Charlotte Torgovitsky’s Novato Garden
CNPS Garden Ambassador: Charlotte Torgovitsky
CNPS Marin Chapter
Garden Location: Front and back yard
Garden Size: 2 acres
Year Planted: January 2005
My motivation is all about creating habitat sanctuaries and enhancing natural resources for all the creatures with whom we share our land.
When Charlotte and her husband found their new home in Novato fourteen years ago, it was the land and the setting that they found especially thrilling. The house was fine, but the oak-studded two acres on a south facing hillside was a dream come true for Charlotte, who has been gardening most of her life. Charlotte has been promoting California native plants for 20 years, both with CNPS and independently, and has already created several native and habitat gardens. Yet this was a place where Charlotte could let a garden evolve organically, and fit seamlessly into its natural setting.
Set on Cherry Hill, a spur of Mt. Burdell that reaches out towards Deer Island, Charlotte’s property is 225 feet above the wetlands that surround the island and Novato Creek. The woodlands are an interesting, hybridizing mix of coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), blue oak (Quercus douglasii), and Oregon oak (Quercus garryana). On the north slope of the hill there are also black oaks (Quercus kelloggii), madrone (Arbutus menziesii), and beautiful old drifts of California fescue (Festuca californica). Manzanitas (Arctostaphylos ssp.) grow on the crest of the hill in the sunnier places.
Next to her property is about 50 acres of wildlands, including a meadow. Much of the land surrounding her home was used to graze cattle in the days of the Black Point Creamery. Many of the typical oak understory shrubs are gone, but the meadow is still dominated by purple needle grass (Stipa pulchra). During the rainy season lots of other native plants show themselves amongst the meadow grasses. Ground iris (Iris ssp.), soap lily (Chlorogalum ssp.), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum), buttercups (Ranunculus ssp.), milkmaids (Cardamine californica), as well as a number of flowering bulbs such as blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum), ithuriel’s spear (Triteleia laxa) and mariposa lilies (Calochortus ssp.).
Charlotte’s motivation is all about creating habitat sanctuaries and enhancing natural resources for all the creatures with whom we share our land. Her habitat garden is about seventy percent native plants, and the other thirty percent are plants from other Mediterranean climates, as well as some edible plants. Plantings under the native oaks are strictly natives, and once established, get no water other than the rain.
With the proximity of wild land, she has been careful to avoid including potentially invasive non-natives plants in her garden. The main intent of her gardening activities has been to re-introduce a natural bio-diversity, and thereby also enhance foraging opportunities in order to bring nature closer to home.
Charlotte loves living next to open space, and all of the wild animals that she sees in her garden. She especially enjoys being in her garden at dusk. “I’ll put on my old gardening clothes around four in the afternoon, tell my husband I’m going outside to play, and that I won’t be in until dark. It’s that period of intensified activity that I love – when the light and shadows play in interesting ways, and all the animals are moving about.”
In addition to tending her garden, Charlotte has been an active member of the CNPS Marin Chapter. She has held numerous positions, including President and the Gardening with Natives chair. Charlotte is an experienced educator who has taught numerous courses and workshops on gardening, and has written essays and articles that have been published in horticultural magazines. Last but not least, she is the founder of Home Ground Habitats, a non-profit volunteer nursery. Learn more at homegroundhabitats.org.
Charlotte’s favorite California native plants
- Milkweed (Asclepias ssp.)—The larval host plant for monarch butterflies!
- Sages (Salvia ssp.)—They are great for supporting hummingbirds.
- Blue Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea)—My family and I love the medicinal aspects of this plant, and especially enjoy using it to make tonics, etc.
About the garden
Garden Location: Front and back yard.
Garden Size: 2 acres
Year Planted: January 2005
Lawn Removal: There was no lawn, as we are on a rather steep hillside. The old landscape I had to deal with was non-native shrubs. I had oleanders and a pepper tree removed immediately, but removed the Echiums (Echium fastotum, a very invasive plant) a few at a time as I was able to replace their value as a source of nectar for pollinators. I’m still pulling the occasional Echium seedling!
Design and Installation: My oldest son and I designed the basics, but since much of my landscape is Oak Woodland I will simply be restoring it overtime. Thus, the design and planting will be an on-going, hopefully never-ending process!
Style Inspiration: My style inspiration came from the surrounding open space, the meadow and woodlands right next to our house, and the steep wooded slopes on the Olompali side of Mt. Burdell. Right around the house, oaks had been removed, leaving a hot dry slope on which I planted a number of showy chaparral plants. In the wooded areas, I preserved all the natives already present, and added more understory shrubs, grasses, and perennials. The bio-diversity of both plants and animals has increased greatly in the years I have been stewarding this land.
Go-to Native Plant Nurseries: I grew most of the plants in my landscape myself!
Irrigation: Some areas are on drip irrigation. Established perennial borders get 20 minutes of drip irrigation, 3 times a week. Many other areas only get rainwater once the plants are established. My nursery plants and large containers with food plants and ornamentals are checked daily, and watered only as necessary.
Maintenance: I make time to be in my garden, almost every day for an hour or three when the weather permits. Since I have a very large garden, I work on small areas at a time – weeding, planting, mulching, etc. I do get a crew about 4 times a year to help with pruning and heavy work, and also to do the major clean-up before spring garden tours.
Wildlife Spotted: Lots and lots of wildlife! 18 species of butterflies, 36 species of birds (both resident and migratory breeders), 3 species of lizards, 3 species of snakes, slender salamanders, lots of Pacific tree frogs, gray foxes, bobcats, coyotes, skinks, raccoons, opossums, and lots of the usual and also many unusual insects!
Favorite Element: I love the setting, living next to open space, and all of the wild animals that frequent my garden.
Biggest Challenge: My habitat sanctuary is a lively place, with thriving populations of insects, amphibians, and all sorts of birds living and breeding here. I also have a very healthy population of Western Gray Squirrels, and without a cat or dog they have become quite bold, and eat or meddle with all sorts of things I’m growing. Is there a way to teach these creatures how to share?
Advice: The best and most important place to put your attention, time, and energy in creating a new garden is in the soil. I sheet mulched all the new planting areas a year before planting, using cardboard and rice straw to convert clay to a much more friable soil. All organic matter on site is recycled either by actively composting it, or as brush piles and hugelkultur.
And be patient – it takes time! On a large property, I start close to the house and gradually grow out from there. I’ve set up gardens on about half our property, but the project for my lifetime is to restore the understory of our oak woodlands.
California native plants in Charlotte’s garden
- Ghost pine (Pinus sabiniana)
- Manzanita (Arctostaphylos ssp.)
- Coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis)
- Silk tassel bush (Garrya elliptica)
- Mountain mahogany (Cerocarpus betuloides)
- Nevin barberry (Berberis nevinii)
- California lilac (Ceanothus ssp.)
- St. Catherine’s lace (Eriogonum giganteum)
- Pitcher sage (Lepechinia calycina)
- Monkeyflower (Diplacus aurantiacus)
- Sonoma sage (Salvia sonomensis)
- Black sage (Salvia mellifera)
- Brandegeei’s sage (Salvia brandegeei)
- Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii)
- Purple sage (Salvia leucophylla)
- White sage (Salvia apiana)
- Cobweb thistle (Cirsium occidentale)
- Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)
- Narrow-leaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis)
Under the Oaks
- Ocean spray or cream bush (Holodiscus discolor)
- Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica)
- California fescue (Festuca californica)
- Coffeeberry (Frangula californica)
- Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)
- Alum root (Heuchra maxima and hybrid ‘Old la Rochette’)
- Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana)
- Pitcher sage (Lepechinia fragrans)
- Hairy honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula var.vacillans)
- Pink-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum)
- California rose (Rosa californica)
- Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea)
- Blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea)
- Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus var. laevigatus)
- Fringecups (Telllima grandiflora)
CNPS Horticulture Team