kingbird flew with the insect to a nearby elderberry bush and proceeded to smack the insect against a branch before eating it.

If you had killed the potato bug, the kingbird would have gone hungry. Sterilizing the outdoors with chemicals may be part of the reason terrestrial birds in the United States have declined by 3 billion birds since the 1970.

Instead of using pesticides, you can let birds and beneficial insects like the praying mantis shown below, do the work for you.

Mantis eats a winged insect. (E. Wallace)

Although birds and beneficial insects help with pest control, some pests are better managed by the gardener.

I remove tiny orange aphids that are attracted to native narrow-leaf milkweed by squishing them with my fingers. First I make sure there aren’t any pearly monarch eggs nearby. The aphids are soft, and removing them takes about 10 seconds.

I recently heard an entomologist say adult monarch butterflies won’t lay their eggs on milkweed that has aphids, so I keep an eye on my milkweed plants and make sure to smash the aphids when they appear.

Monarch caterpillars eating aphid-free narrow-leaf milkweed. (E. Wallace)

Before reaching for a pesticide, remember the possible harm chemicals can do to birds, butterflies, and bees. When you preserve the web of life in your garden, you will have fewer pests naturally, and a thriving butterfly population too.

Simple Support for Western Monarchs

Every winter, volunteers travel to western monarch overwintering sites to count butterflies roosting in trees near the coast. Last winter, fewer than 2,000 monarch butterflies were found overwintering along the California coast.

Overwintering monarchs November 2015. (Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Compared to 1997, when it was estimated that more than 1 million monarch butterflies overwintered, the numbers from the 2021 count were historically low.

Emma Pelton and Stephanie McKnight of the Xerces Society write, “Iconic and beloved monarch overwintering sites like Pismo Beach and Natural Bridges reported only a few hundred monarchs during the count. More startling, Pacific Grove, which goes by the name “Butterfly Town, USA” because of its overwintering sites, had no monarchs at all. Each of these sites normally host thousands—in some years, tens of thousands—of butterflies during the winter months, and are locations where visitors travel to experience the marvel of glittery orange monarch clusters.”

Scientists are not sure exactly why the overwintering monarch butterfly numbers were so low last winter, but they know that wildfires, increasing use of pesticides and herbicides, climate change, and habitat loss are some of the culprits. 

Western monarch butterfly. (E. Wallace)

What can we do to help western monarch populations recover? 

Plant native: Plant milkweed that is native to the area where you live. For Southern Californians, you can find native milkweed at Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar and Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano.

Plant pesticide free: There is a dizzying array of chemicals available to kill insects in your home and garden. But many of these pesticides kill beneficial insects like monarch butterflies as well. The Xerces Society writes:

“‘Pesticide” is an umbrella term that includes—but is not limited to—insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and rodenticides. Each year in the United States, more than a billion pounds of pesticides are applied across home gardens, parks, and farms to manage unwanted weeds, insects, diseases and other ‘pests.’ The majority of pesticides used are ‘broad-spectrum’ meaning they kill broadly. Contamination resulting from the extensive use of pesticides has been tied to the decline of species important to ecosystems, including pollinators.”

A beneficial insect, the praying mantis, hanging out on a pesticide-free narrow-leaf milkweed. (E. Wallace)

Xerces also writes about the dangers of using herbicides: “Herbicides may kill plants or, in the case of pre-emergent herbicides, prevent plant germination. Herbicides can indirectly impact pollinators and other invertebrates by eliminating habitat. For example, declining populations of the monarch butterfly have been linked to increasing herbicide use—because that, in turn, leads to the loss of milkweed and nectar plants that monarchs rely on.”

Instead of reaching for a pesticide, consider planting a more diverse plant palette in your home landscape to attract beneficial insects and provide support for birds and other predators to pests. To learn more about pesticides, click here.

This video shows a monarch caterpillar climbing on native milkweed, on its way to finding more milkweed leaves. This video is in real time. The caterpillar is speedy! (E. Wallace)

We can all provide a healthy environment for creatures living in our home landscape. A healthy garden will support western monarch butterflies as they seek out nectar this summer. And when a female monarch butterfly finds native milkweed in your yard, she can lay eggs there. Your native milkweed will provide food for caterpillars to munch and grow.

Monarch caterpillars eating woolly-pod milkweed. (E. Wallace)

Monarchs Arrive for Summer

Have you noticed monarch butterflies flying around your California yard this summer?

Western monarch butterflies are an iconic butterflies that delight us with bright orange plumage, black stripes, and white polka dots. They are so large, they cast a shadow when they fly overhead.

After hearing about the historically low overwintering monarch butterfly count last winter, I have been surprised to see a healthy number of western monarchs making daily visits to my home landscape over the past few months. 

Monarch rests on a native milkweed. (E. Wallace)

I am seeing more monarchs than I expected because last winter, fewer than 2,000 monarchs were counted overwintering in California. 

According to Xerces.org, “Early count numbers from Xerces’ Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count suggest that the western migratory population is headed for an all-time low. With approximately 95 percent of the data in, only 1,800 monarchs have been reported…This is a significant decline from the low numbers of the last two years where the total hovered just under 30,000 monarchs. These numbers are a tiny fraction of the millions of monarchs that likely visited overwintering sites in the 1980s and the hundreds of thousands of monarchs that graced California’s coast as recently as the mid-2010s. In fact, this represents an overall decline of more than 99.9% in the migratory population.”

Photo of overwintering Western monarch butterflies by Candace Fallon/Xerces Society

What can we do to help reverse their dramatic decline in numbers?

Monarch caterpillars only feed on milkweed. The first step you can take to help the western monarch butterfly is to plant milkweed that is native to your area. Good native milkweed choices for Southern California include narrow-leaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) and woolly-pod milkweed (Asclepias eriocarpa). 

You can install native milkweed plants now, and support monarch butterflies looking for a host plant to lay their eggs. 

Western monarch caterpillars feasting on woolly-pod milkweed in Southern California. (E. Wallace)

Planting milkweed that is native to where you live is more beneficial than non-native (tropical milkweed) because non-native milkweed often hosts parasites that harm butterflies and disrupts their reproduction and migration.  

One nursery in Southern California is trying to help increase western monarch populations by offering a free trade-in. At Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar, you can bring your non-native tropical milkweed into the nursery and receive a free native narrow-leaf milkweed replacement plant.

Another great nursery to buy native milkweed is Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano. Tree of Life Nursery has several species of native milkweed plants for sale this year including woolly-pod milkweed shown above.

Monarch caterpillar munching native narrow-leaf milkweed yesterday. (E. Wallace)

Planting plenty of native milkweed in your garden is a great first step in helping the western monarch butterfly populations recover. I will discuss more ways you can help monarchs in my next post. In the meantime, visit your local nursery and buy several milkweed plants for your garden, and while you are outside, look for monarchs cruising your garden.

Butterflies in the Air

Summer is here and the birds and butterflies are abundant among the native trees and shrubs in the garden.

(E. Wallace)

As I was writing this post, I noticed a pale swallowtail butterfly settling on a California coffee berry (Frangula californica). I took a break from the blog, stepped outside and captured this photo of an adult pale swallowtail butterfly laying eggs on the coffee berry leaves outside my kitchen window.

I grow edible plants in my garden, and native plants everywhere else. This summer’s garden has zucchini, cucumbers, carrots, butternut squash, and herbs. Native plants including buckwheat, narrow leaf milkweed, and white sage grow above the garden.

(E. Wallace)

I combine narrow-leaf milkweed with buckwheat throughout my yard. This combination seems to support monarch caterpillars, and the two plants require the same conditions–very little water and lots of sunshine.

Milkweed growing among buckwheat. (E. Wallace)

Whenever I have the chance, I go outside in the afternoon to see how many pollinator and butterfly photos I can capture. Here are a few photos taken this week in the garden:

(E. Wallace)

California sister butterfly. (E. Wallace)

Monarch caterpillar. (E. Wallace)

Blue-eyed bee. (E. Wallace)

Morning glory and a bee. (E. Wallace)

The garden supports thousands of beautiful creatures, but you have to look closely and be patient to see many of them. If you take a close look at a buckwheat plant, you will see the tiniest bees, butterflies (the size of your fingernail), and other pollinators enjoying the profusion of flowers.

(K. Ethington)

These tiny pollinators are important creatures in the landscape. Consider planting a buckwheat and a narrow-leaf milkweed, and lend a hand to native California pollinators. Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar has the healthiest, most beautiful narrow-leaf milkweed plants for sale right now.

Summer Buckwheat Blooms Bright

It is July, the height of summer in Southern California, and buckwheats are blooming with thousands of showy white flowers.

(E. Wallace)

I took a walk this morning at my favorite local park, O’Neill Regional Park in Trabuco Canyon. Many of the spring-blooming plants are hunkering down in the 90-degree heat, but California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) is just beginning to shine. Look closely and you will see clouds of tiny butterflies and pollinators flying from blossom to blossom, gathering pollen.

Gray hairstreak butterfly. (E. Wallace)

Beetles too are enjoying the buckwheat blossoms.

(E. Wallace)

In the photo below, notice the tiny fly (upper left corner) coming in toward the buckwheat flower while the Flower Longhorn Beetle forages.

(E. Wallace)

If you are looking for a summer-blooming shrub for your garden, buckwheat should be one of your top choices. Buckwheats bloom for months during the hottest parts of the year and support clouds of pollinators, butterflies, and birds. Buckwheats are easy to grow, and once established, require no supplemental water.

(K. Ethington)

Try planting a buckwheat interspersed with salvias, fuchsias, and mallows. You will get year-round blossoms in your garden and year-round butterflies too. Add a native milkweed, such as narrow-leaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis), and support declining monarch butterfly populations.

(E. Wallace)

Native plants are gaining popularity as gardeners learn to appreciate their beauty and importance to wildlife. Join the movement! Try planting a buckwheat and see how many pollinators are attracted to your landscape. Then add more. Butterflies will flutter, birds will sing, and you will be filled with happiness.

(S. Bressler)

Buckwheats Around Town

A Buckwheat in Every Garden was created with the hope that sharing a free native plant with gardeners would help improve habitat for birds and pollinators in home landscapes throughout Orange County. We recently reached out to people who picked up a free buckwheat to see how their new buckwheat plant is growing.

Here’s a sample of what people are telling us:

  • My buckwheat appears to be doing well. It is on a SW facing mini-slope at the base of a young Engleman Oak, near where our driveway and sidewalk meet. I appreciate this outreach program and hope that my yard and I can become ambassadors for natives!–Brian
  • I’m happy to report that the buckwheat I received at the Fullerton Arboretum is alive and well. It’s about 2-3 times the size it was when I picked it up… It’s in full sun, right in the middle of my butterfly garden.–Carla
  • The buckwheat plant is doing very well. It is over 15” high at this time and looks very healthy.–Albertus
  • The buckwheat in my garden is thriving.–Trina

We also received some important questions:

How often should I water my buckwheat now that the rainy season is over?

We recommend watering your fall-or winter-planted buckwheat twice a month on a cool morning (60 to 75 degrees). If your buckwheat was planted early last fall, and has tripled in size, you can try watering it once a month deeply when it’s cool.

Why water only when it is cool? 

For the best success with your new buckwheat and most native plants, water ahead of the heat wave. It doesn’t rain in Southern California from May through September–these plants are built for our long, dry, and hot summer. Do Not Water Every Day!

How do I water a brand new 4-inch buckwheat I picked up in May?

If you just picked up a new starter buckwheat plant, water it very deeply as soon as you plant it. Then water deeply once a week or every five days if it’s really hot. After the first month or so, soak your buckwheat once every two weeks (on a cool morning) until the rainy season begins.

(R. Moore)

My buckwheat is already 15 inches tall. How big will my buckwheat get?

Your buckwheat can grow to be three feet tall and three feet wide. Your buckwheat will soon start blooming and attracting pollinators. Most people prune their buckwheat in December after the blooming period has ended.

(K. Ethington)

Is this a coastal plant? Will it get as big as a tree?

The ‘Dana Point’ California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) is selected from a buckwheat that grows in the coastal Dana Point Headlands. It can grow up to three feet wide and tall, but it can also be pruned to the ground in December to refresh it and keep its growth in check. It will not get as big as a tree. This buckwheat is a shrub. Buckwheats grow inland and along the coast.

Is California buckwheat edible? Can I make buckwheat flour out of it?

California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) cannot be made into flour. Buckwheat pancake flour is made from California buckwheat’s Eurasian cousin, the crop plant, common buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum).

Are these buckwheat plants sold in any nursery?

Yes, you can find the ‘Dana Point’ California buckwheat at Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano.

My buckwheat died, what should I do?

We have good news: You are invited to try again! Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar and Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano are giving away a free four-inch California buckwheat to anyone able to stop by the nurseries during operating hours. Check their web sites for current hours of operations.

Thank you to everyone who sent photos of their new buckwheat and shared their buckwheat stories and questions. There is still time to plant a new buckwheat before July. Stop by Roger’s Gardens or Tree of Life to get a new plant and install it in your yard to help animals, pollinators, and birds thrive in Orange County.

(K. Ethington)

Powered by Insects

Did you know that most birds gather insects every day to nourish themselves and feed their offspring? Many people believe birds can survive eating seed from bird feeders, but most birds need insects to provide digestible protein for energy, migration, and breeding. A baby bird’s tender digestive system needs soft, fat-filled proteins from insects and caterpillars to fuel its growth.

Bushtit collects insects. (K. Ethington)

The photo above shows an American bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus) gathering all sorts of insects, including aphids, from a salvia in a Southern California backyard. A bushtit is a tiny bird, smaller than many hummingbirds, weighing about .19 ounces. Despite their diminutive size, bushtits still need plenty of insects to feed themselves and their babies in the nest.

Birds are having a hard time finding enough insects to eat. Scientists have estimated that 40 percent of insect species are threatened by extinction. Insects are integral to the food web, eaten by everything from birds to mammals and fish. Insects also pollinate crops that produce one-third of the world’s food supply, and they break down waste.

Insects for breakfast. (K. Ethington)

Bird populations have declined along with insect populations. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, bird populations have declined by 2.9 billion birds since 1970. The decline is due to habitat loss, invasive plants, pesticide use, and more.

Breakfast. (K. Ethington)

Each of us can do our part to help increase bird populations. If we plant vegetation that is native to where we live, we won’t need to use pesticides or herbicides. It may seem counterintuitive to encourage insect life, but they are a valuable and necessary part of our food cycle.

More breakfast. (K. Ethington)

The next time you need to replace a plant in your yard, plant a native! Your soil health will improve (without amendments or compost), you won’t need to use pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, songbirds will come to nest, and butterflies will appear.

Roger’s Gardens and Tree of Life Nursery are offering a free California buckwheat to homeowners who want to try starting a native plant garden in their home landscape. Stop by their garden centers to pick up a free buckwheat plant while spring is in the air.