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Marin IJ Articles

When it comes to native plants, it’s all about doing less

  • Anne-Marie Walker
  • Gardening with native plants means working with plants that need less supplemental water, less pruning and less amendments. July, August and September are typically dry in California. Caring for natives during the dry season begins with clean-up of spent native annuals and dry grasses as well as deadheading perennials.

    Penstemons, asters and fuchsias bloom period extends through these dry months, a great source of nectar for butterflies, hummingbirds and bees. Make certain blooming perennials are getting enough water. Also make certain natives planted in containers do not dry out. Natives adapting well to containers include monkeyflowers, coyote mints, sedums, heucheras and woolly blue curls. Do not water certain natives like dudleyas, fairy lanterns and Douglas iris as this is their time to rest.

    With well more than 5,000 species native to California, of which one-third occur nowhere else in the world, bringing native plants into our gardens encourages habitat, increases plant diversity, reduces water and fertilizer use, and encourages a growing awareness of our state’s amazing flora.

    By the end of summer, many natives look leggy with crossed branches and spent blooms. This is where practical, categorical knowledge helps guide us on care and pruning. First make note of what happens “in the wild” where most pruning occurs by fire, storms and animals browsing. Then, categorize native plants into winter-deciduous species, semi-evergreen species, evergreen shrubs and herbaceous perennials. This informs when to prune.

    A lovely example of a winter-deciduous native tree is the Western redbud. It can be pruned in winter during dormancy as can creek dogwood and maples. Semi-evergreen species like matilija poppies, monkeyflowers, golden rods, iris and sages can be pruned when growth and bloom cease, usually by early winter. Remember, some natives, including monkeyflower, do not recover from cutting back into old wood. Selective pruning, the thoughtful removal of particular branches to achieve a desired effect, is good practice with native plants as well as never cutting back more than a third of the plant.

    Evergreen shrubs including ceanothus, coffeeberry and toyons respond well to pruning after bloom finishes in spring and early summer. Herbaceous perennials, including penstemons and verbenas, benefit from a light summer shearing that encourages a denser plant.

    You can also elect not to prune simplifying your garden maintenance and emphasizing a more natural look. Should you choose to prune a native, do it to encourage the plant’s health, direct growth, improve appearance and rejuvenate the plant. Several techniques to prune natives are coppicing, pinch-pruning, heading, shearing and thinning.

    • Coppicing involves cutting the entire plant down to the ground ignoring the one-third rule entirely. Research and observation shows certain plants including Western redbud, coast silk tassel, Indian mallow, California fuchsia and California sunflower all respond well to coppicing and re-sprout straight new stems on a generally re-invigorated plant.

    • Pinch-pruning uses the thumb and forefinger to nip off tips to make the plant more compact. Deer do this to plants especially as fall approaches and available food supply is dwindling.

    • Thinning cuts are made back to a stem’s point of origin to decrease density and increase light and air circulation. Towards the end of the bloom season, many a native plant in the home garden looks better after pruning.

    In these dry summer days, it is good to let our California native gardens rest as we sit and sip a mint lemonade, watch for native plant sales, and anticipate autumnal changes like coloring toyon berries and shifts in the plays of light.