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?  Calscape.cnps.org 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 www.usclimatedata.com

"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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