Hints for Beginners from a Former Native Gardening Novice
By Alison Shilling
Fall is by far the best time to put in most plants in a Mediterranean climate; the soil is still warm, which encourages root formation, but days are cooler and shorter, so that the plant is less programmed to put out new top growth and flowers. So, how about stopping by a nearby chapter sale and buying some native plants? Out of the 7000 or so CA natives, many are colorful, and easy to care for. If you select those which originate in your own ‘floristic province’ – desert, mountain, coast, central valley – they are already adapted to the local climate and soil, have resistance to local pests and provide habitat for local wildlife.
You might be like my neighbor, who has finally got fed up with mowing, watering, fertilizing and weeding his lawn and has ripped it all out, but you do not need to be so drastic. If you start with a small area, it is not only less intimidating, but you can experiment, build on your success and have the pleasure of doing it again next year!
The irrigation already in the yard is usually in sections, with sprinklers. You can take one bed or area, and insert a valve so that this can be watered separately, since, once established, the natives will almost certainly use less water than the ‘aliens’ you had before. Alternatively you can bypass the sprinklers in favor of drip irrigation. It is very forgiving; you can lay it on top of the soil, move it around, add or plug up extra lines or drippers and cover it with mulch where it is visible between one plant and the next.
Draw a rough plan of the area, work out where the shade will be during the year. Is the area a border, viewed from one side, needing tall shrubs or even trees, as screening at the back, or a small central bed where all the plants will be seen from all angles? Refer to Have Space, Dirt, Water - Now What? for more ideas about basic design.
These two photos of the same yard were taken about a year apart.
Then comes the fun part: choosing the plants! You may already have some favorites in mind – my neighbor, for example, wants three Ceanothus between his patio and the street -- but you do not need to know all plants by name before sale day. My list when I started planting my current yard contained information about the plants’ sun need, final height, habit, main feature and quantity. For example: “four tall evergreen shrubs, large leaves, sun”, “six low shade-loving perennials”, “six to ten low grasses”, “two to three large grasses” , “five groups of three to five perennials flowering different times” and so on. This is especially useful because most natives are not as widely available as the Home Depot staples. Volunteers at the sales will be delighted to suggest candidates for your categories.
Plants at the sale can be deceiving: in rows of gallon pots, they often do not look as they will when established. I once bought a fragile-looking little buckwheat [I had a couple of buckwheat in my yard already] called St Catherine’s Lace. I should have taken note of its scientific name, Eriogonum giganteum. It turned into a robust shrub with flower heads a foot across, overwhelming its neighbors. Back home, look once again at the final size your plant should attain and give it space when you plant it. Tolerate the open spaces in the first year or so, or fill them with mulch if it distresses you [though please have a few corners with bare soil for your solitary bees to dig their nests.]
New plantings need water, even if the mature specimen is very drought-tolerant. Remember that a gallon pot is rather cramped for the roots of a plant that may be a foot or more tall and, even with gentle handling, some of those roots will have been damaged. Supplement the winter rains as necessary– mimic what would be a wet winter for your area.
Don’t forget to go back to your plot plan and write in what you actually planted. Even after 50 years of gardening, I have been caught out assuming that the small white label would be sufficient. Gremlins come and carry away those labels in the night, or wipe the writing off. When I want more of that absolutely wonderful fuchsia that the hummingbird is visiting, that rough penciled plan will be a godsend.
Finally, be patient during the dark days of winter. The plants just sitting there are in fact stretching their roots and preparing for their display in spring!
Editor’s Note: If there is no chapter plant sale in your area, perhaps you can take a trip to a nursery or arboretum featuring native plants, many of which are listed here and here. Several of these nurseries offer discounts to CNPS members.