Your House Ain’t Property, it’s Habitat

“We can reclaim biodiversity and habitats within human landscapes.”
– Thomas Rainer

That scaly fellow swaying from our coast rosemary (Westringia) is a San Diego Alligator lizard. He was kicking it in the bush midday, most likely on the hunt for the airborne critters visiting the purple flowers that bloom winter through spring. It’s been cold here for LA, and I suspect food is tricky to come by. The sighting was a victory of sorts. One year ago, our yard was a dirt hole. Now, there’s a lot of things like that lizard creeping, crawling and flying around here. The yard is alive, and I don’t mind saying, I’m proud of that fact. Turning our property into habitat has been a dream since the day we set eyes on the place.  I feel strongly about this. In fact, if I could, I’d make it a law: Anyone lucky enough to own a home with any amount of land should be required to make 50% of that property habitat for the local flora and fauna. That’s right, a law, punishable by death…or…no internet access.

Look, it’s simple survival at this point. We’ve outdone ourselves with deforestation and habitat destruction, and now it’s time to do some retrofitting and bring forth a new wilderness into our not-so-wild lives. The good news is, a lot of people are already onto this, privately and publicly. Landscape architects, like James Corner and his team at Field Operations, Piet Oudolf, and Thomas Rainer have been re-claiming greenspace – from landfills to rail-road tracks, national parks to private estates- around the world, for a while now. Governments are in on it too. It is, simply, an idea whose time has come.

Spanish lavender, Hot Lips salvia, Silver Thyme and Felicity Daisy
Spanish lavender, Hot Lips salvia, Silver Thyme and Felicity Daisy

Still, when Sian and I bought our house here in Los Angeles, no aspect of it intimidated me more than the back yard. As I’ve said, the back yard was a sad sight, a vomit of dead, bare earth, haggard, lifeless fruit trees, and a few dozen other “gardening” projects, all gone miserably awry. Metal poles projected out of the ground, twine strangled severed stumps, and here and there, a broken toy, a rotten mitten. What the prior tenants were up to, I had no idea. Perhaps it was a set, an orchard of someone’s nightmares, for a Ryan Murphy TV series I’d missed.

Mating Carolina Mantises on the Orange Jessamine. David Newsom Photography, all rights reserved.
This guy’s not thinking ahead. Mating Carolina Mantises on the Orange Jessamine. David Newsom Photography, all rights reserved.

Whatever the case, it wasn’t good, and fixing it wasn’t going to be easy. But, we had a kid on the way, so putting it on the backburner wasn’t an option. The only thing I was certain of was that it had to be a home to our family and it had to be a haven for all (or most) of the things that fly, climb and crawl in this Mediterranean Chaparral we Coastal Southern Californians call home. More good news: there’s a lot of information on planting for butterflies, birds, drought tolerants and natives. And thought there’s a lot of dispute between the ‘strictly natives” crowd and the “drought tolerant is good enough” crowd, there is no dispute that the new garden should a bio-diverse, water-wise place wherein perennials live and die, life-cycles correspond to the ecosystems and climate that surrounds us, and the things that make life possible must have plenty of places to land, feed and breed.

A Painted Lady Butterfly, doing her thing on a Dwarf Buddleia Magenta bush.
A Painted Lady Butterfly, doing her thing

Butterflies, bees, wasps, birds, beetles and ants are the architects of the botanical world. Pollinators make a vast percentage of flowering plants and trees possible – by some estimates 90% of all flowering plants exist courtesy of pollinators. What we eat and how we breathe owe, therefore, a staggering debt to these creatures. Then there are the smaller organisms: micro organisms that break down leaves and waste and keep the whole machine that is our world up and running. And then there are the things that keep them in check, that eat them, that dig in the dirt and move things around…the model for a rich ecosystem is rich, complex and unknowable, but we can try. We can approximate. We can fail and succeed and the plants and bees and butterflies and lizards will school us. Hard. At this point, it’s a matter of survival.  30% of what we eat comes courtesy of these things that visit our gardens, totaling 207 billion world-wide in fruits and vegetables. Food = Life. Even that growing faction that gets all dewy-eyed by the coming apocalypse can get behind eating, right? Take us out in a zombie attack? Sure. Fiery damnation? Hell Yes! But how about apples at $100 a pound?

I didn’t think so.

Your yard? It’s habitat. Get planting.

5 thoughts on “Your House Ain’t Property, it’s Habitat”

    1. Thanks, Jennie, really glad you enjoy it. I’m new here, so if you’re willing please share. And, more important, please let me know what your up to or who else is working on this front. Seems to me, the time for mass greenspace and habitat retrofitting has come, and people seem to be getting it.

  1. Great post. I too, am working on restoring my land into habitat. I get so excited when I find worms in the soil, ladybugs, or most recently- a praying mantis.

    And I fully support your death/no internet penalty. Can we add planting a lawn to the list of offenses?

    1. Ha! Well, i must confess, we have a narrow strip of grass in our backyard. Weagonized over it-and it will eventually go- but our 1year old loves it. That said, it divides two fairly large, drought tolerant gardens we put in when we bought the place. So, its a work in progress for a flawed naturalist. Thanks for reading and keep me filled in on the critter count. We’ve got about 10 varieties of birds here now, 5 kinds of butterflies, lizards and who knows what else in the dirt. Its going well.

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