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Marin IJ Articles

Reap nature's rewards with native plants

  • Dot Zanotti Ingels
  • Marin gardeners are blessed with a mild Mediterranean climate that allows us to grow a large variety of plants from many places around the globe. We have become used to roses, petunias, fuchsias, impatiens and many other annuals and perennials that do so well here that we forget that they are imports.

    Most of us, including me, do not honestly know much about what was on our land before our homes were built and gardens fenced in. We tend to think of native plants only in terms of the wilderness areas where we may hike. Many natives thrive only in the areas where you saw them, such as the Sierra forests. They are not meant to be cultivated for use in our microclimates. But Marin is where we live.

    We are learning how to live more compatibly with our environment by gardening organically and conserving water. We are trying to live locally by growing our own vegetables or buying local produce that has not been flown many miles to our markets.

    Gardening with natives is the ultimate in local and organic horticulture. Local native plants are already adapted to the conditions of our local climate and soil. This can make them easier to grow and more likely to succeed. They are less likely to need pesticides, soil amendment and fertilization.

    Gardening with nature rewards us with a better knowledge of the place we call our home. With natives we get both a beautiful garden and a sense of place. There are native annuals, perennials, bulbs, vines, shrubs and trees that, when incorporated into your landscape's design, will make you feel truly at home in your environment.

    Just as in non-native landscape design, you will have the best success by analyzing the site for soil texture and drainage, sun and shade patterns, space availability, water availability and how you want to use the space for your own enjoyment. You will want to determine the structural bones of your garden to provide year-round comfort in your home. When you are sitting in your patio, where do you want your eyes to visit? When you look out your window, what would you like to see? When someone drives up to your home for the first time, what would you like them to see?

    Color, texture, height variety and hardscape should be considered before you start to plant. You can introduce the foundation shrubs and trees that will provide a year-round visual framework. Then you can fill in with annuals, perennials, grasses, bulbs or other plants that give you the variety of color, texture and variety that you want to provide year-round beauty.

    All gardeners know that gardens are never static. Plants change with the seasons and the whims of the weather.

    "There's a rhythm to native gardening in California; a rhythm that reflects our wilder surroundings," says Helen Popper, author of the calendar-based book "California Native Gardening, A Month-by-Month Guide" for both novice and experienced native gardeners. "Each month and each season in the garden has its characteristic chores and delights."

    Popper will discuss the rhythm that guides us through a year in the native garden during a presentation by Marin Master Gardeners from 6:30 to 8 p.m. May 2 in the Livermore Room at Marin Art & Garden Center in Ross. Admission is $8 at the door.

    The book by Popper is rich in text and pictures. Another book that's chock-full of information is "Designing California Native Gardens" by Glenn Keator and Alrie Middlebrook. Another helpful resource is the California Native Plant Society's website, www.cnps.org, which includes an extensive section on growing native plants.

    Why not get out into the fresh air for some inspiration? Visit the Regional Parks Botanic Garden in Berkeley's Tilden Park that is devoted exclusively to natives and also sells native plants and seeds. The UC Berkeley Botanical Garden features a California natives section. Local nurseries are carrying an increasing selection of natives, too. Annie's Annuals and Perennials in Richmond carries many native annual and perennial plants in four-inch pots.