A California Bee Garden

Garden beds and lawn surrounded by eucalyptus trees.
Garden beds and lawn surrounded by eucalyptus trees.

B: To kill the lawn or not to kill the lawn? That is the question.

As we’ve been writing this blog, I’ve spent lots of time thinking of ways I can help the honeybees. Since I live in an over-regulated, zero-lot line suburban community, where the locals’ favorite activity is making sure EVERYONE follows the RULES, keeping bees is not an option. What I can do is support the local bee population by transforming my Southern California garden into a honeybee-friendly habitat. In addition to getting rid of the lawn and replanting my yard a little bit at a time, I’ll be creating what Mary Beth calls “bee pots” — containers filled with bee-attracting plants. So whether you have a large yard or a small balcony, I’ll show you ways to get involved in the effort.

Starting with one garden bed, I plan to work my way across the yard to create a habitat that will support bees and other pollinators. Another priority will be to reduce water consumption as much as possible given our drought-prone climate. I’ve already stopped using poisons on my property. For the past three years I’ve used only organic fertilizers and non-poisonous means of pest control. With just this one change, I’ve noticed more birds and lizards who’ve wiped out a plague of snails that used to feast on my garden. Some plants haven’t survived these changes, but they weren’t appropriate for this environment. And that’s really what this is all about; working with nature, not against it.

This is the first area to be planted with bee-friendly plants. It abuts the neighbor's house.
This is the first area to be planted with bee-friendly plants. It abuts the neighbor's house.

My particular location presents its own challenges. I have very heavy clay soil and part-shade to shade from the eucalyptus trees that the previous owner planted around the perimeter of the property. While my yard is always five to ten degrees cooler than the surrounding area, the eucalyptus trees have proven to be very difficult companions to just about every plant I’ve tried. However, one thing I know is that, contrary to what a nursery worker told me years ago, stones are not the only things that will grow under eucalyptus.  I just have to find the right combo of soil, water and plants.

Working out from this one bed, I’ll eventually do away with the lawn in my front yard. I had originally considered using only California natives in my garden. In theory I like the elegance and purity of the idea, but I think that in practice it will be too limiting. So I’ll use as many natives as I can and fill in with drought-tolerant plants that do well in this climate. For plant selection, my two primary objectives will be to find plants that are likely to survive under the eucalyptus and are irresistible to honeybees.

This past weekend I went to the third in a series of lectures at the amazing Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano. A beautiful property with straw-bale structures on the edge of the Caspers Wilderness Park, the nursery features plants appropriate for our climate. I learned a lot about what I’ll need to do to complete the transformation of my garden, from killing the lawn, to planning the garden and selecting plants for year-round bloom. The good people at the nursery will be a great resource for me and it was a very lucky break to find them just now. (Isn’t it lovely how things seem to appear just when you need them?!) It’s going to be a lot of work, but I’m excited and can’t wait to see what adventures it brings.

By the way, I’m a lazy, sporadic gardener. If this works for me, it’ll work for anyone. Let’s have fun!

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