Wild About Gardening, Arroyo Magazine, March 2012

Wynne Wilson created a wildlife refuge in the colorful garden surrounding her Altadena home.

By Brenda Rees

The destructive August fires of 2009 brought smoggy days, closed forest roads and plumes of dark purple clouds rising above the Angeles National Forest. It also displaced countless animals suddenly left without nests, burrows or holes to call home. Altadena resident Wynn Wilson was not surprised to see enormous flocks of birds arriving at her recently planted backyard garden for a cleansing dip in her newly paved creek bed. Critters of all shapes and sizes also came that year to set up temporary shelters among the coffeeberry bushes, edible currant shrubs and 900 other plant types that punctuate Wilson’s three-quarter-acre landscape. “We were happy to welcome the birds and all the other escapees,” says Wilson, a landscape designer, photographer and former longtime Art Center College of Design instructor. “I’ve always wanted my own garden to be a wildlife refuge, a place I could connect with the natural world.”

Snuggled up to a view of the rising San Gabriel Mountains, Wilson’s backyard ecosystem today splendidly sculpts a majestic scene that combines California natives with Mediterranean plantings ideal for the Southern California climate. Part arid chaparral, part shady woodlands, the expanse is more than just a fine example of an economical water-wise garden (with the garden redo, her monthly water bill went from $1,000 a month to a mere $100 to $150). This arty smart garden contains several large areas including a sunbaked salvia and California lilac garden with a stone seating circle, an updated pool and spa with custom hand-painted Malibu tiles surrounded by huge deodar cedars and privacy hedges of California lilacs. Indeed, heaping mounds of floral color abound, including more than 3,000 plantings of coral bells, a delicate but hardy plant that keeps multiplying to Wilson’s delight.  “I’ve also got so many varieties of penstemons that they are cross-hybridizing into unique specimens,” she says.

The garden is open for educational tours, and Wilson and her Terra Design Company host classes and informal gatherings of green-minded gardeners. (She’s also well connected with the Theodore Payne Foundation; her garden has been showcased on TPF’s annual garden tour for the past two years.) Former students and staff at Art Center, artists, musicians and garden clients are drawn together to discuss an evergreen topic in Arroyoland — using California natives and drought-tolerant plants to create wildlife habitats as well as beautiful landscapes. “It is ironic how [our California natives] have been utilized in European gardens for over a century and are now finding new popularity here,” she says.

Wilson planted her garden in the spring of 2009; she began by removing her typical suburban lawn, scraggly azaleas and other water-hungry plants. “I hand dug it up. We removed about 95 percent of the grass. It was a long process, but the best way to do [it],” she says of forgoing chemicals or large black plastic sheets that suffocate and kill beneficial insects (like native bees) and underground critters. When doing away with huge chunks of grass, many folk opt for laying down big black plastic sheets to kill the existing grass – or they use gallons of Roundup or other chemicals. Both methods will remove grass, but are harmful to the environment. Wilson then followed guidelines set by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) for designing a Certified Wildlife Habitat ®. She discovered it wasn’t difficult to combine those necessities with her desire to craft a garden that would be attractive in any season. The trick: Use plants with long bloom times, interesting leaf structures and sculptural qualities.

Overall, the NWF specifies four main criteria to certify a garden as a wildlife habitat. Since its inception 39 years ago, more than 146,000 locations received certification from NWF, according to Roxanne Nersesian Paul, NWF Senior Coordinator, Community & Volunteer Outreach. “Right now, California has the most habitats than any other state,” she says about the program that spans residential, school and community projects. In addition to the actual certificate, participants receive a one year free NFW membership and can opt to install an official NWF plaque in their habitat.  “But those elements are minor, I think the real benefits are twofold,” says Paul. “With so much of their habitat disappearing, wildlife has a better chance to survive when we provide space for them. For people, the chance to view the wildlife up-close and share with their children is an end in itself.”

Wilson concurs adding that “The certification is more a personal accomplishment and a way of giving something back…Waking up to the sights and sounds of birds, butterflies, bees and water is a wonderful way to begin one’s day.” The garden must provide food and water sources, protective covering and safe places for wildlife to raise their young. The food and water were easy enough. Wilson installed appropriate bushes, trees and flowers (e.g., manzanitas, lavenders, poppies, sages) which soon became a wildlife smorgasbord of tempting berries, nectar, leaves and fruit. For water, she constructed a 50-foot-long man-made recirculating stream complete with 30 tons of boulders.

Creating hiding spots and wildlife nurseries involved a little more thought when it came to placement. “Shrubs that are intermingled to allow animals to escape… plants with spiny branches and/or thorns are just the thing,” says Wilson, who used wild roses, native grasses, toyon and gooseberry bushes. Scattered stones in the stream bed also provide nesting opportunities for lizards and insects. Large trees – like pines – offer great seclusion for raccoons, squirrels and birds. “The ability to invite nature in is so easy,” says Wilson about the ever-changing critter clientele. “Every winter, we are a stopover for migrating cedar waxwings. I love it when they come. We had an incredible migration of painted lady butterflies that flocked to the native [California lilac] by the thousands one year.” Walk her footpaths to glimpse Western fence lizards basking on enormous boulders. Nearby, monarch butterflies feast on California milkweed plants tucked beneath California live oak trees that are centuries old. Aerobatic dragonflies dart over bubbling waters. At night, little brown bats and great horned owls perch high in the deodar trees where they have the best views for an evening hunt.

“When you create this kind of ecosystem, everything takes care of itself pretty much,” says Wilson. Sure, she’ll do monthly deep waterings, pruning and weeding, but overall, the garden runs on its own time with no pesticides or fertilizers.  Ladybugs eat aphids, possums eat the snails, hawks go after the small rodents. “Just let nature alone and it will be fine,” sums up Wilson.

Wynn Wilson of Terra Designs can be reached at Wynne@terra-designs.com. (626) 296-3773. For information about the National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat ®, visit nwf.org/gardenforwildlife or call (800) 822-9919.

PHOTOS By Wynn Wilson.

Posted in Arroyo Monthly.