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Native plants need TLC, too

  • Barbara Robinson
  • Pilitas Nursery website (laspilitas.com), which lists plants by city and zip code, can help you select natives for your microclimate.

    Mauceli, who gives native plant workshops, offers the following advice for establishing a native plant garden.

    • Plant at the right time. Most native plants grow in winter and go dormant in summer, so October to January is usually the optimum planting time.

    • Buy plants in 1- or 5-gallon containers.

    “The plants seem to establish faster if they are relatively small,” he says.

    • Use native soil.

    “A lot of people believe they need to amend the soil,” Mauceli says. “Don’t do that. Instead, dig a hole two to three times the diameter of the plant and no deeper than the container. Make sure the hole has good drainage. Then, backfill around the plant with soil you took out. If you want to amend, put compost on the surface.”

    Once planted, all native species require regular watering for the first two years.

    “I use the Marin Municipal Water District’s weekly table of watering,” Mauceli says. “After two years, I find if I give them one or two good deep waterings a month, they look fresh.”

    As for maintenance, most native plants need deadheading and pruning to thrive and stay in bounds.

    “Some natives require deadheading to grow effectively,” Mauceli says. To deadhead, pinch or cut off flower stems below spent flowers, just above the first set of full, healthy leaves. Or with some plants, you might shear off the top few inches to remove spent blossoms.

    Another type of cut is coppicing.

    “Many native plants are chaparral plants and in the wild, chaparral burns to the crown,” Maucelli says. “So, you need to imitate that for those natives. I’m looking at a white sage (Salvia apiana) with 6-foot bracts that I need to cut back by at least 5 feet. If I don’t cut them almost to the ground after their bloom season, they’ll go into decline. If I do, they’ll throw new growth.”

    Oqvist notes other plants such as toyon (Heteromeles spp.) and California fuchsias (Epilobium spp.) can benefit from coppicing, as well. But many natives should be pruned instead to remove damaged or diseased branches, to encourage more flowers or berries, or for structure. Use thinning cuts to remove entire branches, heading cuts to shorten branches and stimulate latent buds that produce new growth, and re-leadering cuts to reduce or limit size.

    To time pruning, Oqvist provides a general rule:

    “Basically, native plants are dormant all summer, so generally that’s the best time for structural pruning, before the rain starts,” she says. Oaks, for example, are best pruned after spring rains and before fall rains to avoid spreading the sudden oak death pathogen phytophthora remora.

    As for ceanothus, Oqvist suggests pruning during the dry time of year to help prevent Apricot canker.

    “Pruning really depends on the species,” Oqvist says. “You need to research and study what kind of pruning your natives need and when.”

    Native plants might need less care than exotics. But, they need some.

    To find out more, search for “native plants” on the UC Marin Master Gardeners website,marinmg.ucanr.edu, and see the California Native Plant Society website for pruning tips, cpns.org.