Not quite two years ago, I moved into a new house by the sea. The gently sloping side yard overlooking the water was landscaped with an unobtrusive gray-green groundcover. It seemed like a practical way to keep the soil covered and prevent erosion during the rains, and that seemed good. In early summer it turned into a carpet of bright yellow flowers and I must admit I was temporarily seduced, dazzled by their profusion and the intensity of their color. But, as with so many things that make a good first impression, I soon began to notice its oddities: the flowers emitted no fragrance. Nary a bee nor a butterfly gave them a second or even a first look. But they scattered themselves on the wind and clumps of them began to appear elsewhere in the garden, where I didn’t want them, and even now are crowding out some of the native grasses, wild radishes and poppies in the field in front of the house. Though I’m not blaming the hapless (and invasive) ground cover, I wondered why there wasn’t a single honey bee or butterfly, although I had several pollinator-friendly plants, and a robust population of bumble bees. What to do?
Last June, the side yard got a new hair-do: first it was sheet-mulched with cardboard and straw. Then we put down a layer of really good soil, held in place by straw bales and alder logs, to even out the slope a bit and help the soil hold more water. We put in a few perennials and seeded the rest with daikon radish, vetch, sunflowers, and whatever else was in the mix. We broadcast a yummy inoculant to feed the soil microbes and finished the whole cake with a thin frosting of straw. Then we watered and waited. At first it seemed to take forever for anything to appear. But the quail were happy; they arrived in large flocks early in the morning and again in late afternoon. The large mail perched on the deck, vociferous and vigilant as the females and little ones excitedly pecked for insects and rubbed their tummies in the straw. I hoped they weren’t also devouring the sprouting seeds, but told myself that even if they were, it was worth it just to have so many of them, fat and happy.
Eventually everything sprouted and soon it was a humming, thriving magnet for all kinds of life. The daikon blossoms have lasted all summer and are still going strong. The awful yellow flowers are gone, except at the margins and the remaining, albeit insistent, volunteers in the garden and the field. And guess what? By June the honey bees had arrived! In addition to the bumble bees, there are now two kinds of honey bees (the golden ‘Italian bees’ and the darker and more slender “Russian bees’). Next spring I’ll set up some hives. There’s also a tiny nectar-seeking wasp and five kinds of butterflies. There are owls at night, blue herons and several hawks now, including kestrels and kites, red tails and a resident Cooper’s hawk that perches on the corner of the roof and swoops down to grab a meal.
The meadow has been such a success, and it has been so exciting, that there is now a freshly-planted hedgerow along the driveway, with native shrubs, trees and flowers, including lots of different sages, and in late winter I’ll sow the rest of the meadow with native grasses and wildflowers that the deer can eat, since the hedgerow is intentionally deer-resistant. It’ll be a pollinator’s smorgasbord, with plenty of room for everyone to find fodder, shade and maybe a safe place to nest. At the top of the little slope above the well-head, there are double rows of alder logs to act as mini-swales strategically placed to hold more water in the soil and, hopefully, improve the well recovery rate. While putting the plants in, we found bobcat scat and three weeks ago I heard my first coyotes up here, singing to the sea. In these hard and hopeless times, it is a great comfort to feed what feeds us and to see Nature at Her genius best. What an astonishment! Plant it and they will come.