Wildlife Habitat Piles in the Garden

The native plant gardener’s journey often starts with a great vision of ecological fulfillment. The vision suggests a garden saturated with succulent wild plants and busy wildlife, mirroring many perfect wild places from your past. This future garden has been well thought out to attract great hordes of songbirds and butterflies, whose song and color will brighten each morning throughout the year. Of course, all this grandeur will take some time. You cannot reach this ecological climax overnight. All new gardens must begin with pint-sized container plants, some tosses of seed, mulch, and lots of bare dirt.

This last year after moving into my new apartment on sunny Bernal Hill, I was very excited at the prospect of creating a garden of native coastal scrub plants on a hill of dirt in my backyard. All winter long I loaded the backyard with common native plants like California sagebrush (Artemisia californica), lizard tail (Eriophyllum staechadifolium), sticky monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus), coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica), and coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis), hoping they would quickly take root and inspire local wildlife to take refuge in my backyard. Spring soon came but my yard was still a mecca of bare dirt and small plants. I realized that this project would take a while and that local birds and butterflies probably had better places to be in the meantime.

A surprise came later that spring when I moved some rice straw mulch around only to find a pair of common garter snakes slithering about. WOW! Local wildlife was on its way. I had successfully jump-started an ecosystem in my backyard. Later that year another trip to the mulch pile revealed that the two garter snakes came together to make many more. I now had about 20 small slug-busting snakes patrolling all major sectors of the garden. This discovery brought me to the realization that a debris pile was the most effective wildlife-attracting attribute in my garden. Though a rich garden of local native plants was intended to be the main attraction for local wildlife, the pile seemed to be stealing the show as the garden grew slowly in the background.

I had accidentally built a pile of straw and they had come. This small pile was a great addition to my small developing native plant garden. During garden renovation or establishment, a couple of strategic debris piles can help you attract the same birds and other small critters that your developing garden was designed to attract. Piles can come in many shapes and forms and each can be designed to attract different types of wildlife. Piles created from medium- to large-sized coarse debris, such as logs or tree trimmings, are excellent for small mammals and birds. Ground-foraging birds such as dark-eyed juncos, white-crowned sparrows, and brown towhees need a pile that has air-spaces between the stacked/piled material. The goal here is to create enough nooks and crannies to allow the birds to safely perch and rest throughout the day or fly through to escape an attacking predator like the marauding neighborhood cat!

Wild CucumberLarge logs and stones stacked low on the ground can make great reptile and amphibian piles. The small air spaces left in the base of the pile afford great protection and potential hibernation spots for toads, salamanders, and lizards. You may not see much of the amphibians in the daytime, but each night they will surely come out and munch on garden insects all night long. You may, however, catch a peek at a northern alligator lizard or western fence lizard sunning on a stone or log next to or within your pile.

Even the smallest garden can accommodate a pile. Very low piles of soft, compact vegetation can fit in any tight corner. These piles offer food and protection for many small creatures such as insects and salamanders. Throughout the city, I am always amazed how many California slender salamanders turn up in a small pile of leaves or small branches. How a critter with such small legs can get around the city with such efficiency will always be a mystery to me.

If you have the space, consider building a larger layered pile with a foundation to serve many creatures. Start by placing large logs or stones in parallel or carefully criss-crossed so they remain stable. Then begin placing smaller twigs, branches or other vegetative material on top to build an attractive cover. Then also consider planting quick growing native perennial vines like giant vetch (Vicia gigantea), Pacific pea (Lathyrus vestitus), California blackberry (Rubus ursinus), or manroot (Marah oreganus or M. fabaceus), that can quickly cover the pile surface with green foliage and spring flowers to add a seasonal dimension to the pile. The resulting pile will have a great diversity of protective spaces. Many different species will be drawn to each structural layer of the pile, offering a great focal point in your garden for wildlife watching.

Like any garden endeavor, beauty is a desired goal. Think and plan pile construction. Be selective and find attractive objects to use. One of my favorite piles to create is a neat stack of shapely sun bleached Eucalyptus logs lightly covered with vivid green California blackberry and manroot. Invoke the same imagination you use to plan your dream native plant garden to design a garden pile. Building one creates an immediate invitation for local wildlife which can help fulfill your original grand vision.