It has now been over two months since I planted my yard (see “Look Ma! I’m Making a Wilderness!”) and it is quickly filling in.
With Fall and Winter being dry and warm I was worried how my new plantings would do . Normally my goal is to plant natives in late Fall, giving them the normally cool and moist Winter to dig their roots into the soil. February is late to be planting with the warm Spring on the horizon. Luckily, March turned out relatively cool with a fair amount of rain. April was dry but for the most part temperatures stayed cool. With the weather cooperating, many of the plants took off.
The hot days of summer are still ahead so the new plantings have a challenge ahead of them. While most of the plants are drought tolerant, it can take two to three years before they’re that hardy. This summer I will be watering them at least every two weeks, more if it is extremely hot. A few more plants may be lost during this first year. But so far all have survived with the exception of the island morning glory dug up by my co-gardener, Rocky the dog. Even the native grasses he ate grew back fine.
One of my favorite plants is blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum). Most of the year it looks like grass but come Spring it reveals itself as a type of iris with delicate blue-purple flowers with a bright yellow center. Found throughout California, they’ll bloom for most of the Spring until they become dormant for the summer. But with a little garden water, their bloom can be extended. By the end of May the plants will look ragged and dry. I’ll trim them back to small clumps and give them a generous watering. Within weeks new green shoots appear and I’ll get a second round of flowers. Blue-eyed grass produces a lot of seeds so I expect seedlings next year. They will be welcome visitors. I planted them near a commonly used walkway as their small flowers are best appreciated up close.
But the champion for blooming is the ‘Mountain Pride’ Blue Witch (Solanum xanti ‘Mountain Pride’). Already with a few flower buds when I first planted them, they’ve grown rapidly and flowered continuously. These plants can be found in the natural areas of Southern California. The ‘Mountain Pride’ selection has darker purple flowers then the Blue Witches found growing wild, which can also produce white flowers. Blue witch is from the nightshade family of plants and is toxic if consumed. Do not plant it where pets and young children play.
One of the blue witches started to die off. First one section withered up and died (left photo). After cutting it off, the other section started withering too. Most people’s instinct when a plant starts dying is too give it more water. But it is important to double think that reaction, especially with drought tolerant plants. Too much water can be worse than too little. And over watered plants can appear much like a plant with too little water – leaves wilting, branches drooping. Be sure to check the soil before watering. The soil around this blue witch didn’t seem too dry plus underneath the dying parts, new growth was coming up from the soil. So while I lost all of the original plant, new growth quickly became established with new flower buds forming (right photo).
Appearing in the background of several of the above photos are bright yellow flowers. These are California bush sunflowers (Encelia californica). A common flower throughout Southern California, their cheerful yellow flowers can be found on hillsides throughout Los Angeles. With my sunflowers planted late, the first flowers didn’t appear till April, though in the wild the first blooms can come as early as February. California bush sunflowers bloom for months till they become dormant by mid-summer. Cutting the spent blooms will encourage more blooms but will deprave the local birds of some tasty seeds. Perhaps I will try a compromise, cutting off only half the spent blooms, letting the rest go to seed.
The sunflowers are some of the quickest growing plants in my yard. From the little bushes planted in January, they’ve grown to nearly three feet wide by the first blooms in April. After summer, they’ll produce another smaller batch of flowers in the Fall. Come Winter I will need to prune them back so they’ll look their best for the upcoming Spring.
Another heavily blooming plant is the ‘Margarita BOP’ penstemon (Penstemon ‘Margarita BOP’), a hybrid between two native penstemons, foothill penstemon, (Penstemon heterophyllus) found in the coast ranges of Southern California, and gay penstemon (Penstemon laetus), from Central and Northern California. ‘Margarita BOP’ also blooms well into the summer. Generally, penstemons want quick draining, gravelly soil. But ‘Margarita BOP’ is tolerant to clay soils making it an ideal choice for my yard.
With its tubular flowers, penstemons are usually a favorite of hummingbirds, but I haven’t seen any hummers sipping nectar from it. Perhaps the cape honeysuckle hedge lining the property line with its flame orange flowers outshine the penstemons’ flowers.
One plant that hummingbirds can’t resist though is the hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea), an unique California sage that spreads through rhizomes and has large lush leaves. My son says the flowers look like the warm safflina flowers found in one of the Zelda video games. Whether hummingbird sage has the same magical powers, I’m not sure. Unlike most of the California sages, it is herbaceous, being without woody branches. Two foot high stalks with magenta flowers appear in the Spring. Often I look out the window and see hummingbirds working the stalks, going from one flower to another.
Once established, seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucus) can have blooms year around with them being heaviest in Spring and Fall. These are probably my least ‘native’ natives. Seaside daisies aren’t found wild in Southern California, appearing further north in the state. However, in coastal gardens of Southern California they do well, requiring a little bit more water than the local natives to stay fresh. There are many cultivars of this species but I planted the straight species. The flowers bloom white and turn to a pastel lavender as they age.
Other plants have yet to flower waiting till summer to put on their show. An early single flower on a ‘Silver Carpet’ California aster (Lessingia filaginifolia ‘Silver Carpet’) hints at what is to come. This silver-leafed ground cover looks scraggily when purchased in the nursery, but once planted spreads wide and low. By late summer it will be covered with purple flowers.
Flower stalks started forming on the red-flowered buckwheat (Eriogonum grande var. rubescens). This California native is found the northern Channel Islands located off the Southern California coast. It is a small buckwheat, getting only a foot high and three feet wide with red pom-pom flowers arriving with summer.
One of the transformations that occurred in my front yard is movement. When we moved into our house and the yard was mainly mulch, the only movement to be seen was the cars whizzing by. As the plants took root and grew, the yard became full of movement. Not just of the leaves and branches swaying in the wind but of birds and insects flying about. Hummingbirds seeking nectar, butterflies and moths flitting about, a grasshopper seeking shelter in an sage.
The seaside daisies attracts a lot of bees. Most appear to be honeybees but one caught my eye. Almost solid black, little white hairs around the edge of the thorax, looking as if it was suffering from male pattern baldness. Going to the internet to identify it, I thought what I had found was a miner bee (Andrena species). I posted a photo of it on iNaturalist where someone else identified it as a honeybee (Apis mellifera). Apparently there are some honey bees that are black. I still think it is a miner bee but I’m not sure. Where’s an entomologist when you need one?
Native plants tend to be pest resistant, but aren’t immune. I was surprised to find one of the ‘Terra Seca’ black sages (Salvia mellifera ‘Terra Seca’) I planted as ground cover was being attacked by aphids. The strong smell and taste of sage is a defense against being eaten. Ironically, most of the herbs we use to flavor our food developed their strong flavors just so they wouldn’t be eaten…. Luckily, some of the first and most common insects I’ve been finding on the new plants are ladybugs. They seem to have done the job. The ‘Terra Seca’ black sage is doing well with few aphids left.
But when it comes to attracting wildlife, at least the feathered variety, the champion is the big monster hedge that lines one side of the backyard. Composed of the non-natives cape honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) and bougainvillea (Bougainvillea species), it offers shelter for many birds and the cape honeysuckle’s orange flowers are a hummingbird magnet. This Spring, a male Allen’s hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin) has staked out the hedge as his territory, chasing any male hummingbird away, while waiting for a female.
A very handsome hooded oriole (Icterus cucullatus) has visited a few times. A bright yellow and black bird, he seemed attracted to the orange tubular flowers but was unable to figure out how to get to the nectar out. A flock of gray birds, just bigger than a hummingbird (I wasn’t able to identified them), appeared one day and seem to get to the nectar by poking through the flower’s base. Others birds, such as the lesser goldfinch (Carduelis psaltria) use the hedge as a rest spot, safe in the tangled branches from any neighborhood cats.
So despite being non-native plants the hedge will be staying. But I am taking advantage of the hedge’s structure to give support to a California native vine, ‘Anacapa Pink’ island morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia ssp. macrostegia ‘Anacapa Pink’). A cultivar of the morning glory found growing locally, ‘Anacapa Pink’ differs from the common plant by having larger flowers edged with pink.
Letting morning glory get all enmeshed in the cape honeysuckle is, perhaps, a bit of repressed rebellion against my Dad. As a kid, my brother and I had to pulled morning glory that grew as a weed in a large patch of prickly juniper. We had to reach deep into that scratchy plant to get a good grip on the morning glory. And to be honest, the morning glory looked much better than the juniper. So, take that Dad!
As summer progresses, changes will continue. In a city where people often complain about the lack of seasons, a native garden marks out the changes, reminding one that even in the mild climate of Los Angeles there is a cycle of seasons. Perhaps that is the biggest draw of a native garden, connecting the gardener to the natural rhythms of their home.
Photos by Alan Starbuck