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Add native plants to your garden

  • Anne-Marie Walker
  • Do you know how Hollywood got its name? Toyon, a lovely native tree dotted the hills and at Christmas delighted everyone with holly-like bright red berries.

    This same tree graces many Marin hills scattered among other chaparral plants, some well-suited to grow in your cultivated garden. Following a few principles, you can enrich your landscape with native plants to get gardening on the wild side without tearing out your existing landscape. Incorporating natives into your existing garden will conserve water and create a more sustainable landscape requiring less maintenance and fertilizer.

    Before selecting and placing native plants in your garden, take note of sun and shade requirements, water needs and space requirements of each existing and proposed plant. Temperature, moisture, soil composition and exposure all determine what grows in a garden. Aesthetically, California native plants lend themselves to a wide variety of different conditions and styles. With observation, you find landscapes incorporating native trees like toyon, ceanothus, western redbud and strawberry tree. You will find native grasses, including fescue and carex inter-planted with native flowering plants.

    With good planning, your garden will attract pollinators and beneficial insects. In his Oxford tract garden at the University of California at Berkeley, Gordon Frankie has documented more than 60 species of bees happily covered in the purple pollen of lacy phacelia, a native that attracts syrphid flies that eat aphids. Native butterflies including the western swallowtail come to visit native milkweed while Indian paintbrush and yarrow attract other beneficials like ladybugs and mites that eat aphids. Suddenly, your garden will not only be low water use, but also pesticide-free and rich in habitat.

    California has more than 5,800 species of native plants of which 2,150 are endemic. So, how do you pick natives that will adapt to your garden? Grouping similar plant communities that are locally adapted helps to insure compatible soil and water needs. Remember to group same plants in masses for aesthetics and foraging pollinators. Keeping a foundation of shrubs and trees that remain evergreen will provide year-round visual interest.

    Many California natives go dormant in summer and fall. Wildflowers have gone to seed, perennials die back and native grasses are semi-dormant. Now is a good time to stop and be still in your garden before the arrival of winter rains. Listen to the acorns drop. Watch the berries turn red. Gather seeds from flowers; some you can even eat like chia, a seed produced by our native California salvia columbariae, whose blue flower and gray foliage pair well with two other natives, coyote mint and coast goldenbrush. Watch pollinators visit late summer-blooming California fuchsia, heleniums, salvias and penstemons. By planting natives, your garden will become a more natural ecosystem that supports biodiversity through native plants in the biome in which they coevolved with pollinators. For more information on native plants, go to botanical garden fall plant sales and to websites like Rancho Santa Ana’s website at rsabg.org.

    While informal assessments of biomass indicate an increasingly lower percentage of native plant species, scientific research is being conducted by the University of California in 39 natural reserve areas throughout the state. At the McLaughlin Natural Reserve, about 80 miles north of San Francisco, Susan Harrison has been monitoring native plants for 15 years. Her research points to a decline in the average number of native plant species impacting pollinators and other animals. Temperature changes and changing climate conditions are likely causal factors.

    Planting natives in gardens increases biodiversity. Remember there is no better time for gardening on the wild side than November to February, when winter rains help natives grow deep roots to survive dry summers.