A garden that is alive

Natives add more than color and fragrance to our landscapes
by Dan Songster

Hummingbird in a California native garden
Costa’s hummingbird visits Bladderpod flower (Cleome isomeris), Photo: Gary S. Meredith

“Once a garden comes alive ecologically, it displays a humor and richness of meaning that have been missed by narrow views of horticulture. Significance expands. Meanings multiply. Each plant or planting becomes much more than what nurseries believe they sell, or gardeners suppose they grow, or visitors would notice.”
-Noah’s Garden, by Sarah Stein

We are in love with the wilderness. California’s natural areas are Rubenesque in their fullness and diversity, richly endowed with color, scent and texture. They are authentic landscapes and they are alive! Birds gobble insects, berries, and seeds, hummingbirds magically move about sipping nectar or gathering cobwebs to soften their silken nests.

Our native bees, flies, dragonflies, and butterflies in various activities and stages of development are fascinating, using the native landscape both as home and food source. And beneath our feet fungal and bacterial alliances operate silently in the soil itself. How can we not be in love with such active, fragrant, and adventuresome landscapes and desire a similar experience in our home garden?

Whatever our level of experience with natives there are books, journals, websites, and blogs to help us import intriguing and inspiring wilderness, along with birds, insects, butterflies, and other organisms into our own landscape. Native gardens of various size and focus can also be found throughout the state, providing blueprints for successful design, plant selection, plant grouping, and maintenance techniques suited to your particular area. Home gardeners, nursery personnel, or staff at botanic gardens can be a source of design, installation, and maintenance advice. Their knowledge, enthusiasm, and encouragement can help you create a garden buzzing with life.

For design inspiration practically nothing beats CNPS field trips. Native flora viewed in its natural setting and combinations is a great motivator. You may come upon a small plateau of native grasses saturated with the purple of a Triteleia species and bordered with the shaded apricot of monkeyflower, or a grouping of boulders long ago rolled to where they now lie half-buried, with a small colony of live-forever and coffee fern beneath and between, and a cloak of dark green coffeeberry above. A simple bank of rusting buckwheat blossoms against a tawny sandstone background or a grassland with shooting stars and blue-eyed grass may inspire you. On a single hike through our nearby hills we come upon dozens of glorious scenes worth stopping to gaze upon, investigate, sketch, or photograph. And every one of these natural compositions provides inspiration and insight for lively garden designs.

Are you new to growing natives and considering a do it yourself approach? Although it is very rewarding to change an entire landscape into a native paradise all at once, installing one or two of the lovely plant scenes you have discovered in the hills and placing it in your garden can be a practical first step. Turn off the water in one section, add a boulder or three, and was there a rotting log? Even a small native section will bring additional wildlife to your garden, sometimes in surprising numbers.

Are you considering reducing the level of maintenance required in your landscape? Converting to a native landscape can eliminate the burden of routine mowing, fertilizing, and shearing, but there are other tasks needing attention in any garden (no matter how natural!). Besides the almost unavoidable weeding and some light pruning here and there, the original landscape concept, design and even its installation are often responsible for a garden’s long term maintenance needs. Those of us who have been involved with natives for awhile find that initial removal of weeds (and letting existing weed seeds germinate and then removing them again) before replanting is quite a help. Also, realistic spacing of plants to allow adequate room for full growth will reduce the need for pruning. A nice mulch layer can inhibit weeds, insulate a plant’s roots from temperature extremes, and help keep moisture from easily evaporating.

Intriguing native landscapes richly reward the gardener through the varied forms of wildlife that adopt the garden as home. And unlike conventional ornamental landscapes often created mainly for viewing, native gardens invite participation and offer an interactive experience. By selecting regional plants and plant combinations, that remind you of a hike in the local chaparral, coastal sage scrub, oak woodlands, or along the coastal bluffs, you bring a bit of that adventure into the environment surrounding your home. So, your landscape is both familiar and wild, the garden is designed but is expected and allowed to change. Its structure is a framework for plants that invite birds, butterflies, and insects to join into a landscape that is full of life, a garden that pulses with the cycles of our seasons. Once we understand, arrange, and install the garden’s parts, we then need only wait to receive our visitors. That is when our garden becomes truly alive!

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  1. What a nice write up! Makes me want to go outside right this very minute and enjoy the garden as it becomes more native each minute. Love your suggestion that we try to create a small bit of a natural scene.

  2. Inspirational! Thank you for sharing. More and more people are discovering that the true value of a garden lies as much in its habitat content as it does in curb appeal.

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