Thursday, December 3, 2015

Planting Natives

I had an excuse to visit Tree of Life Nursery the end of November.  I needed a few reliables to fill in the bare spots.   A Lilac Verbena, two Santa Cruz Island Buckwheats, and two Coral Bells 'Old la Rochette'.  The latter I treat as an annual if it doesn't thrive in a given spot. It has such gorgeous flowers.  The buckwheats are particularly tidy low shrubs that stay elegant in dry areas.  Lilac Verbena is a favorite for filling in any hole; this is my eighth.
Lilac Verbena on the left, stalks of Coral Bells 'Old la Rochelle' on the right.  Can't have too many of these!
How to plant a native plant?  Planting natives, like many other aspects of gardening, is an art and not a science.  If you follow the guide from Tree of Life Nursery (download here), there's little difference between planting a native and a typical garden plant.  Las Pilitas has a very different take on planting (read here).  OCCNPS gardeners weighed in with some good ideas (in this recent newsletter.) Don't bother planting in late spring or summer; the plant will be dormant and only with much fussing will even survive till fall.
One bare spot was covered all summer with a very large rock.
A typical garden plant would like a deep wide hole, and lots of amended soil rich in organic plant matter and nutrients to put in that hole.  Don't do that to natives! DO NOT AMEND!  At all.  Do not add some special mix in the bottom of the hole either (despite what the Tree of Life guide says.) With the exception of riparian (waterside) and forest plants, natives actually prefer soil that is poor in organic matter.  That's what they get in our coastal hills.  Organic material in the soil just encourages root rot, leading to sudden plant death in warm weather.  The gardeners at Golden West College's native garden will give you an earful about nurseries these days using too much organic material in their native pots, and Dan Songster suggests actually stripping most of the potting material off the roots before planting.
The little Santa Cruz Island Buckwheat is half-planted.
Don't double-dig.  If your soil is not hopelessly compacted, native roots will work their way down through it.  If it is compacted and you gouge a nice deep basin for your plant, you have made a water-gathering trough to rot the roots of your plant.    If you have clay– as many of us do– the easiest way to assure good drainage is to place very well draining material–pure decomposed granite works– on top of your existing soil in mounds (see how I did it here).  Otherwise throw a bunch of 3/8" gravel in when you plant.  (Not sand or DG.  Sand plus clay equals cement!) You can plant natives that tolerate clay– those include most annual wildflowers and many hardy shrubs. (Various lists are online, including this one from Yerba Buena Nursery.) Then only beer water them in summer!
Lilac Verbena #8 has been watered, watered, watered.  It's up on a too-high mound and will have to grow deep roots to get reliable water.  Or maybe the mycorrhizae will take care of it. In either case, I expect to see copious flowers, hummingbirds, and butterflies this spring.

And now for the most crucial step in planting natives.  WATER. WATER. WATER.  This is the most important time you'll ever water your native plant.  Make sure the plant is well watered before you take it out of the pot.  (Just be sure the soil isn't so heavy it falls off the roots when you unpot.)  Water the hole you dig.  CNPS folks say: do this three times.  If the hole doesn't drain, do it anyway and plant the plant tomorrow.  This is even after you (ideally) have soaked the whole area well recently.  Then water the plant after you've replace half the dirt in the hole, and again when you've replaced all of it.  The aims are two: first to settle the earth around the plant (gentle tapping with the foot or firm tapping with trowel or fist also helps- don't leave voids or fluffed soil that's half air) so the roots make contact with the new soil, and second, to invite the plant to send roots down deep into this nice moist soil as the surface soil dries, so they don't need lots of surface water that leads to rot.  And some plants don't waste time!
This dwarf coyote bush was moved from a four-inch pot to a gallon pot two weeks before this photo, producing two-week-old roots circling the gallon pot.
Add the appropriate kind of mulch (instructions here) and you're good to go. Happy planting!

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Friday, November 27, 2015

Hack and Slash

It's pruning time in the coastal native garden. After summer/fall dormancy, it's time to prepare for a flush of winter growth.  In other areas of my life I strive for calm gentleness, but I relish wading into the thickets for some satisfying hacking and slashing.  In a measured way, for a cause.  I appreciate a well-pruned garden.

This Bush Marigold (Tagetes lemmonii, adaptable non-CA southwest native) is off the schedule.  It got hacked to the ground in August, and provides needed November color. Bush Marigold needs regular hard pruning or it gets leggy and ugly.
I have had my rant about bad pruning (or lack thereof) in a previous post.  I like to snip on a regular basis, but I was away from the garden for nine weeks, so could not snip.  Not much grew in the hot early fall anyway: most of the plants were dormant or near.
Toyon, Coyote Bush and Bay Laurel screen the kitchen nook from the street. (Yes! Took almost three years.)  They need no pruning now, not having been overwatered in summer. (Photo from kitchen.)
In the backyard where the garden has received only the odd rain and a few brief brief beer waterings since May, pruning is little work.  First, deadhead the sages.  Their dried flower stalks are austerely beautiful to the lover of natives, if not to the HOA vigilantes.  But these stalks are weathered and grey by fall, and the bushes need to be trimmed back to allow new growth to be shapely and well supported.  For White Sage this can look pretty extreme: eight-foot flower stalks lopped almost to the ground; all that remain are little florets of silver leaves at the base of the former tower.
This pruned White Sage looks scraggly.  It will fill in.
A few judicious snips for the Manzanitas: 'Howard McMinn' can take random chopping but a 'Paradise' Manzanita dropped dead last winter after I trimmed a wayward stem. For these delicate fellows, I am careful to sanitize my clippers by dipping them in a jar of rubbing alcohol.  I also apologize, and pray.  Can't hurt, right?  Yes, I planted things too close. And I want them to be shapely.  Don't prune (also delicate) California Lilacs (Ceanothus) now; you'll lose blooms.
'Paradise' Manzanita is worth fussing over. These flower-like leaf rosettes will show up after the winter rains.
The dwarf Coyote Bush ('Pigeon Point') needs trimming about twice a year despite the lack of water; I planted these bulletproof pools of green more densely than needed.  But a pair of shears makes quick work.  Likewise the non-native variegated Mockorange (Pittosporum tobira), a great low-water background plant.  Lemonadeberry gets a light clipping.  Southwest native Bush Marigolds got coppiced (trimmed down to a few inches from the ground) in summer and are ready to bloom now.  I've coppiced one twice a year for almost twenty years.
The overgrown section.
In front, I deadhead the buckwheats, trim the coyote, and get ready for the Great Hacking.  Part of the front garden gets considerable overspray, seepage, and probably underground flow, from the overwatered Association lawn just across the sidewalk.  California Sagebrush, Southwest native Baby Sage (Salvia microphylla) and Lilac Verbena grow like crazy, and have to be cut way back at least semiannually or they'd block the windows.  For this I pull out the power hedge cutter.  Looks naked, but within a month it will appear dignified.
After the hedge trimmers.
I find it much easier to prune a rampant grower than to try to revive an invalid plant.  Many plants have no middle ground.  Coyote, Sagebrush, Coffeeberry, and Lilac Verbena can be pruned to your heart's content, and at almost any time of year.  Frequent need for trimming suggests you are overwatering... How much pruning will I do in the spring?  It depends on how much rain we get.  Stay tuned.

Want to know about pruning individual plants?  Here are some guides.

From Las Pilitas:  Short version: trim everything in late summer, with a few exceptions.

Care and Maintenance of Southern California Native Plant Gardens by Bart O'Brien, Betsey Landis, and Ellen Mackey is the most detailed guide. This book is out of print, and very pricey on Amazon, but can still be found at some gardens and bookstores.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

This is a garden (San Joachin Wildlife Sanctuary)

If you want to take out-of-town visitors on a tame yet spectacular wildlife walk, bring them to San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary (SJWS) in Irvine.
SJWS contrast: verdant native plant and bird life set against artificial waterways and high rises.
Wide, level trails are accessible to old, young, even wheelchairs, and the Sea and Sage Audubon House and comfy restrooms make SJWS inviting for less-than-outdoorsy folks.  SJWS is a spectacular birding area, as well as an award-winning water purifier for the urban runoff from San Diego Creek.  It is also an easy place to see native plants in a nearly wild setting.
While Coastal Sage Scrub endures with no nearby water source, it seems to love to be within sipping distance of ponds.  This is Chapparal Mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus).
Ornamental native gardens surround some of the buildings.  The rest of the natives look wild.  But make no mistake: SJWS is not wild.  It is a garden.  Five full time gardeners maintain the plant life here.  Non-native (i.e. weed) removal is a never-ending job.  You will see fewer weeds at SJWS than in any truly wild area in the county (sadly.)
Mule Fat, a relative of my favorite Coyote Plant, in bloom.
The dominant plant at SJWS seems to be Mule Fat (Baccharis salicifolia.)  Its favorite habitat, the edge of a pond, is in great abundance here.  Mule Fat is a great wildlife plant, feeding everything from insects to deer.  Water-loving and rather shaggy, it is not first choice on my garden list. Its curious name apparently arose when Spaniards' mules who ate it got bloated.
A silvery Coastal Sage Scrub border: Elderberry in the background, blooming Bladderpod, and California Sagebrush up front. The density and verticality say "garden, not wild."
Aside from riparian (waterside) plants, Coastal Sage Scrub is the dominant habitat at SJWS.  Stands of wild roses (Rosa californica) are a particular delight.
Roses don't grow this thick and happy in the wild.  Enjoy!
SJWS is part of a "mitigation project" by the Irvine Company.  In my best understanding, the legal term "mitigation" means restoring an area to a passable resemblance of wild habitat in compensation for destroying a comparably-sized existing wild habitat by commercial development (i.e. subdivisions.)  This project cost over 12 million dollars, was a wonder of intergroup cooperation and, I suspect, has kept some wildlife biologists and native plant nurseries solvent.  They know what they're doing, or else they keep redoing it till it works.  One wonders what could happen if the big bucks were a little more evenly distributed among native restoration efforts.
The Sea and Sage Audubon House contains friendly staff, a great bookstore, news of classes and events, and a photo guide to native plants in the SJWS.
The Sea and Sage Audubon Society, quartered in the SJWS, offers a visitor center and variety of nature programs for children and adults.  Check here for more information, including classes and schedules.

Are you curious about native area restoration?  Check out this guide from Las Pilitas Nursery.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Coastkeeper: A Demonstration Garden, and an Enthusiastic Gardener

I took advantage of some cool weather way back in early July to visit the Coastkeeper Garden at Santiago Canyon College in the Orange foothills.  To my delight, garden director Austin Brown and his dog Nala were in residence, as they often are.
Nala greets vistors to the Coastkeeper Garden.
Coastkeeper Garden showcases different styles of low-water, ecologically sound gardens. It features California natives and desert and Mediterranean-climate favorites.  The five different areas are each designed and hardscaped like a classy suburban yard, all surrounded by a border of less manicured (mostly native) garden.  I focus on the native plants, of course.
This mixed border features Deergrass, a favorite of Austin's, and Sticky Monkeyflower, one of our bloomingest natives.
The Garden had an ambitious start in 2008.  The Great Recession set back development considerably.  Austin got the call in 2010 to turn it around, and discovered a 2.5 acre plot of six-foot-tall weeds.
Now a tour of the garden shows pleasing combinations of natives and low-water ornamentals.  A non-native favorite of mine, variegated Mockorange (Pittosporum tobira, the light colored plant), grows happily alongside Coffeeberry (Frangula californica, far right) and Catalina Perfume (Ribes viburnifolium top and near right), all with once-a-week watering.
Austin is the kind of gardener you want to consult when planning your low water garden. He was an unlikely candidate to become a low-water gardening expert: in 2010 he was all about ocean sports and hadn't a clue about gardening.  But he was game to try, and after five years of hard work and experimentation he has made Coastkeeper Garden shine.  He has also gained some knowledge  through plant death.  He is straight up about explaining what worked and what didn't, and he has been both flexible and determined about finding ecological ways to craft gorgeous gardens.  
A microspray emitter– preferable to drip irrigation for most natives.
Although the Garden was initially designed with all drip irrigation, this has not held up well.  Austin prefers microspray emitters on drip hose (which distribute the water more evenly, and you can tell if they are not working) or better yet, rotator sprinkler heads on 12-inch risers.  (Each emitter covers a very small area, and can clog easily.)  Nobody told him that natives don't like summer water; about the time he figured that out,  runoff from the adjacent over-irrigated soccer field was finishing off the last of his Flannelbushes. He now has a section of mixed Buckwheats that are not watered at all, because they were on the same sprinkler zone as plants needing significant summer water: design fail!  Once again, sprinkler capping saves the natives.
Look Ma, no water! A hillside of California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) with St Catherine's Lace (Eriogonum giganteum, past its peak) in back. 
The purpose of the Coastkeeper Garden is to empower people to create ecologically sound gardens in their own yards.  To this end, Austin loves giving tours and answering questions about the garden.  The organization provides a contact number to aid anyone wishing to convert to a low-water landscape. I'm still waiting to hear back; talking with Austin is the way to go.
Austin explaining "How to Kill Your Lawn." (From Coastkeeper's Facebook page)
In addition to sparing water, the Coastkeeper Garden uses no pesticides and little or no fertilizer, and has abundant strategies for collecting rainwater and allowing it to percolate into the earth. These practices reduce urban runoff that pollutes bays and beaches.  It's all connected!
Deergrass is Austin's favorite lawn substitute.  Large swaths of it decorate the garden, providing a wild meadow vibe.  Nala loves to roll in Deergrass, which doesn't hurt it at all.  Austin has horror stories about some of the other lawn substitutes routinely recommended by "low water gardening experts."
Coastkeeper Garden is inland enough to get serious heat in the summer, and the occasional frost as well.  Austin gave up on coastal staples like Seaside Daisy and native Artemisias.  Instead, Buckwheats and Deergrass predominate.  As trees grow, the garden will evolve. Austin has expansion plans too.
Professional signage and hardscape help make the Garden a class act.  But Austin's dedication is the most important factor.
The most delightful part of the Garden is the Natural Play Garden.  Natives there are allowed to come and go as they please, not an arrangement that your neighbors would thank you for reproducing in your front yard.  Free Range Kids (well almost– the area is fenced in) can get dirty and modify the landscape, a no-no in most of suburbia.  Boulders and logs to clamber over and under, brush to bushwhack, sticks and stones to glean and pile... This review will give you more details. If you don't have kids to take with you to Coastkeeper, borrow some!
Nala is waiting for us to play.
The Garden hosts classes every first Saturday and family events every third Saturday.  Check the website or call for details.  If you are contemplating creating a low water garden in Southern California, Coastkeeper Garden is worth a trip.  If you visit between 8 and 4, Tuesday through Saturday, you can likely quiz Austin in person about his gardening strategies, and find Nala frisking in the Deergrass.
Nala approves of Deergrass.

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Friday, November 6, 2015

Suburban Redwoods

Coast Redwoods make the San Francisco Bay Area landscape unique.  If you have never seen them in the wild, check out preserves like Muir Woods National Monument or Big Basin State Park.  But you need not find a preserve to enjoy lacy arching branches reaching to the heavens.  Just look up.  Way up.  Redwoods decorate highways, shopping centers, and suburban yards all over the Bay Area.
These Redwoods at UC Berkeley are not taller than the Campanile, but they're tall.
Redwoods (not very old!) adorn a parking lot in Los Gatos.
Coast Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are the tallest trees on earth, so scale is an issue in suburban plantings. Very upright, Redwoods are a great choice for screening parking lots and high rises.  My dad insisted on planting them in our suburban front yard, a sketchier choice.
Forty-five year old redwoods in front of the Sunnyvale house where I grew up.  For perspective: a 2400 square foot house with 2.5 car garage is hiding behind those two giants. That's one way to handle a western exposure.
Their natural range extends along the fog belt of the west coast from Oregon to a few canyons in Big Sur.  While they thrive in the north coastal rain forest, they are also adept at harvesting moisture from fog in areas with low rainfall.  With some supplemental water, they can survive in coastal Southern California (though they don't like salt.) Given their scale, I won't be planting any in my yard.   They might do well in low spots in our neighborhood common area though.  Wouldn't that be nice?
Redwoods, ocean, and fog can make driving in the Santa Cruz Mountains a visionary experience. (From
Driving in the Santa Cruz mountains only miles from Silicon Valley, the Redwood canopy draped in fog creates a fairyland forest, where it seems your car could be sucked into an alternate reality.
Expect the elves to appear any moment. (From total
In Southern California, you will have to find small groves in gardens like the Golden West College native garden and my favorite southern grove at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden.  RSABG has named cultivars showing different growth habits– all gorgeous.  But Bay Area Redwoods around every bend say "home" to me.
Redwoods lining Highway 280 in San Jose.  Receiving no special care, they are uneven but have hung on for decades.
Look up!  (From

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Native Plant Guides

What to plant?  In days gone by, I daydreamed with the Sunset Western Garden Book in hand. Many editions later, it no longer meets my needs.
In addition to setting the standard for California gardens in the last century, Sunset defined "midcentury modern." I thought it was just "new." 
Guides in book form are available for California natives, but the Web may be your easiest source. Here are some of my favorite web guides.

Tree of Life Nursery has created a 48-page PDF Plant Catalog with invaluable information like water and sun requirements, height and width (we'll take that with a grain of salt), frost hardiness, native habitat, bloom color and time, and more.  This is a great reality check for any plant list you acquire elsewhere.  I printed it out and brought it with me to nurseries to rein in my impulse purchases. TOLN's  "Plant Information" section contains lots of helpful short articles too.
The cover of TOLN's huge PDF Plant Catalog. The garden has grown since this painting was made.   
Las Pilitas Nursery has a wealth of information.  Search their website for a particular plant entry, and for articles on native gardens,  including garden design, and some of the best information available on gardening with zero supplemental water.
A little rock garden at Las Pilitas.  Photo courtesy of the nursery.
San Marcos Growers is the best web source I know for cultivar history. Who named it? Is it a selection from a certain region?  Or a hybrid? They also have helpful growing tips (usually advising too much water.) 
How about consulting your local nursery?  Well.  If it specializes in native plants, have at it. Botanical Garden nursery staff will admit what they don't know.  At a general purpose nursery, you may get an earful but your odds of getting useful information are very slim. (Roger's Gardens is an exception to this rule.)
If you hang out at California Native Plant Society events you can ask people with a wealth of experience like Ron Vanderhoff, who is also General Manager at Roger's Gardens. (Photo from Roger's Gardens website.)
Water districts and local governments have websites listing drought-tolerant or "California friendly" plants.  While some of these guides are useful, they seldom have detailed information on more than a half dozen natives. And that's a shame. Be Water Wise is one of the best of this class.
My neighbor's garden is not native, but it is low water. I am not a purist.
Want to know which plant species are native to your particular locality? will tell you, to within ten miles or less, including elevation.  Calscape is the brainchild of Dennis Mudd, whose north San Diego County hillside garden has evolved to feature local natives that receive no supplemental water.  Dennis wants folks to succeed at native gardening, and in his experience plants native locally stand a better chance of thriving than imports from across the state.  Makes sense! But... is it big or small? Evergreen or ephemeral? Sand or clay loving? Streamside, or chaparral, or oak forest? A garden stalwart, or a homely little sprout only a botanist could love? More information is required.
Sit back and enjoy Dennis's unwatered native garden.  Acreage helps.
I'm not a geographical purist, but I do like to know where and how a plant grows wild.  So I check out Calflora.  I like plants that have very wide ranges– I figure they have a better chance of surviving wherever they end up. Calflora also shows photos of plants in the wild contributed by users (quality varies.)  If you click on one photo, you'll usually pull up a bunch more.  I love to browse all the different species of a beloved genus like Dudleya. And learn to respect botanists for telling them apart. If the Latin name you search shows no occurrences on the map, you have found an obsolete name.  Check the top right for the current name and click on that.
Calflora illustrates that California anemone (Carpenteria californica) grows naturally only on one slope in the Sierra foothills.  The other two blue dots?  Planted, or mistaken identity. 
 Search tip: For most of these websites, I do a Google search of the plant name and the website name.  One of the first couple Google results will take me to the right page in one hop.  
The charming little flowers of succulent Dudleya pulverulenta.  The Baja species brittoni has yellow flowers; otherwise I can't tell them apart. (I searched on Google images...because sadly Calflora doesn't include Baja.)
If you are a geek like me, you can't have too much data. So which native plant websites ( or print references) do you like?  Do tell, in the comments section below.  (You can post as 'Anonymous' if you don't want to hassle about login, or you can email me.) 

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Monday, October 26, 2015

Three Berry Green Natives

Evergreens are a necessity in the native garden, and a treat for Southern California hikers in late summer and fall.  Let me introduce you to three of my favorites, elegant and very prunable shrubs that provide a backdrop of reliable green for the ever-changing native garden, and interesting berries too. They are Toyon, Lemonadeberry, and Coffeeberry.
Toyon around Christmas can hold its own with any exotic ornamental.
 The native garden needs a backdrop of reliable green, and sometimes a "living wall" to hide fences, compost piles, or the neighbor's windows.  Many of our natives have gotten a scruffy in summer, and won't get their groove on till a month or more after the first fall rain.  (Though who knows what will happen this year with all the heat and rain...)  Some native annuals and perennials have disappeared entirely, hopefully to pop up again in winter. But these three evergreens keep shining though summer and fall.
Toyon provides filtered shade and a backdrop for native shrubs in this Old Town San Diego garden.
Toyon, or Christmasberry (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is the tallest-growing of these three green staples. The vivid serrated leaves and red berries fooled Easterners into thinking holly decorated the hills north of L.A.,  giving the town of Hollywood its name.  Toyon is one of our most versatile natives.  It grows in most soil types, in full sun or full shade.  It is one of few California natives that is widely used in the nursery trade, probably because it often puts up with regular summer watering.  Yet it will prosper with no supplemental water when established.  While it sometimes can be persuaded to be a single-trunked tree, it usually produces several trunks growing at interesting angles and a variety of heights. Prune it all you like for size, but don't pin your hopes on a given plant ever providing an elegant sillhouette.  Its bright red berries dress up your yard just in time for Christmas.  Use Toyon as a supporting actor: the gawky guy in the back who dresses up nice for Christmas.
A lemonadeberry hedge is a great backdrop for silver-leafed natives like this bladderpod  (photo taken at UCI in February)
Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia) is almost the sole evergreen on the native bluffs in Crystal Cove State Park.  Not the holly green of Toyon, a little more olive in tone.  Still, against the brown hills in summer it looks lush.  Not quite as versatile as Toyon, Lemonadeberry likes sun but will put up with a good deal of shade, likes summer dry but puts up with weekly water if well drained.  Lemonadeberry grows only near the Southern California coast, because it dies back in hard frosts.  If you live north or inland (or if you prefer a more sculptural form) choose its sister, Sugarbush (Rhus ovata), instead.
These curious reddish "berries" come naturally coated with the tart gel that gives Lemonadeberry its name.  
Lemonadeberry is long-lived and eminently prunable.  (And if you overwater it, or with copious rain, you may be pruning a lot!)  It can be very lanky and tall if not pruned, but makes a great 4-6 foot hedge, or a larger backdrop.  Trim it to fit the space.  You can amuse children by letting them suck on the "inside-out" fuzzy red-grey berries– actually seeds coated with a tart gel.  Its berries and flowers are rarely showy, but Lemonadeberry is a class act 365 days a year.
Coffeeberry 'Mound San Bruno' looking lush outside my Dining Room window.  It happily bursts forth with new shoots after every good rain, but takes repeated pruning well.
Coffeeberry (Frangula californica) can be the essence of native elegance.  It comes in a variety of shapes, sizes, leaf form and color, and preferred growing conditions. Know your cultivars!  That is, find a grownup of the named variety you like before committing yourself.  My favorite is 'Mound San Bruno.' Its dense forest-green foliage and ability to tolerate either summer dry or weekly water (well drained) make it a great backdrop for any garden, but especially the coastal native flower border.   Coffeeberry tolerates sun to shade and heavy pruning, but some varieties will not tolerate summer water at all.  Its flowers are almost invisible, but its shiny red-to-black berries offer a subtle, and occasionally striking, accent.
Coffee berries are classy: dark and glossy-- some are reddish in tone.  (Photo courtesy of Las Pilitas Nursery.)
Want berries for food?  Sorry, these are not your berries.  Toyon berries can be cooked to make them edible, but I haven't heard them described as a taste sensation.  Why not save them for the birds?  You can make "lemonade" out of lemonadeberries easily enough– a great project for curious kids.  And adventurous souls have made "coffee" out of coffeeberries.  They are said to be laxatives... so I'll save those for the birds too.
A happy Toyon can grow large. This one is in our HOA common area.  Scott is at right for scale.
Want to plant these paragons?  Don't wait.  Get them in by January so they can get established.  Don't bother buying pots larger than five gallons, because roots in a big pot don't do natives much good.  They need to spread their roots out in the soil to be ready for dry summer.  The fifteen gallons of organic fluff that comes with a larger plant, aside from making a very expensive potted plant, is eventual death by root rot to most natives anyway.  Plant now, then be patient.  Toyon may bolt the first year, but the other berries may take two or three years before you add them to your "needs pruning yet again!" list.

Stay tuned for planting directions, more on individual species, and more.

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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

You Must Remember This: Summer Dry Natives

"I had a native plant.  It died."

I can't tell you the number of times I've heard this.  The conversation continues: "How often did you water it?"  Usually the answer is three times a week.  Rarely, once a week.  "But more in summer."
My garden back in August.  Having been hosed once every two or three weeks since April. (Except the lawn in the background, watered incessantly by the homeowners association.)
Dear reader, you must remember this.  Plants native to the coastal and foothill regions of California typically get no rain between May and September.  Zero.  Nada.  Zilch.  NO RAIN FOR FIVE MONTHS.  In pictorial form:
Average Rainfall in Irvine (El Toro, 1981-2010) - from

"But these natives are from Northern California. It rains there."  In the winter.  Even San Francisco usually gets no summer rain. (It gets significant moisture from fog– but roots remain dry.)

This year (2015) in Irvine it rained significantly in May, July, and September.  This was abnormal.  Though with global warming, abnormal may be the new normal.  Still, a heavy rain every other month allows well-drained soils to dry completely between rains.  And most of my garden remained stoically dormant through those rains.
Giant Coreopsis (Leptosyne gigantea)  is a lush shrub daisy for four months of the year.  The rest of the year it drops not only leaves but branches.  Stalks only.  Looks dead.  Doesn't matter how much rain it gets.
We are told to adjust our garden watering seasonally, upping it in summer.  New sprinkler controllers even do so automatically.  This works for lawns and East Coast garden plants.  For plants native to coastal California foothills this is exactly backwards, and usually the kiss of death.  We are tempted to "throw a little extra" (water, fertilizer) to keep the garden happy, or to revive a fading plant.  It may grow fast – until it dies.
What is wrong with this picture? (from IRWD's "Rightscape- The Right Plants" educational presentation)  It's inverted! 
Unfortunately WUCOLS, the landscape professionals' guide to water requirements of plant species in California, uses the defective classification system in the above graph to classify plant watering needs.  Summer dry?  You'd never know such a thing existed from WUCOLS.  This leaves most professional landscapers with a very poor track record growing natives.  Sadly, many of them don't even know why.
The cause of death is simple.  Natives are completely defenseless against soil fungi and molds that grow in warm damp soil.  They evolved over millennia never once facing that challenge.   One warm summer day (maybe right away, or maybe they will make it a couple of years) they start browning.  It looks like they need water; they do.  But they can never get water again, because their roots are dead.  In a week or two, they'll be all-over dead, no matter how you try to resuscitate them.  When you pull them out, you may discover the roots rotted away entirely.  Fussy?  That's not what you'd say if you had a half acre of slope to landscape and no interest in irrigating.
This Artemesia 'David's Choice', may it rest in peace (foreground, silvery spikes), was adjacent to overwatered lawn.
What's the answer?

1.  Know your plants.  Some natives are at home in stream beds and swamps.  They will put up with (and may need) lots of water. Ans they may still go dormant in summer.  Others are notoriously touchy about ANY summer water, including that which seeps over from neighboring beds, and they want good drainage even in winter.  These include Flannelbush, Coffeeberry, Wooly Blue Curls, and some of the many varieties of Buckwheats, Ceanothus and Manzanitas.  These are some of our most spectacular natives.   Ironically, desert plants often do better in coastal gardens than the plants that used to grow wild in those very spots, because desert plants are prepared to deal with occasional summer water (originally in the form of desert monsoons.)
From UCI's Arboretum, this Flannelbush (Fremontodendron) wants no water in summer, thank you.
A few natives will put up with variable water (up to weekly) if they can drain decently, including Seaside Daisy, Toyon, 'Howard McMinn' Manzanita, and 'Firecracker' Bush Snapdragon.
Seaside Daisy (Erigeron glaucus) can be slow to establish, but usually tolerates some garden water.  It can grow among roses (sparingly watered) or in transition zones that get a bit of overspray and/or seep from lawns.
Where can you get information about watering needs?  Stay tuned!  I will shortly be publishing best sources for information about watering needs of specific plants.

2.  Hydrozone.  Put plants with similar water needs together, in the same sprinkler controller zone.  Then in summer, turn native zones off.  Or maybe leave them off all the time, especially if your controller runs weekly and not less often.  If you're feeling lucky, you can try a native in the spot the sprinklers miss, but make sure it gets enough water to get established its first year.  If you can't bear the thought of withholding water, put your natives in well-drained pots and water them weekly.

3.  Don't be greedy.  Adopt a conservation aesthetic that allows natives to go dormant in summer.  A weekly or semi-weekly "dusting off" with "Dave's Beer Watering" is all coastal natives need to stay happy.  Sparse watering (and no soil enrichment please!) may result in a slower growing plant.  But hopefully one that will endure.
Sticky Monkeyflower  'Jelly Bean Orange'.  Yes, Sticky Monkeyflowers bloom longer when you water them into the summer.  Then they die.  (You can treat them as annuals...)  This one is tucked in between the never-water Coffeeberry in back and relatively thirsty Wood Strawberries in front so we'll see.
4.  Share knowledge.  Find other gardeners in your neighborhood who are growing natives successfully.  Do what they do.  And learn from their personal plant postmortems– everybody's got 'em.
Tomaz planted his garden next door five years before I got up the nerve.  His success gave me the courage to take the plunge.
4.  Accept imperfection.  If you are cultivating native plants properly, they may be slow to fill in the bare spots, lose a few leaves in summer (or go bare entirely), and bloom for a shorter season than the roses and annuals that your homeowners association waters and fertilizes wastefully.  And you may lose a few plants regardless.  That's OK– it's fun to have a few holes to fill come November.  Otherwise what excuse would we have to buy more native plants?

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