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


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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

Charlotte’s favorite California native plants

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

Front Garden

Under the Oaks


CNPS Horticulture Team


  1. Dear Charlotte,

    Thank you for sharing so many lessons from your native plant garden, so far and wide, both through your CNPS Garden Ambassador page and through your link to In the Native/Environmental/Xeriscape/Temescal/Garden (N/E/X/T/Garden, see ), I’ll soon be turning my attention back to planting under our 30-year-old Oaks – six Quercus agrifolia and one Quercus lobata – so, I’d be particularly interested in any detailed information you might have on the relative success of the species that you listed for “Under the Oaks” per those two Oak species in particular. As examples of such a details per planting under the year-round shade of Quercus agrifolia, I’ve found that some natives thrive deep under the canopy while others do better with the part-sun under the canopy edge/dripline (with Polypodium californicum among the former and Gambelia speciosa among the latter, though these species don’t happen to be on your list). I hope that we can use this Comment section to share such detailed information and that other visitors to these Garden Ambassador pages will be inspired to chime in with their own observations of such details….

    Best regards,

    Michael Terry

    1. Hi Michael,
      I do actually have the two species that you mentioned also growing under my Coast Live Oaks – just too many species to list them all in the profile –
      The Polypodies come in on their own from wildlands next to my property – they establish themselves in the dry-stack rock walls!
      Gambelia speciosa, as you mentioned likes a bit of sun, so grow best at the edges of the canopies – Diplacus, particularly some of the beautiful hybrids, are also happy right at the edges of the canopy – I particularly like ‘Eleanor’ which is very hardy, and intermingling with ‘her’ is Solanum xantii, a vining form, and the light blues flowers peaking thru with Eleanor’s pale orangey blooms is very attractive –

      Thanks for your positive comments!
      None of these plants get

      1. Dear Charlotte,

        Thank you for your thoughtful reply and your reassurances about our shared successes, under similar conditions, with Polypody Fern (Polypodium californium) and Island Bush Snapdragon (Gambelia speciosa). At the N/E/X/T/Garden (where our southern heat is only partially moderated by the nearby ocean, at the border of Sunset Zones 23 & 24), both the drought-tolerant Monkeyflower species/varieties (Diplacus spp.) and the Blue Witch species/varieties (Solanum spp.) are quite drought-deciduous in ~full sun, once they are established and get watered only every 14 days (i.e. under our “tough love” watering schedule) – they just don’t “show” as well as our other species under these conditions, particularly toward the end of summer. Conversely, we’ve found that those two genera fail to thrive in ~full shade this close to the coast. So, on your recommendation, I’ll try those natives, beautifully combined, in the PART shade at the edges of the canopies of our Coast Live Oaks (Quercus agrifolia) – thanks!



        P.S. In this context, I’m happy to note that the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks (RAP) worked with us in 2011 to adjust their policy from a blanket ban on planting under Oaks to a policy favoring APPROPRIATE landscaping under Oaks: (1) planting only drought-tolerant species; (2) planting in the autumn (so that watering for establishment has tapered off by the following summer); (3) planting at a respectful distance from the trunks (to further minimize the chances of rot); and (4) planting in small holes from small containers (to minimize root damage, while avoiding large existing roots, of course). As a result, we can demonstrate positive options for landscaping in that niche environment, in this public native plant garden, while simultaneously encouraging our community to treasure their Oaks….

      2. Charlotte
        I understand that you have my cnps plants I bought yeasterday at the plant sale.
        Please let me know when I can come over to swap the plants I Got by mistake.
        Marty Marcus
        415 7329926

  2. Many questions! 🙂 Am very curious about no mention of deer? When navigating a restoration project, do you grow mostly from seed knowing the critters will be foraging a percentage of them..
    Also curious about how you planted your Corylus californica.. I would like to add some as an understory of native woodland.. Did you have to cage to get them started in the woodland areas?
    Thanks for sharing your garden!

    1. Hi Valeria,
      Much of my garden is actually open to the deer: And I love these magnificent animals! There’s just wasn’t enough space in the ‘profile’ to mention all that I’ve learned about gardening with the deer nor to post a complete plant list.
      I have written extensively about ‘Gardening in Deer Country’ – both for state CNPS – and also posted on my own website –

      I do start many annuals from seed on site – protecting them mainly from birds with a cloud cover or light application of mulch – most other plants that I grow from are under controlled nursery conditions.

      I also grow Corylus californica in my oak understory, and in an area that is fenced off from the deer – they are not easy to establish, and slow-growing – I start with small plants, and supplemental water during the summer. I would think that they do need to be caged against the deer, and for quite a while.

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