Home & Garden Columns
“We’ve had people say they’d like to come back as our cats,” says Juliet Lamont.
Personally, I haven’t given much thought to what I’d rather be reincarnated as; I suspect my karmic burden will restrict my options to something along the lines of a slime mold, or a Texas Republican.
But polydactyl tuxedo-cat Nimitz and his gray tabby associate Chester do seem to have good lives. They can watch the world from a deer-fencing enclosure on the garage roof and take an actual elevated catwalk to Lamont’s sister’s house next door. What they can’t do is get out and kill things.
Confining their cats is just one way Lamont and Phil Price invite wildlife to their North Berkeley home. They’ve landscaped and planted to attract birds and butterflies, and their efforts have paid off in a major way. Since they started rebuilding their creekside garden nine years ago, over 50 species of birds have shown up.
There are new faces and voices every year. Earlier this year a rowdy flock of band-tailed pigeons moved in for a while, and this spring was the first time Price and Lamont have heard the ethereal spiraling song of the Swainson’s thrush, and the less musical calls of the oak titmouse. Black phoebes hawk insects over the water and nest under the eaves of the neighboring house. Even a great blue heron has dropped in.
When they moved here in 1994, the view out the back door was a sea of Algerian ivy. “The place had two features,” Lamont recalls: “gorgeous coast live oaks and Codornices Creek.” A hired crew cleared the ivy, and Four Dimensions Landscaping installed an irrigation system and began replanting with native species that were drought-resistant and wildlife-attractant. Price and Lamont have done supplemental planting over the years. Although the ivy still encroaches from neighboring properties, maintenance and vigilant weeding in the first few years kept it from staging a comeback. “It’s really about putting something in instead of ivy,” says Price.
They also took out a eucalyptus tree, whose stump is a popular vantage point for visiting raccoons, and a Monterey cypress.
Most of the new plants came from Berkeley’s estimable Native Here Nursery, some of whose stock originates in the Codornices watershed. Native strawberry has edged out the ubiquitous Bermuda sorrel, and the birds have gone enthusiastically for the berries. Price and Lamont have also put in native bunchgrasses, Berkeley sedge, snowberry, Indian rhubarb, beeplant.
Plants were chosen for deer resistance. “They’ll take a snatch of everything, but it all comes back.” Lamont says. As we talk, two young bucks wander down through the yard toward the creek, one taking a random bite. Price exhorts them to eat the ivy instead; it still borders the native garden on an adjacent property. The deer are very much at home, bringing their new fawns every spring. Their habitual paths have been left in place.
“When deer have established a pathway, it’s hard to shift them off it,” he explains.
The only exception to the natives theme is the front garden, planted as a magnet for hummingbirds and butterflies. Natives like flowering currant, penstemon, and sticky monkeyflower mingle with Mexican bush sage and scabiosa. There’s also native wild rose for the butterflies and bees.
The creek is a work in progress. Price and Lamont haven’t modified the streambed, but they’ve planted willows and red-twig dogwood to buffer extreme flows.
“Urban Creeks Council taught us five different erosion-control techniques,” says Price. “The easiest is willow stakes.”
They’re tracking stream temperatures through the summer and monitoring water quality. Aquatic creatures have responded already: after the eucalyptus and cypress were removed, the damselfly population exploded—and the phoebes were very happy.
“We have newts or salamanders,” Lamont says. “We wish we had frogs; they’re further downstream.”
Just upstream, Codornices Creek is straitjacketed in a concrete box culvert. Last year two mule deer fawns fell into the steep-sided trench; Lamont and Price heard them squealing in the night and hauled them out. Lamont explains their plans for that section of the creek: “We want to restore the neighboring property, take out the gabions and concrete, put in step pools for fish passage, give the creek room for moving around.”
They’re hoping for a grant that will let them get rid of the box channel.
And how do the neighbors feel about all this? “We have them in every year for a barbecue and people love the place”, she continues. “They’re all really excited about doing restoration work themselves. When people have an understanding of what’s going on, they develop a vested interest in it.”
Chester does get out into the garden as well, on a leash. And so have a lot of human visitors: groups from Berkeley Path Wanderers and the Greenbelt Alliance, and hundreds on recent native-plant and Bay-friendly garden tours. If it’s featured on future tours, this thriving experiment in welcoming the natural world is well worth a stop.
A young buck makes his way through the garden toward Codornices Creek. Photograph by Ron Sullivan.