Marin Master Gardeners
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Marin Master Gardeners

Marin IJ Articles

Plant natives and you can cut water and time in landscaping

February 27, 2010
Marie Narlock

"Native plants are valued for their economic, ecological, genetic and aesthetic benefits in addition to the growing societal belief in their intrinsic value as living species." - National Park Service

SOME GARDENERS PAY lip service to saving water; others turn this talk into action by landscaping with plants that are naturally suited to Marin's climate and soil. The best way for gardeners to cut water use is to plant California's functional and gorgeous array of native plants.

Yes, there are plants from other areas of the world with low and no water requirements. From the planet's five Mediterranean climate zones - South Africa, Central Chile, Western Australia, the European Mediterranean and California - come hundreds of thousands of plants that happily exist in our climate's rare combination of wet winters and bone-dry summers.

But why not start with what's right in our own back yard? Although the other four climate zones offer plants that fit in nicely with California's palette, there are many reasons beyond saving water why it makes sense to use native plants as the backbone of your garden.

First, they belong here. They preserve and remind us of our state's heritage, and provide a genetic resource for food crops and other plant-derived products. They have evolved to give us the look, feel and fragrance of California. They provide an unmatched food and habitat source for California's birds, butterflies, hummingbirds and beneficial insects. Larger animals snack on these smaller creatures and assure that the food chain stays healthy and plentiful. They require minimal maintenance and many California natives even stop hillsides from eroding. This in turn helps protect our water quality by moderating floods. Many help slow the spread or threat of fire.

Despite these attributes, there is a mistaken notion that natives are difficult to grow. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ironically, natives are so easy to grow that overly ambitious gardeners often smother them to death with too much care. Natives want to be left alone. They want to be planted in unfertilized, well-draining soil with a thick blanket of mulch - preferably in late fall or winter so the rains can get them established. In fact, some will roll over and die if they are watered in summer, whether it's overhead or drip irrigation.

Here is a "clip and save" list of native plants that are reliable, easy and require NO water after they're established in the first season. For best results, start with a small starter plant, 1 gallon or smaller, so your "baby" native can adjust to its soil quickly, send down roots with the help of the rain, and become drought tolerant as expediently as possible. Do NOT add any fertilizer or beefed-up soil at planting time. Remember: natives were born here and therefore prefer the soil that eons of geological shifting has provided.

Evergreen shrubs

- Ceanothus spp. - No California natives list would be complete without this workhorse. There is a ceanothus for every garden, both inland and coastal. From 15-foot shrubs to low-growing ground huggers, ceanothus are indispensable evergreens that put on an unparalleled springtime show in every shade of blue - without a drop of water. Don't like blue? Opt for one of the white or pink varieties.

- Arctostaphylos spp. - As if to not be upstaged by ceanothus, arctostaphylos puts on its own quiet, subtle show. These are the manzanitas, with their sinewy limbs of burgundy, cinnamon and mahogany. Some are low groundcovers; others have beefy trunks that amble upward in sculptural elegance. Like ceanothus, they demand excellent drainage and offer a wide range of species for every Marin climate.

-ÊRhamnus californica - These are nondescript evergreen 3- to 15-foot shrubs with shiny, dark green leaves and inconspicuous flowers that turn into green, red and black berries depending on their level of maturity. You'll love it for its ease and adaptability; the birds will love it for its berries.

- Artemisia californica - Ruggedly handsome and powerfully fragrant, artemisia shrubs give California its signature "evergray" backdrop. From silvery-white to gray-green, they mix beautifully with greens. As an added bonus, they are ignored by deer.

- Fragaria chiloensis - This demure groundcover, commonly called beach strawberry, fills in stepping stone cracks in a jiffy and gives the unique bonus of sprouting little red strawberries. On the coast, the woodland strawberry (fragaria vesca var. californica) is a tastier option.

Grasses

- Festuca californica and festuca idahoensis - Look under the canopy of most any native oak woodland and you'll see this graceful grass filling in between larger shrubs. They are naturals for dry shade, but don't shrivel up in full sun either. There are both blue and green festuca varieties available; all are unthirsty alternatives to today's popular exotic grasses.

Perennials

- Salvia - All year long, salvia, or sage, foliage graces the air with its pungent, delicious scent. Some sages retain their leaves; others must be cut to the ground. All send up lovely whorls of flowers that are relished by bees and gardeners alike. Salvia clevelandii is one of the strongest scented, filling the air on warm summer nights and filling the eye with its beautiful purple flowers. Salvia leucophylla provides more of a silvery gray punch and salvia apiana turns the dial up another notch with white-gray leaves and white flowers. Salvia sonomoensis is low-growing with gray-green leaves and lavender flowers that spill playfully over walls.Ê

- Eschscholzia californica - What open hillside is complete without our state's flower, the cheery golden poppy? Buy a packet of seeds today and toss them out before the next storm. Chances are you'll have poppies every spring.

- Romneya coulteri - If you've got room for a plant to roam, the matilija poppy could be your best friend. Although a wee bit tricky to get started, once it's established just stand back and watch the show. Like large fried eggs, the magnificent white flowers with yellow button centers stand upright more than 6 feet tall in early summer. This plant can spread quickly, covering banks and hillsides. Good for erosion control.

Ready to plant?

The UCCE Marin Master Gardeners have identified three focus areas to concentrate their efforts on this year. Two of these are "Growing Food for your Neighborhood" and "Sustainable Landscape Practices." We are all aware of the importance and necessity of thinking in terms of sustainability. What could be more supportive of sustainability than eating out of your own backyard?

Steve Quirt is Marin County's organic and sustainable agricultural coordinator and is doing ongoing work on the College of Marin's new farm-based Sustainable Food Systems Program at the Indian Valley campus.

He will bring his energy and wealth of experiences from his professional work and from his own garden/farm to "Putting in Your Spring Garden," a lecture sponsored by the Marin Master Gardeners at the Marin Art and Garden Center at 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd. in Ross from 7 to 8 p.m. March 4 in the Livermore Room. The cost is $5.

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