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Tips for Creating a Wildlife-Friendly Yard in Santa Cruz County

No matter where you live, you can help native flora and fauna.

PUBLISHED APR 22, 2022 12:00 A.M.
From the coast to the mountains, Santa Cruz County’s landscape has given way to human development. But residents can make all parts of the region more hospitable to native species.
From the coast to the mountains, Santa Cruz County’s landscape has given way to human development. But residents can make all parts of the region more hospitable to native species. Dreamframer   Shutterstock.com

One of the many perks of living in the Santa Cruz area is getting to enjoy the beautiful and diverse natural landscape, from the sparkling Monterey Bay to the lush redwood forests. In addition to the 300,000 or so humans who enjoy the beautiful landscape, so do numerous species of plants and wildlife. 

However, as development continues across the county, the natural habitats of those native species have become smaller and increasingly fragmented, making it harder for creatures such as the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum croceum), Ohlone tiger beetle (Cicindela ohlone), and least Bell’s vireo (Vireo bellii pusillus) to survive in this area where they were once abundant.

While there are several excellent organizations dedicated to preserving natural spaces for local critters, individuals can also help promote local flora and fauna by creating native habitats in their own backyards. 

“Habitat gardens can be beautiful and fun,” said Rick Flores, director of horticulture and steward of the Amah Mutsun Relearning Program at the UCSC Arboretum and Botanic Garden. “In a time when habitat is disappearing for a number of reasons, habitat gardens can help promote biodiversity.”

Creating a natural habitat doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your yard’s entertainment or hang-out space. It simply requires consideration of the plants and landscape that native critters will enjoy, rather than considering only what plants may look pretty, Flores explained. “Planting plants that are good for the birds, bees, butterflies, and insects is a great way to learn about the wildlife around us,” he said.

Another thing to consider is how much water the plants will require, Flores added. “In a changing climate and with ongoing droughts, people should consider planting drought-tolerant gardens and avoiding plants that require high water usage.”

Below are a few tips and planting ideas for creating backyard landscapes that support local plant and wildlife based on the different terrains in the Santa Cruz area.

1. In the Forest/Redwoods

One of the biggest challenges for growing gardens in the Santa Cruz Mountains area is that plants often must compete with the enormous, sun-hogging redwood trees. But there are plenty of shade-loving natives that can provide habitat for native critters like banana slugs, salamanders, and frogs. For example, native ferns, such as the giant chain fern (Woodwardia fimbriata), sword fern (Polystichum munitum), and California polypody (Polypodium californicum) thrive in shade and require little to no maintenance once established.

And an abundance of shade doesn’t mean you can’t grow colorful, pollinator-attracting flowers. The purple Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana), elegant western columbine (Aquilegia formosa), and the droopy bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) can be beautiful additions to native forest-area gardens and are all generally easy to find at local nurseries.

    2. Near the Beach

      In addition to prioritizing low-water plants, residents along the coast may also consider plants that can help stabilize a sloping bank and plants that do well in sandy soils. Plants like the Carmel ceanothus (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus), an evergreen shrub with purple flowers, or the California sagebrush (Artemisia californica), a fast-growing, fragrant shrub, both thrive in coastal environments with little water and are easy to find at local nurseries.

      For something a bit more dramatic, native trees such as the coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) or a big leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) can give local birds a place to perch while providing the yard with a spot of shade.

        3. Downtown + Patio or Balconies

          Folks living in homes or apartments surrounded by concrete and asphalt can also pick native plants to grow in pots that will attract pollinators and contribute to providing habitat for local critters. Native succulents, such as bluff lettuce (Dudleya farinosa), coast dudleya (Dudleya caespitosa), and pygmy weed (Crassula connata) are all low-maintenance plants that grow well in pots with good drainage.

          Another deck-friendly potted plant is the woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca), which produces adorable white flowers and small berries in winter and spring while also playing host to several species of moths and butterflies. For a bit of privacy, plant a hairy honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula) against a trellis. This attractive native vine produces small fruits and pink flowers that attract hummingbirds, moths, and butterflies.

            4. Near Agriculture + Open & Sunny

            The warm, sun-soaked area of South County provides a prime growing canvas, as evidenced by the abundance of agriculture in the area that’s taken over much of the native habitat. Yards in this area are easy to convert to native habitat with sun-loving, drought-tolerant shrubs such as the hooker’s and pajaro manzanitas (Arctostaphylos hookeri and A. pajaroensis, respectively), and elegant grasses like the giant wildrye (Elymus condensatus) and American dunegrass (Elymus mollis).

            There are plenty of options for pollinator-attractive flowers, such as lupins (Lupinus albifrons, Lupinus microcarpus, and Lupinus arboreus, for example), California fuschia (Epilobium canum) and California aster (Corethrogyne filaginifolia). Almost every plant mentioned in the previous sections would also do well in the sunny parts of the Santa Cruz region.

              5. Fog Belt

              The fog-blanketed area around Aptos is a sweet spot for growing a wide variety of native plants, from the sun-loving bush monkey flower (Diplacus aurantiacus) to several species of shade-loving ferns. This beach-adjacent area is also great for coastal shrubs like the black sage (Salvia mellifera) or the chaparral pea (Pickeringia montana).

              Evening primrose (Oenothera elata), blueblossom (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus), and California wild rose (Rosa californica) are easy-to-grow, colorful, native flowers that will have your garden buzzing and fluttering with bees and butterflies.

              6. Additional Resources

              For more information on how to create your backyard wildlife habitat with native plants, check out the following:

              California Native Plant Society—Check out the Santa Cruz County chapter of this statewide nonprofit organization of amateurs and professionals who share an interest in California’s native plants.

              Calscape Garden Planner—A project of the California Native Plant Society, this website will provide a list of recommended plants based on a four-question quiz.

              The California Wildlife Habitat Garden—Subtitled “How to Atract Bees, Butterflies, Birds, and Other Animal,” this book by Nancy Bauer is published by Univerity of California Press.

              Designing California Native Gardens—Another guide published by Univerity of California Press, this guide is written by Glenn Keator and Alrie Middlebrook.

              Though not local to Santa Cruz County, both Las Pilitas Native Plant Nursery and Tree of Life Nursery offer helpful advice on growing native plants.

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