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Marin IJ Articles

Plants with Place

  • Marie Narlock
  • Heaven help me, I’ve turned into a plant snob.

    There I was, walking out of a lovely establishment in Mill Valley. I happened to glance at the window boxes at the entry: siren red impatiens in between purple and white striped petunias. Admittedly after rolling my eyes and making a snide comment about taking the box to the county fair, I had to stop and ask myself, why doesn’t this feel right?
    As I looked up at the jagged edge of Mt. Tam, the answer swept over me as swiftly as fog rolling through the headlands. That box had no place. It had every place. It could be attached to any window anywhere—in Mill Valley, Des Moines, Tokyo. Despite being perched at the base of our County’s most recognizable silhouette, it didn’t say, “I belong in Mill Valley.”
    Now, I’m no native plant purist. I enjoy plants from around the world, although I have to admit that my heart beats a little faster when I see the bark of a manzanita smooth and ablaze, a grove of redwoods creating a natural cathedral, or a lonely oak artfully stretching its muscular arms wide and low.
    It’s why we live here. A wise friend once said that the reason we suck it up and pay our exorbitant house prices is not for what’s on the inside. It’s because of what’s outside: coastal sage scrub, chaparral, oak woodlands, redwood forest, bluffs and cliffs.
    Few of us are lucky enough to back up to open space where we can borrow this natural landscape, our place. However, for those of us contained to the average suburban plot, we can bring reminders into our gardens. Many plants that grace our hillsides, coasts, and valleys are quite happy at home in our backyards. Take the opportunity to identify your place’s plants, and then invite one home with you. Plant it somewhere where you can touch it and witness its seasonal changes, its scent, and its ability to make paying your mortgage just a little less onerous.
    How to Get Started
    Just one plant. That’s all it takes to get started enjoying the benefits and beauties of our California flora and, of course, our place. Tuck a strappy, native bunch grass in that window box: it will look great next to the impatiens and it will remind you of the hike you recently took on Mt. Tam.
    This is the time to plant natives: when the rains are coming to soak them in and get them established. After that, nature can usually take over. Remember: natives were born here. They like our soil and our weather. Most turn their noses up at any fertilizer and at being watered in the summer. Although many natives appreciate good drainage and an occasional dusting off with the hose, regular water in the summer is contraindicated. It will kill the tiniest salvia and the most massive oak.
    Be sure to plant natives high so that the crown (where the roots meet the plant) isn’t submerged. If your soil doesn’t drain at all or feels like a close cousin to concrete then you can add a little compost, but don’t add any fertilizers or other amendments.
    When it comes time to buy, there are lots of great native nurseries around, including Mostly Natives in Tomales and O’Donnell’s in Fairfax. If you want to make a day of it, Cal Flora in Fulton is fabulous, as is Yerba Buena in Woodside. For an online resource (and ordering), www.laspilitas.com cannot be beat.
    Take your Place
    Here are a few of the major plant communities of Marin. Do any sound familiar? If you can’t identify with at least one of these, then you need to get outside a little more. Determine which plant community (or combination of communities) best matches your neighborhood and then try one of the plants listed below. These are easy plants to start with; if you get bitten by the native bug then you can move on to more challenging selections.
    Welcome to gardening with California natives! Living and planting with a sense of place is what sustainability is really all about. And it’s a lot cheaper than buying a Prius.
    Coastal sage scrub and soft chaparral. Along the coast where fog lingers and temperatures are about the same year round, such as Pt. Reyes, Bolinas, Stinson Beach, and other areas where summers remain cool and are often breezy.
    Artemisia californica ‘Canyon Gray’
    Quintessential “evergray” California mainstay, one foot tall and four feet wide, tough groundcover, drought tolerant, fuzzy gray mat, cascades nicely over low walls and boulders
    Ceanothus thrysiflorus repens
    Gorgeous blue springtime flowers, three feet tall and six feet wide, evergreen, grows in sand or clay, can tolerate some water but is also drought tolerant
    Ribes speciosum
    Fuchsia-flowered gooseberry, great for hummingbirds, five feet tall and wide, bright red dangling jewel-like flowers from January to April, spiny branches, sun or part-shade, highly deer resistant, one of California’s showiest natives
    Central oak woodland and grassy meadows. Massive canopies of coast live oak near the coast, more likely blue oak or black oak in Novato or other warm-summer locations; often areas with rolling, spring green hills which turn to golden grassy carpets in summer.
    Salvia spathacea
    Hummingbird sage, great under oaks, one of the first plants to bloom in the oak woodland, forms groundcover about one foot tall and four feet wide, showy dark magenta flowers rise up two to three feet, large leaves
    Grasses – Festuca californica and Muhlenbergia rigens
    Plant Festuca californica for slope stabilization and meadowy, low, easy filler; plant Muhlenbergia rigens for tall accent, easy care, looks great blowing in a breeze
    Achillea millefolium
    Yarrow, easy low spreader, flat-topped non-showy flowers are great landing pads for butterflies, drought tolerant
    Heuchera maxima
    Island alum root, great evergreen groundcover under oaks, likes dry shade, big round leaves, one foot high and 3 feet wide, great edging plant in a shady border, white flowers are not showy, can also take coastal conditions
    Mixed evergreen forest. The area between the fog on the coast and the inland heat. Woody, shady, cool: think a walk in the woods. Bear Valley in Pt. Reyes is the wetter type, the reservoir lakes in Ross Valley is the drier type.
    Ribes sanguineum glutinosum
    Pink flowering currant, striking winter beauty, five feet tall and wide, likes some shade, drought tolerant in coast ranges but likes a little water elsewhere
    Rhamnus californica
    Coffeeberry, an evergreen shrub six to eight feet tall, likes part-sun and low water, berries are red and then black, makes a great hedge or screen (even for formal gardens)
    Vitis californica
    California grape, intense fall color, large vine great for covering structure or as groundcover, needs lots of space as it grows up to 30 feet, great for birds
    Polystichum munitum
    Western sword fern, three foot tall evergreen clump, likes shade and some water