This past summer my family and I moved to a new house. Not a far move, same neighborhood, but still a move and I had to leave behind my yard and garden filled with many native California plants.
The new yard is mostly a blank slate. Hedges surround the yard edge and roses line the front of the house. And, of course, in the parkway the classic Los Angeles palm tree (itself a non-native transplant, the Mexican Fan Palm). The rest of the yard is mulch. Lots and lots of mulch.
So let’s make a Wilderness, shall we?
Most of urban Southern California is located in a coastal sage scrub ecosystem. One of the most endangered ecosystems in the world (see WWF Coastal Sage Scrub), coastal sage scrub has been eliminated from much of its original range as the metropolises of Southern California gobbled up the land. Only 15% of this ecosystem is intacted, mostly located in the parklands of the Santa Monica Mountains that border Malibu and bisects Los Angeles, in the San Joaquin Hills near Laguna Beach, the Irvine Ranch in Orange County, and on the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base. Other small areas pocket the region, but one of the issue is these areas are isolated from each other preventing population of plants and animals room to freely move and expand. These areas suffer from various degree of habitat degradation from past human activities and invasive plants and animals.
I’ve struggled in writing this post. My intention when I created Concrete Chaparral was to get people to be aware of the natural world around them, especially that which is being displaced by urban development, and to think about blending the natural back into the urban. A big part of this is through the landscape choices we make for our homes. So began many attempts at ‘how-to’ articles for creating a native garden, which truthfully were derived from better articles, books and websites. For a good place to start to learn how to convert your yard from lawn to native, go to After the Lawn, a great series of articles by Emily Green.
So I’ll focus less on the ‘how to’ and more on the ‘why not…’
When I walk in Kenneth Hahn Park or Griffith Park, I come upon patches that echoed what was once common in California and I wonder what the land was like before the Europeans and their descendants came with their crazy scheme to transform the land to be like what they left behind in the Old World (or even the East Coast for that matter).
I think most Angelinos would be surprise what this region originally look like. Oak savannas cover portions of the coastal plains. The shoreline was pocketed with wetlands along with other wetlands further inland. Grizzly bears and pronghorn antelopes roamed through the brush and shoreline. Native American tribes throughout this region used various practices to increase the productivity of the land that benefited not only themselves but the wildlife. And not a freeway in sight.
There are tons of reasons for planting native plants in your yard with scienctific evidence to support it, some of it discussed in previous posts. What follows is not supported by science, though perhaps informed by science.
I believe the Land remembers. Not as you and I do with discrete memories and recollections. It is a deeper memory than that, woven into what was and is, a mix of geological forces, weather and climate patterns, flora and fauna. It is about a system in balance achieved over eons of time – all these different forces influencing and checking each other. Take one element out and everything else is affected. It is a system we humans are pretty good at mucking up but we are also a part of.
Go out to where the rhythms of nature still dominate, be it seashore, mountain, forest or desert. There is a spirit there, a feeling that is hard to find in the city. Walking in such a place, I feel part of something older, grander than anything I can find in the city.
So plant a few natives in the yard and call it a day, eh? I wish.
First the mulch had to be scooped up and set aside so the weed tarp can be pulled up. Let the soil breath again so the complex micro-environment that makes good soil can start churning. In planting natives, rarely does soil need mending or fertilizing. The native plants evolved with the soil, adapting to the nutrients it can extract from it. Some plants – clovers, lupines, ceanothus – cultivate the soil, pulling nitrogen from the air and storing underground in its roots.
While I’ve tossed the weed tarp, the mulch I’ll hold onto. A thick layer of mulch (at least three inches), helps keep the soil moist and cool. Organic mulch will slowly break down adding nutrients to the soil. Mulch also provide shelter to the many little critters that live beneath the plants, eating the dead leaves that fall to the ground.
As for the dead leaves, leave them! They will become the plant’s own mulch, returning the nutrients to the soil that were taken from it. The duff from the plants are an important part of the ecosystem being recreated. Bare dirt is rarely natural. However, do keep the fallen leaves and mulch away from the base of the plant to prevent fungus and rot.
Weeds will need to be tackled to. My main nemesis here is Tree of Heaven. A fast growing tree originating in China, Tree of Heaven became a popular landscaping plant. And a pain in the tuckus.
Sending lateral roots up to ninety feet long, new stalks sprout up around the yard. In a natural area, it can quickly become invasive, crowding out native plants and the animals dependent upon them.
At one time a Tree of Heaven grew in my yard and had been cut down. But the roots remain, sending up new trees through out the yard. Roots have even expanded underneath concrete patios and driveways sending up new trees through the smallest cracks.
Digging up all the roots would be almost impossible. With half my backyard a steep hillside, where most of the invasive trees are sprouting, loosening up the soil will make for nice debris flows come the rain. So, despite my earlier poetic waxing about nature, I turn to the herbicide glyphosate. Absorbed by the leaves, the herbicide goes down into the plant’s roots killing them. I know many people would never use this, nor do I use it lightly. If I can pull a weed up and be done with it, I will. If planting a vegetable garden, I wouldn’t use glyphosate. By using a herbicide early in establishing a native garden, problematic weeds can be eliminated, preventing them for competing with the new plants. Once the native plants are established, using herbicide will rarely, if ever, be needed. While there is concern about glyphosate being carcinogenic, the science backing it up isn’t conclusive (see Cancer Agency Left in the Dark Over Glyphosate Evidence).
There are the other plants already in the yard. The hedge surrounding my backyard is up to 18 feet high and ten feet thick – a crazy tangle of cape honeysuckle, bougeavillia, cherry trees, ficus and who knows what. None of it is native and one of the plants – Algerian ivy – is also an invasive plant. I suppose if I was a fanatic I would cut it all to the ground. But the hedge provides privacy nor is all of it on my property. Plus my wife loves the bougainvillea and would never allow me to cut it down (though it should be noted that people who love bougainvillea tend not to be the ones that have to trim it…).
More importantly, the hedge provides important resources for the urban wildlife. Flock of birds shelter in the branches. Hummingbirds and bees drink the nectar from the honeysuckle. Other birds and squirrels snack on the cherries. While the leaves of these non-native plants don’t support a healthy insect population, crucial for supplying protein to baby birds, they do provide some of the needs for the wildlife in the area.
Still the hedge was a bit of a monster and had to be trimmed back to reclaim some yard space. The result was large patches of bare branches. While most of the plants will grow back and fill in the empty spaces, I decided to experiment a little.
Near the base of the hedge, I planted some native morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia), hoping to have their vines climb up the bare branches, filling up the empty areas. In another spot where there is some bare ground between plants, I’m going to try and plant a lemonade berry bush (Rhus integrifolia), which can be trimmed as a hedge. In that way, native plants can even occupy space with non-natives.
To begin deciding what to plant, I turned to the nearest patch of coastal sage scrub to me, Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. Toyon, lemonade berry, scrub oak, elderberry and laurel sumac are the most common large plants in the park. Medium size plants include coyote bush, mulefat, and holly-leaf cherries. Smaller still are California buckwheat, black sage, California sunflowers, long-leaf bush lupine, deerweed, and monkey flower. Annual wildflowers and bulbs include arroyo lupine and blue dicks. While most of the native grasses have been displace by invasive grasses, giant wild rye, needlegrass and Diego bent grass can be found. This is by no means a complete list.
I would love to plant them all but I have only so much space. Indeed, restraint is a good, but hard to develop, trait in a native gardener. I think most are like me, collectors wanting at least one of everything. But such gardens can quickly look like overcrowded hodge-podge of plants. Planning is important. Repetition and mass plantings add a sense of order, with singular species adding interest.
Research is also crucial. That cute little sprout picked up at the nursery can become a 20 feet wide brush smothering anything near it. Some natives originate by streams and need lots of water, others could die if watered in the summer.
The internet is full of great resources to find information on local native plants. In many states there are native plant societies. Their websites are usually a good place to get started.
For California, a wonderful tool in trying to figure out what native plants could be found where you live is Calscape.org. Put together by the California Native Plant Society, enter in your zip code and get a list of local native plants including information on growing them and where they can be purchased. Don’t collect plants from the wild!
Three other great websites for information on California native plants are the Theodore Payne Foundation and their native plant database, California Native Plant Library, the Los Pilitas nursery, and Calflora.org. Besides info, Theodore Payne and Las Pilitas are two great sources for purchasing plants. Calflora has some neat tools to find what grows in different areas, both native and non-native, and can be a great aid in identifying what you discovered in the urban wilderness.
Just because I’m planting natives doesn’t mean landscape design can be ignored. A native garden can be as formal or as informal as desired. Plants can be selected for color, blooming time, to function as a hedge, to cover an unsightly fence. Again, the key is research and planning.
I strongly recommend drawing out your garden or yard plan. When you purchase native plants, they tend to be small but they can grow quite big. Most nurseries will provide information on the final plant size. Take it seriously. And don’t eyeball the garden thinking “Oh, this area is big enough.” As I found out with my first native garden, empty ground often appears much bigger than it really is. Using graph paper, draw out your yard and draw circles representing the final plant size. This will give you a good sense of what will fit where.
Also, one look I hate with many drought tolerant or native yards is a lot of empty dirt or mulch between all the plants. While that may be a natural look in some desert environments, most natural habitats don’t have a lot of exposed dirt. This is especially true with coastal sage scrub and the chaparral that often form a solid field of vegetation – perhaps part of a group survival technic to keep the sun off the soil and drying it out. But plant your yard too thick and maintenance can become a chore. So as I design my garden, I put in informal paths and gaps to allow me to get to different plants.
And if you really get into native plants, the next piece of advice you will ignore, as I have many times. NO IMPULSE BUYING!
Once you draw out your plans and go to purchase the plants you’ve chosen before hand, you will see other interesting plants – an unusual flowering buckwheat or an tough but delicate looking desert bush. And you will know that you have no place for it and you will know it won’t fit into your plan. But you will buy it anyways. Because gardening requires good planning, but that sure isn’t what it is about.
A great foundation plant is coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis), a tough hardy plant that stays green year around and can be treated as a hedge. In periods of drought, coyote brush can look a little scraggily with some branches dying back.
In a garden with a little extra water though, it provides a solid green backdrop or foreground that lets more colorful plants pop out. Coyote brush is also a great habitat plant. In my old yard, a wide variety of insects could be found on it, none of which are a danger to a healthy plant.
As indicated by the name, coastal sage scrub has many aromatic plants. Over a dozen types of sages grow in California with black sage, purple sage, Cleveland sage, white sage and hummingbird sage common in the southern coastal scrub and chaparral.
Cultivars and hybrids of these plants provide a wide variety sizes and shapes for the garden from ground cover to large shrubs.
Like their cousin culinary sage, the California sages smell great. Black sage (Salvia mellifera) can even be used as a substitute for culinary sage in cooking.
White sage (Salvia apiana) has whitish leaves and a wonderful pungent smell. In Spring, six feet high spikes of white flowers shoot up.
Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) has a fruity smell. Some say it smells like pineapple, but it reminds me of Juicy Fruit gum.
Another sage I’ll be using is not a native. Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) is a common landscape plant and a favorite of my wife. Please note, the biggest obstacle to the native gardener is usually the spouse. While generally supportive, there is always that one plant from elsewhere they must have! Actually there is no need to stay strictly with native vegetation. As mention, other plants can provide food by flowers or fruit as well as shelter. The key is to choose plants that match the horticultural needs of the natives you are planting and to avoid plants that are invasive.
With a similar smell but not related to sage, California sagebrush (Artemisia californica) is another foundation plant of the coastal scrub. Not as showy as sage, it is a main component of the local flora. Without any summer water it may go completely dormant by late summer, but one or two deep watering will keep it green.
There is also a satisfaction in knowing you are planting species that risk extinction because of habitat lose. Two plants I’m considering fit this category. The Southern California black walnut tree (Juglans californica var. californica) once formed groves throughout the region but is now rare. It grows into a small tree, making it ideal for smaller yards with its nuts providing food to local birds.
The Nevin’s barberry (Berberis nevinii) is an endangered plant that once grew in the San Fernando valley that makes up the northern part of Los Angeles. It looks very dramatic when covered with yellow flowers in Spring and red berries in the Summer. The prickly leaves make it a good barrier plant.
In the back of my backyard I have a steep drop. The hillside is dirt and with the exception of the invasive Tree of Heaven, void of vegetation. At a couple of badly eroded areas I’m looking to build small retaining walls, but many plants from coastal sage scrub and chaparral evolved on steep hillsides. Their extensive roots developed to hold them on place, along with the soil, on these slopes.
Giant wild rye (Elymus condensatus) is a native grass that grow in dense bunches. The ‘Canyon Prince’ cultivar is a compact form of wild rye, growing four feet high.
A wide variety of buckwheat are found in California, many of which are ideal for steep hillsides. California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) and ashy-leaf buckwheat (Eriogonum cinereum) are two choice with creamy white pom-poms of flowers during the summer that dry to a chocolate brown in the fall. Buckwheats make great forage plant for butterflies.
With deep roots to hold the soil and forming a dense brush to slow the rain drops, Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) will make a great addition to my yard. Found throughout California, its berries ripen to a bright red as winter starts, giving toyon its other common name, Christmas berry. Toyon is another native that can be trimmed as a hedge, though it will reduce the amount of berries since they grow on second year growth.
There are many other options that I just don’t have room for. I mostly regret I can’t plant one of the many native oaks found in California. Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) once dotted the Los Angeles basin and is still found in the hills surrounding it. It can grow into a large tree and would overwhelm our yard and block our hillside views. Oaks support more wildlife than almost any other genus of plants and would be a great addition to any native garden that could accommodate its size. See Lost LA to learn about the valuable role oaks played in California.
Wildflowers are great for adding color to the garden and filling in the space between new but not fully grown plants. But I’ll be hold off sowing wildflower seeds. While my yard may be bare dirt, I suspect in its soil is years of seeds from weeds. Adding a thick layer of mulch will help suppress the weeds, but I know more than one weekend will be spent pulling weeds. Though I find weeding can be relaxing and a good way to get to know your garden better. It gets you closer to the ground and more face-to-face (or face-to-leaf) with the plants.
Most of the plants are now in. I’d started planting late this year. Fall is the best time for planting natives in Southern California, but perhaps the late start is fine given how hot and dry Fall was this season. Many of them look scraggily, but as their roots grow into the soil, they’ll will fill out creating if not quite what wild California once looked like, at least an echo of it.
Below are some of the other plants I’m putting in the garden:
Another buckwheat, red-flowered buckwheat (Eriogonum grande var. rubescens) in the wild is found only on the northern Channel Islands off California’s coast. This small buckwheat has pinkish red flowers appearing in summer.
Concha ceanothus (Ceanothus ‘Concha’) is a hybrid from two native ceanothus. It will become a six feet wide bush with dark blue flowers appearing in the early Spring.
Yellow-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium californicum). To give my dog a place to rest and frolic I did plant a small lawn. Requiring more water than most California natives, I did take advantage of the lawn’s water needs to line the edge some water-thirsty California natives such as yellow-eyed grass. Actually a type of iris, it will produce small yellow flowers in the Spring.
Already flowering, ‘Mountain Pride’ blue witch (Solanum xanti ‘Mountain Pride’) is a cultivar of a common flowering perennial found in the Los Angeles basin. Once grown it will add a bold splash of color in the front yard.
To be the center piece of the front yard, this little guy, a ‘Louis Edmunds’ Baker’s Manzanita (Arctostaphylos bakeri ‘Louis Edmunds’), will grow up to eight feet high and six feet wide. Its dull green leaves will contrast nicely with its smooth reddish-purple bark. Manzanitas, like ceanothus, are must have for a California native garden. Luckily, both plants come in a variety of sizes and forms from ground cover to large bushes that can be prune into a small tree.
All photos by Alan Starbuck