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Advantages of mixing native and nonnative plantings

  • Julie Monson
  • Natives typically grow more slowly than nonnatives; it takes more time for them to contribute to the primary structure of a garden. That can create a challenge but there are advantages to combining natives and nonnatives in the same landscape.Ê

    In our 12-year-old in West Marin garden, where many of the trees and major shrubs are large, if not yet mature, about 20 natives grow happily in the midst of nonnatives plants.

    Natives may not be as dramatic and colorful as other nonnative plant material, but their contribution to the garden creates lively evergreen variations in color (green) and texture. In our fenced courtyard, for example, Japanese maples provide ample shade for several wonderful native plants: huckleberries, sword ferns, maidenhair ferns, berberis (Oregon grape), western columbine and heuchera (coral bells). These mix happily with nonnatives like azaleas, camellias, podocarpus, nandina and the groundcover blue star creeper (pratia). It's primarily an evergreen pallet, and except for the ferns and maples, each plant blooms in its season, providing welcome color and attracting bees.

    I particularly like huckleberries, slow growing, but attractive evergreen shrubs from 4 to 6 feet. They take kindly to an annual trim to keep their shape. In early spring, their tiny white bell-shaped flowers attract bees by the hundreds.

    In the fall, their deep purple berries are sweet and attract birds. At the base of the huckleberries, I planted a patch of deciduous ferns (California polypody), and several bronze-leaved heuchera. In the spring, the carpet of pale blue flowers of the pratia ground cover provides a backdrop for the adjacent delicate blooms of the huckleberries and heuchera, an annual dividend to our otherwise mostly evergreen garden.

    The rest of the garden receives more sun and, being unfenced, is regularly visited by deer. Deer are almost as fond of native plants, especially young ones, as they are of nonnative plants. The stalwarts of the garden are the trees and large shrubs we planted at the start: coast live oaks, madrone, ceanothus, coffeeberry, baccharis (coyote bush), yarrow, fremontodendron and ferns. Young trees need to be protected from deer until their branches are out of browsing range. Installing three sturdy stakes 2 to 3 feet from the trunk, and wrapping flexible deer fence around the stakes protects young trees for a few years. The fencing is modestly unsightly, but it's not for long. The coffeeberry is now a handsome 5-foot hedge; at this time of year, it's covered with deep purple berries - a haven for small birds. The baccharis would take over if we didn't regularly prune it severely. It doesn't seem to mind and the deer leave it alone.

    These large natives share their garden space with nandina, lavender, various grasses, two ginko trees, podocarpus, choisya, maytens, Japanese maples and dogwoods. For the most part, all these plants thrive in our West Marin, Mediterranean climate and share climatic requirements with our natives. They tolerate our wet winters and dry summers. We adjust our irrigation month by month, and station by station, to water only as much as is needed to keep these mature plants healthy. Shade makes a huge difference in their water requirements, even though these mature trees have large root systems. Their needs are therefore compatible with those of our native vegetation.

    One of my favorite natives has been a fremontodendron, now 20 feet tall, which bloomed all summer in a sunny part of the garden. Another is yarrow, which almost serves as a ground cover in sunny places. Its bright yellow flower heads are one of the brightest of the flowering natives. I've mixed yarrow with one of the showier thymes and erigeron, all easy to grow and colorful during summer.

    One doesn't have to make a choice between natives and nonnatives: each can make a valuable contribution to the garden. Mixing them provides choices and opportunities. Gardening with natives serves important environmental goals. We know natives are important for the health of our native bees and they require less water. They also serve as beautiful companions for our more showy nonnative plants.


    What: Betty Young, director of native plant nurseries at GGNRA, and Sue Fritzke, UC Marin Master Gardener, discuss "Plant Like a Native."

    When: 7 p.m. Oct. 7

    Where: Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross

    Admission: $5

    Information:E-mail Gail Mason at agmbean@comcast.net

    The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.