July 4, 2014
California native plants outlast droughts.
The best way to use less water in your garden is to use plants that don't need water. California natives are natural contenders because they're built to outlast droughts. There is a mistaken notion that native plants resemble tumbleweeds. On the contrary, the Golden State has many knock-your-socks-off beauties. Some require irrigation in the first season or two to get established. After that, they're fine with the water that falls from the sky — and don't mind a long dry summer.
Here are some garden-sized natives to consider:
LARGE AND IN CHARGE
If you need a tall evergreen hedge, consider one of the California lilacs or ceanothus. I have a 6-foot hedge of ceanothus 'Dark star' that I have never watered — not even during this extended drought. I planted it in the late fall around seven years ago and let the rains soak in. (Fortunately, it was a wet year). It blooms cobalt blue every spring and often again lightly in autumn. It's planted beneath a window and I can hear the multitude of bees buzzing away through the glass.
Flannel bush (Fremontodendron) is another good choice for patient gardeners who want to use little or no water in the garden but who relish brilliant orange-yellow flowers in spring. There are a handful of varieties to choose from, including 'Pacific Sunset,' which grows more than 20 feet tall. Flannel bush is slow-growing, likes soil that's a little sandy, and will keel over if you overwater it. Give it full sun and plenty of room.
LOW AND COLORFUL
Who doesn't love bright orange-red flowers in the heat of summer? California fuchsia (epilobium) provides a punch of color in the dog days of summer and straight through fall. The silver-gray foliage provides welcomed contrast in the garden, and the tubular flowers are a magnet for hummingbirds. Most epilobium varieties are not going to die if you give them a little drink in summer. In fact, they might even pump out a few more flowers. So if you want to save a bucket of water from your shower and give your fuchsia a drink, go for it. But don't worry if you don't, because they're fine on their own.
Red buckwheat (eriogonum grande rubescens) is an excellent choice for small gardens with plenty of sun. Small rosy-pink flowers pop up on upright stems to a foot over a low mound of foliage. Bees and butterflies love the nectar.
Every garden needs contrasting foliage to keep things looking interesting instead of drab. California's white sage, salvia apiana, is a striking shrub with white aromatic foliage and long flower stems with lavender-whitish blooms. It's the perfect choice for sunny dry areas with good drainage. This plant is deer resistant, loved by bees and hummingbirds, and was burned for incense by the native Americans.
No list of colorful California natives would be complete without a mention of our poppy. In the spring, California's hills burst into bloom thanks to the state flower. Few plants could be as easy to grow. How? Buy seeds in fall, toss them out by the handful, enjoy the rain (hopefully), and then stand back. In fact, you'll need to stand back for years, because once you have poppies there's a good chance they'll come back every year without fail. Poppies are the perfect choice for that nasty strip where nothing else will grow, or a steep hillside that's too hard to access for anything else.
We're fortunate to live near some excellent nurseries that specialize in native plants. A few to consider: O'Donnell's in Fairfax, Mostly Natives in Tomales, California Flora in Fulton and Yerba Buena in Woodside.