For the birds

Altacal Audubon Society program combines water conservation and native habitat efforts

O.J. and Gene Anna McMillan decided to kill their lawn in the beginning of 2014.

O.J. and Gene Anna McMillan decided to kill their lawn in the beginning of 2014.

Photo by Brittany Waterstradt

For more information about Altacal's Certified Neighborhood Habitat program, go to or contact Melinda Teves at

Since they moved to Chico in 2003, the only things standing between Gene Anna and O.J. McMillan’s home and Lower Bidwell Park were Vallombrosa Avenue and a wide expanse of green lawn. Last spring, they decided to shorten that gap by replacing the lawn with a more park-like, drought-resistant garden.

“It had been on the list for a long time, but hadn’t made it to the top,” O.J. said during a recent tour of the couple’s front-yard garden. “With the obviousness of the drought becoming apparent last year, we decided to pull the trigger.”

The McMillans said they were inspired to add lawn removal to their list of green home improvements after seeing eco-friendly gardener John Whittlesey speak at the Snow Goose Festival several years ago. They decided to stop watering their lawn in the beginning of 2014, and then contacted Whittlesey, who owns Canyon Creek Nursery and Design in Oroville, to design the space.

Whittlesey’s plan for the yard was to make it easy for the retired couple to maintain and for it to serve as an extension of the neighboring park, filled with native plants to attract pollinators, particularly birds, bees and butterflies. One of his stipulations is that his gardens include a bird bath, which the bird-loving McMillans hadn’t planned on, but didn’t object to.

“That’s been the biggest surprise,” Gene Anna said of the fixture, which sits directly outside of the their front living room window. “I’m seeing things I never would have been able to because the bird bath and the garden draw everything in.”

Hanging in one corner of the garden is a colorful sign reading “Certified Neighborhood Habitat,” serving as both a proclamation of the couple’s green leanings and an acknowledgment of their efforts. The sign was given to the them by the Altacal Audubon Society, the local chapter of the international bird-centric organization, as part of a new program designed to encourage others to replace lawns with more sustainable options.

Melinda Teves, director of Altacal’s Certified Neighborhood Habitat program, is hoping that growing concern and awareness over water issues spurs others to plant native habitat as it did the McMillans. The program aims to encourage, reward and eventually map those efforts.

“A lot of people are replacing their lawns right now, which will likely be happening even more with new restrictions coming down,” Teves said. “We’re hoping as people do that they’ll consider bringing in some native California plants, which are also good habitats for the wildlife they’ve evolved alongside for thousands of years. You’re doing two great things at once.”

To become self-certified in the habitat program, people must include native plants, plant multiple vegetation layers (shrubs, small trees, etc.), use drip irrigation and avoid the use of herbicides and pesticides. They also must choose from a list of wildlife stewardship and water conservation goals, such as keeping cats indoors, setting up a nesting box, or grouping plants based on water needs. If existing gardens meet these criteria, they are already eligible.

There are two levels—silver and gold—to the certification program, based on how much of a yard has been converted (half or whole of a front- or backyard), how many native species are used, and other variables. Those who participate and meet the objectives receive a garden sign. In order to help people complete the process, Altacal is distributing informational packets filled with physical and online resources, coupons for local nurseries and educational material.

The group also is partnering with other environmental organizations to hold workshops and presentations. The next one, co-hosted by Butte Environmental Council, is a hands-on Lawns to Native Landscapes workshop on May 30 at a private Chico residence at which attendees will participate in removing a lawn.

Teves explained the program has been in the works for about a year, and that Altacal consulted with a number of local wildlife experts and organizations to develop the criteria. It is modeled after a similar program designed by the Audubon Society of Portland.

“Their program is a little different because it doesn’t focus as much on water conservation, but they’ve accomplished a great deal,” Teves said. “They’ve created and mapped a 350-acre urban wildlife corridor within the city of Portland. We’re hoping to do the same here, and eventually map it like they have.”

Thus far, Teves said about 60 people have contacted Altacal about the program and are in the process of meeting the criteria, with about two dozen certified.

Having already made the leap to drought-resistant landscaping, the McMillans found their garden prequalified for certification. They said they often get questions about the garden and the sign from passersby, indicating the program is working as Teves intended.

“With every space that gets certified, we have another demonstration garden,” she said.

“I’m incredibly happy with it, and so are the birds and the bees,” Whittlesey said of the Altacal effort. “It’s what I’ve always hoped for in Chico; there’s a lawn culture here where everyone wants to keep everything green and tidy, but it’s not really green, or sustainable.

“Lawns are the default because it’s sometimes hard for people to imagine anything else,” he added, noting that, if there’s an upside of the drought, it’s that people have been inspired to try something different, which he said can begin as simply as stopping watering the lawn.

“If you have a good plan and do it over time, it’s very manageable and satisfying, and not a very difficult process.”