Native showy penstemon blooms are seen at the Rivers & Land Conservancy’s Martha McLean Garden in Riverside. (Courtesy of Rivers & Lands Conservancy)
By Rebecca K. O’Connor | Contributing Columnist
Gardens that attract wildlife offer physical, mental and community benefits.
When I was 10 years old, my grandfather pulled a wasp gall off a low-hanging oak branch and handed it to me. I looked at him suspiciously. A few weeks before, he had instructed me to put my tongue on the connectors of a 9-volt battery. Unlike the 9-volt, I was very aware that most wasps sting. Yet, I took it from him and marveled over the hollow and perfectly round ball an oak gall wasp had created as a nursery for her young.
I wondered how an insect could have made something so fascinating. It would be many years before I discovered that gall wasps do not sting, but from that day on, I admired their nurseries. This moment also kickstarted my habit of looking above and deep into gardens for as many creatures as I could discover.
Gardens are a natural gathering point for families. Children are often fascinated by wildlife they attract and from here discover a grander vision of the world. There is so much to discover, and a little garden is just the start. It isn’t just the children, though. Gardens are good for adults.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the world returned to their gardens. Research from Indonesia, New Zealand, Germany and the United States resoundingly showed that gardening provides many positive impacts to physical and mental health. As a result, researchers suggested implementing more community gardens in urban planning and to promote gardening as a means of managing anxiety and depression.
Wildlife benefits from gardens, too. Especially those that host native plants. Gardening to create native habitat can attract a diversity of native birds, bees, butterflies, lizards and other wildlife. California is a hotspot of biodiversity and is home to more species than anywhere in the states. When we design gardens with native plants, we help create interconnected habitats that sustain our native wildlife species, impacting biodiversity conservation.
Whether it’s in your community or your own yard, there are many ways to get started and help create more native habitat gardens. Beautify Riverside, a community beautification initiative with the office of Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson, is working to enhance the appearance of gathering points and neighborhoods. This includes native gardens. On Saturday, March 18, Rivers & Lands Conservancy, the Riverside mayor’s office and the City of Riverside Public Works will welcome volunteers of all ages to help garden. California native plants for local pollinators will be installed along Main Street in downtown Riverside.
Similar gardens and plantings have been installed by Rivers & Lands Conservancy and partners at Martha McLean-Anza Narrows Park, Bryant Park and Sycamore Highlands Park. The Riverside-Corona Resource Conservancy District, Riverside Neighborhood Partnership and past Mayor Rusty Bailey also launched a program to create spaces that support monarch butterfly recovery in Riverside. The Mayor’s Monarch Pledge has planted monarch habitat at Ryan Bonaminio Park, LandUse Learning Center, Sycamore Creek Interpretive Center and, with the support of Lock Dawson, a pollinator garden at City Hall. Volunteers have been instrumental in all of these efforts and volunteering is a great way to get outside and learn more about planting native gardens.
Community members can also just take the leap and get started in their own yards. There are some great resources available to guide creating a garden that will thrive in your yard all year long. California Native Plant Society’s website is a tremendous resource as well as its Bloom! California website, which offers templates for planting native species whether gardeners are starting from scratch or transitioning to native plants in their garden. The site offers guidance on planting a shady refuge, a sunny pollinator patch, privacy hedgerows and a welcoming entry. There is even guidance on creating a native plant oasis with pots and planters for those limited on space.
Gardens can connect us to nature, to local species and they can also deepen our love for the places we call home. Gardening can bring us together and it can give as a place for reflective solitude. Perhaps we could all benefit from a native plant garden. I am certain that our wildlife could, even the gall wasps.
Rebecca K. O’Connor is the co-executive director of Rivers & Lands Conservancy, has an MFA in creative writing and writing for the performing arts from UC Riverside and is the author of several books on the natural world.
Rivers & Lands Conservancy connects our community to natural, wild, and open spaces of Southern California through land conservation, stewardship, and education.