Less-is-more Gardening for the Birds

By Lauren Lewis

When it comes to active garden maintenance, the Small Spot crew almost always argues that less is more. We don’t say less is more out of laziness, but rather out of our understanding of the garden practices that can create beauty and sanctuary while simultaneously allowing wild ecological relationships to thrive. The goal of supporting bird life in the garden provides a wonderful example of our favored approach: thoughtful ecological planning followed by less-is-more maintenance.



House finch pair in the Presidio, photo by Will Elder, nps.gov

Despite the density of San Francisco, our city is habitat for a huge variation of bird life. Besides supporting all the common garden birds that live here year-round (house finch, red-breasted nuthatch, black phoebe, cassin’s vireo, to name just a few), San Francisco is a key link in the Pacific Flyway, the biannual north-south migratory path of hundreds of bird species. Backyard gardens in San Francisco collectively cover more land than all our city’s wild spaces, so the way we choose to use them has a real impact on all those migrant and resident birds.

Designing your garden to include at least one “wild” section is key for providing landing spots where bird feel safe. Wild habitat has tangles of vegetation and bits of overlapping rocks and fallen branches, which can be tempting to remove or clean up when they occur in the garden. But this would not qualify as less-is-more. Retaining some of those elements (i.e. ignoring them) makes a more inviting space for birds.

A water source that gets refreshed is also important, but it doesn’t have to be a real bird bath; a bucket with a drip emitter inside that constantly refreshes the water can serve the same purpose. And of course a variety of plants that produce nectar, seeds, and fruit will mean your garden can host birds with different feeding patterns. The less-is-more lesson here is: let plants go to seed. If you manage them a lot you’ll end up with less garden-grown bird food and therefore fewer birds.

Now if you’re like me, then the idea of garden management for birds becomes more intriguing when you can focus your efforts on one species or a handful of species. If that’s the case, check out the SF Planning Department’s Green Connections Plan. Created in collaboration with Nature in the City (of the Green Hairstreak Project that I mentioned in a previous post), the Green Connections Plan is billed by the Planning Department as a strategy to make traveling through SF by foot or bike more pleasant and viable by creating routes that deliberately connect parks and open spaces. The added benefit is that these routes can be used by non-human species too. In fact each of the planned 24 routes crisscrossing the city is named for the species it’s meant to support, and many are birds.


Cedar Waxwing in John McLaren Park, photo via inaturalist.org

One example is the sleek Cedar Waxwing, whose designated route is Page Street, from Market to Golden Gate Park (it doesn’t mean this species only lives along that route, but rather it was chosen as a representative of this Green Connection route, which is within its normal habitat). This bird is unusual in its largely fruit-based diet, which means there’s a manageable handful of garden plants you could plant to help support it, for example toyon and elderberry. The new SF Plant Finder, a part of the Green Connection Plan, is a fantastic gardeners’ resource that lets you explore and choose plant species with something like the Cedar Waxwing in mind. What I like about Green Connections is that it can help you choose a species to support and the plants needed to do that, and then if you practice some less-is-more maintenance, your garden can play an important role in the lives of our city birds.

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