Three, Three, Three Yards in One

With its riff on an ancient Wrigley’s gum commercial that really shows my age, the title accurately describes what we’re trying to do here in our own little piece of paradise. In a little less than a third of an acre, we are trying to combine:

  1. A reasonable approximation of a suburban yard. It needs some interest for passers by; strongly perfumed plants to make coming home a pleasure; and some flowers, especially roses, to keep the flower photographer in the family happy.
  2. A food garden that can produce a significant portion of the fruit and vegetables we eat in an organic, sustainable, permaculture, fun, sort of way.
  3. A native plant and wildlife garden that feeds and houses the bees, the birds, the butterflies, the lizards, and anything else that happens to drop by. I keep hoping for moths, but in 7 years I haven’t seen any big ones

This is not easy.

The three kinds of garden do not always play nicely together.

Here in California, the most obvious issue is water. The suburban yard and the food garden require constant water, and lots of it. The native part doesn’t. In fact, summer water will eventually kill oaks and a lot of other plants native to much of California. If you stick around to read this for a while, you’ll hear me talk about water, a lot.

Then there’s the look. Everything’s beautiful in spring, natch. And then it gets gets ugly quickly. As the weather warms up and dries out, native plants, particularly California poppies, calochortus, and other bulbs, first extend, then flop, and then disappear underground leaving ugly skeletons and seedpods waving in the wind; the buckeye even drops its leaves to avoid the coming aridity. All this looks the utter opposite of prim, green, suburban neatness. But this ugly phase is crucial for the birds. They eat the seeds that fall out of those seedheads in their thousands. During the California poppy food fest, I have up to a dozen mourning doves at a time in just the front yard. When the seeds are gone, so are the doves. Like magic. For the rest of the year you only see or hear an occasional one, maybe two, never more. To attract that many doves, I don’t mind letting the poppies and bulbs get seriously ugly.  After the party is over, I clean them up with impunity so the neighbors stop sneering.

Nor do the three kinds of gardeners always play nicely together.

Suburban ornamental gardeners seem to pretend that we don’t eat, and neither does the wildlife. Their yards are full of plants that stand around looking pretty without deigning to feed so much as an ant.

Food gardeners tend to focus of caloric value and ignore aesthetics. They couldn’t care less if a plant is native, or a foreign invasive, as long as it feeds them.

Native gardeners, obviously enough, tend to focus on the nativity of their plants.

To me, the perfect gardener is some combination of all of these characteristics.

  • We (including insects and other animals) do all have to eat. And the closer to home it’s produced the better it tastes, and the cheaper (in terms of transportation, and refrigeration, carbon, and other sometimes invisible costs) it is.
  • It also makes sense to maintain a certain level of neatness and beauty, if only because eyesores affect the property values of entire neighborhoods. We have learned from the recent hard times that property values are important.
  • Native plants support native wildlife, and native wildlife means healthier ecosystems are an all around good. We have learned that from the honeybee crisis.



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