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In the Garden

Going wild


THERE ARE PLENTY OF GARDENERS IN HUMBOLDT County who consider a garden to be more than just a pretty place. It can also be a habitat for butterflies, birds, insects, amphibians and native plants. When Tom and Sue Leskiw began planting a garden around the house they bought on 3.5 acres of redwood forest, they knew they wanted their garden to serve as a habitat for wildlife. Now they've organized a tour of 10 wild and diverse gardens that reflect that philosophy.

Photo of wild gardenThe Leskiws took me on a tour of their garden last week as a preview. A garden that is about to be on a tour looks kind of like a house a few hours before a dinner party: The furnishings and decorations are all slightly askew, but it is clear that after one last mad dash, the place will be beautiful.

Tom and Sue bought the property, on the edge of Myrtletown, a few years ago. Until the late `70s it had belonged to the Simpson Timber Co. The forest surrounding the house seems to be mostly third-growth, and Tom said that an old skid road ran along one edge of their acreage. The property is so steep that it does not lend itself to casual strolls in the woods; in fact, it may be years before they get around to building any trails, and there are still parts of it that Sue has never seen.

But a sunny flat spot near the road proved to be the perfect spot for a house and garden, and it made sense to try to integrate that garden with the surrounding wilderness. They were so successful that before long they'd received the National Wildlife Federation's designation as a "Backyard Wildlife Habitat." Although not every garden on the tour has received this designation, they all embody the spirit of the program: They provide shelter, water, nectar, foraging space and nesting sites for wildlife.

The Leskiws began by clearing a sunny, warm slope on the upper end of their property. "I call this the desert zone," Tom said, pointing out native salvia, mimulus and coyote mint. Most of the plants are just getting started; a thick mulch of bark chips keeps weeds down and moisture in during the early growing years.

A ridge about level with the roof of the house is home to more native plants that can tolerate some sun. "Third-growth redwoods actually provide a pretty impoverished habitat," Tom said. "We found when we cleared them that there were already young willows, wax myrtles, alders and cascara trees ready to move in. So we've just encouraged what's already here."

A slope leads down to another garden just off the back deck. A recirculating pump creates a waterfall, a space for the birds to drink and bathe. More native and drought-tolerant plants grow around the deck and attract pollinators; while I was there, bees worked the lavender and butterflies descended to explore the salvia. A tidy vegetable garden sits in the middle of it all, enclosed by a fence to keep out deer.

"One of the things people can get from this tour is some great ideas for deer-proof landscaping," Tom said. In addition to deer, they've seen black bears, gray foxes, skunks, raccoons, chipmunks and Douglas squirrels on the property. Tom has identified over 75 species of birds.

About a third of the gardens on the tour are large wilderness areas like the Leskiws'. Another two-thirds are standard or oversized city lots in city or semi-rural areas. The home of Louise Bacon-Ogden, owner of Strictly for the Birds, is on the tour and offers plenty of ideas for attracting birds in the city. Tim McKay, director of the Northcoast Environmental Center, will be welcoming visitors to his double-sized lot that has, over the last 20 years, reverted to a haven for native plants.

"One of the great things about this tour is that not all of the gardens are grandiose," Tom said. "Some of these gardens, including ours, are only three years old. Others will show you what you can accomplish in 10 years, or 20 years. We wanted to give people ideas about what they could do -- to show something that the average person could duplicate."

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The Wildlife and Native Plant Garden Tour will be held on Saturday, July 26, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets are $15 per person and benefit the Redwood Region Audubon Society and the California Native Plant Society. Tickets may be purchased in advance in Eureka at Pierson's, Strictly for the Birds or Freshwater Farms. You can also purchase them at the Northcoast Environmental Center in Arcata, or in McKinleyville at Blake's Books and Miller Farms.

To find out more about the Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program, visit or call the National Wildlife Federation at 800-822-9919.

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I'm collecting stories about plant orphans: Those plants that get left on your doorstep without so much as a note. In a way it's the opposite of flower theft. So if you've ever put a plant up for adoption or taken one in, drop me a note at , or write in care of the Journal at 145 G St., Suite A, Arcata 95521.


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