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California natives add color during drought

  • Juliana Jensen
  • Drought, drought, drought, worry, worry, worry — what’s a gardener to do?

    Don’t fight Mother Nature: summers in California are dry. It’s a fact. Learn to embrace what grows naturally — California natives.

    Marin Master Gardener Bob Mauceli moved here from the East Coast only three years ago, but has already learned to incorporate natives in his Novato garden. He described his property as “a five-story sloping brick” — quite a challenge. But I’m sure many can identify with his appraisal of his steep hillside of hard-packed clay soil.

    Mauceli is a birder and lover of wildlife, so he wanted to create a habitat that would encourage birds, butterflies, and bees to call home He searched for plants that produce seeds and berries that attract birds and bees. He also recognized he had limited liquid resources and a challenging gardening site.

    Thoughtful research has led Bob to plant a curated collection of California natives. Careful observation has helped him determine that smaller plants establish themselves faster than larger transplants. He also knows that drought-tolerant does not mean “no water needed”.

    For the first two years, transplants require regular irrigation. Once established, supplemental water can be removed. Even the usual planting instructions to add organic matter can be ignored when planting natives — they actually prefer the soil that’s already sitting there. And please, no fertilizer.

    Native plants have co-evolved and have a symbiotic relationship with our native birds and other beneficials. Urban sprawl has eliminated many of the naturalized areas where our feathered and winged friends live and propagate. Planting native serves many purposes:

    • Reduces the need for summer irrigation

    • Eliminates the need for costly fertilizers that often run off and pollute our water supply

    • Attracts the birds, bees and butterflies necessary for pollination

    Spring is the best time for planning: determine your needs and identify plants that will thrive in both sun and shade. Learn which natives are successful under vintage oaks and other large trees. Plan for planting in the fall, just before our (hopefully) rainy season.

    Although Mauceli’s native garden is only in its third year, he is delighted to see the wide variety of bees that have already discovered the ceanothus (also known as the California lilac) he has planted. If you haven’t discovered this variety of colorful, fragrant shrubs, now is prime bloom time. Plan a trip to a native nursery or one of our local botanical gardens to explore this world of delightful garden plants that ask so little of you and provide so much interest in the landscape.

    You don’t need to think of California native plants for your entire garden, just plan where they will work best. Save your limited water supply for the vegetable garden or a prized floral collection.

    For inspiration, visit the Marin Master Gardeners’ demonstration gardens at Falkirk Cultural Center in San Rafael. In the Mediterranean Climate Garden you will find many California natives. For a full list of the plants in this garden, go to marinmg.org and click on the link to “Garden Projects” on the home page. Then click on the link to “Demonstration Gardens” and then “Falkirk Cultural Center.”

    The Marin Chapter of the California Native Plant Society is a great resource for information and plants. You might want to check out its spring plant sale April 11, at the Richardson Bay Audubon Center & Sanctuary in Tiburon. For more information about the sale and about gardening with natives, go to cnpsmarin.org.

    Finally, join Mauceli as he celebrates Native Plant Week with his lecture on “Gardening with California Natives” sponsored by the Marin Master Gardeners on April 18 at the Tamalpais Valley Community Center in Mill Valley. Mauceli will walk you through the process of identifying the best natives for your landscape, planning for a successful garden transformation, and exploring the vast variety of colorful, fragrant natives that could claim your garden as their new home.