A Midwestern mindset, “spray everything in sight” mentality and homeowner associations that require a portion of a property planted in grass have contributed to a dearth of native birds in East Valley backyards.
The most that backyards seem to attract these days are grackles, pigeons and House Sparrows – birds that have adapted to urban areas, said Krys Hammers, president of Desert Rivers Audubon, a chapter of the National Audubon Society.
Desert Rivers’ upcoming Tour de Bird on Saturday, Nov. 3 will demonstrate that homeowners don’t need to have grass to satisfy the need to see green, growing and blooming plants.
The tour takes participants to 12 public and private sites in Chandler, Mesa and Scottsdale, which include the Veterans Oasis Park, the Pollinator Garden at Tumbleweed Park and the Hummingbird Habitat at Desert Breeze Park, all located in Chandler. Experts of gardening who can answer questions on topics ranging from the saguaro cactus to dragonflies will be available at the various locations.
“With the right selection of native plants, you can have everything from ground cover to trees and plants that will bloom in a variety of colors all year round,” Hammers said. “These plants will provide food, shelter and nesting sites for our native birds.”
“Additionally,” she said, “we live in a desert and water is our most scarce resource. Planting native plants will reduce our water use in this time of drought and our water bills.”
Among the stops is the Chandler backyard of Laurence Garvie, a research professor at the Center for Meteorite Studies at Arizona State University, who has changed a gravel xeriscape to verdant desert oasis in the course of 20 years.
Garvie, who leads tours at the Desert Botanical Garden, is interested in nature, the interactions between humans and nature and how we’re changing the planet.
“What can we do to better fit into it and care for the world that we live in is an important concept that relatively few people take much notice of,” he said. “It’s difficult to make most people care.”
The global weather change, destruction of the desert, scarcity of water, “hasn’t actually affected anyone here,” he said.
Garvie said that most people don’t care about their backyards and want the plants to be self-maintaining, or they get someone else to maintain it.
His garden is not your usual backyard. The 9,000 square feet of space contains some 150 species of perennial plants that attract and sustain native Southwestern insects in a wild and chemical-free environment.
Among the flora are Graythorn, a shrub with grayish green leaves and thorn-tipped branches that attract nesting birds and for its fruit; Castela Emoryi or crucifixion thorn, a shrub that’s a haven for insects and provides flowers in mid-summer; the long-living and hardy Desert Ironwood and Night-Blooming Cereus.
Garvie said that at least 50 percent of the plants that are sold in nurseries and big box stores are inappropriate to the desert. He once tried to grow exotic plants, but they were hard to grow, he said.
Oleanders, Bermuda grass, Carob trees and the like were never meant to thrive here but are an all-too-common sight. Pre-emergent, herbicides and pesticides have all but eliminated crickets and roaches that are part of the desert. Drip irrigation for native plants create havoc in its roots systems. Plastic in the soil also creates mayhem.
“If you don’t spray, you allow things to get back to the equilibrium,” he said, adding that it’s important to educate people to understand that nature can self-regulate. “People are trying to fight every aspect of it.”
Hammers stopped watering to convert a Bermuda grass lawn to a desert landscape and said it was challenging because the grass “wants to hold on,” but with her persistance it worked.
“There has been a lot of research lately that shows that native insects have evolved with native plants,” she said. “Insects are the major diet of most birds. Diversity of native plants provides a diversity of insects and therefore a diversity of birds.”
Garvie said his garden is a sanctuary for creatures.
It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but a few things can be changed in the average “developer yard” that was designed to sell houses.
His advice is simple: Native plants have overcome the obstacles that nature has provided; the heat, drought and the occasional cold.
“The plants that you see in our local environment are the ones that are already ready to survive; they are the ones that will give you the least amount of work,” he said. “They can be put in and essentially forgotten.”