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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