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California Native Plant PR

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

December 2006 Los Feliz Ledger Column: "Easy Transitions"

Above photo of Fremontodendron by Mike Bauman

Shifting to gardening with natives doesn’t have to happen overnight. Gardeners can ease into it by removing a couple non-natives (exotics) in favor of more climactically correct choices and then continue the process at their own pace.

Walking around my neighborhood sparked this notion as I passed one house after another with gardens full of every plant from everywhere but here. I started to consider what would look similar but conserve water, bring in more native wildlife and not take over the neighborhood through invasive growth.

One typical Southern California garden favorite that stood out to me as having a striking native doppelganger was a yellow flowering hibiscus towering upwards of 10 feet tall. Hibiscus is popular here but is not meant for dry, hot climates. It requires regular water, hailing from Hawaii and tropical areas of Africa. Many of the specimens one sees around these parts have developed serious white fly infestations – a clue that something is out of balance.

Avoid this and other complications by replacing a golden-blossom hibiscus with Fremontodendron californicum. It reaches a similar height of 10-20 feet and wants virtual drought during the dry season. In fact, irrigating in the summer almost always results in death. Think of it as built-in protection from wasting our precious water supply.

It’s best to put Fremontodendron in the ground at this time of year. Post-winter installation can be problematic so if you want to give it a whirl, pick one out now and place in its new home as soon as possible.

A ubiquitous and, unfortunately, invasive (see the California Invasive Plants Council’s Web site for more info) landscape favorite, is fountain grass – purple and otherwise. It should be avoided at all costs in favor of natives, such as Muhlenbergia rigens (deer grass), that will provide a similar shape and effect but not spread indiscriminately. Deer grass offers wildlife cover and nest building materials and is excellent for erosion control. Plant it in either a full sun or partly shady place. This native is easy to please; it can withstand drought once established or take regular garden water.

So, if a California native garden is something you long for but seems too overwhelming, take a little sojourn out into your yard and have a look around. Maybe there are a few exotics that can be sacrificed to get the ball rolling. Just keep this in mind: start small and the momentum will build over time.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

November 2006 Los Feliz Ledger Column: “Hedge Your Bets with California Native Plants”

Above: Ceanothus species at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

A surprising array of California native plants make excellent hedges for screening unpleasant views or creating privacy. And you don’t have to settle for bland foliage with these green fences. Bring on the color, with interesting leaves, gorgeous flowers, fruit and fabulous fragrance.

I was reminded of this design idea recently when a friend of mine whom I have indoctrinated into gardening with natives, and who is now hooked on the concept, told me she wanted to plant a row of Ceanothus thyrsiflorus ‘snow flurry’ (a spectacular shrub that produces a profusion of white flowers in the spring) along one wall of an apartment complex she manages.

Our conversation began with her asking me about her loss of one of that type of Ceanothus over the summer. It was particularly distressing because she had so admired the plant and did the best she knew how to care for it.

When I asked how often she watered it, she replied that underwatering was not a problem; this plant had received regular water all summer. Aha, I thought. Now I had the answer.

What my friend had done – thinking she was doing the plant a favor by applying conventional gardening wisdom to a California native plant – was kill it by giving it something it really doesn’t want: summer irrigation.

I broke it to her as gently as I could that her best intentions had inadvertently sent the beloved Ceanothus to an early demise.

Armed with this information and determined to make a go of landscaping with native plants, she proclaimed that – not only did she want to get another Ceanothus ‘snow flurry’ – she wanted many for a unique hedge to soften the bland stucco wall.

I commend her for thinking outside the box and persevering with native gardening, even in the face of adversity. This is what it takes to learn the ropes, so to speak: what kills your plants makes your green thumb stronger. Once you’ve had some treasured plants die, don’t give up; charge ahead more informed.

So, now that my friend knows what her beloved Ceanothus ‘snow flurry’ needs, she is determined to make a sound bet on it as a gorgeous hedge.

What she’ll have to do first is measure the space where she wants to create the hedge and then research the ultimate size of the plant, its sun requirements and soil preference to make sure that it will survive where she wants to plant it. Then she can go to a plant sale or nursery this fall or winter and buy as many as will fit into the planting area. She will have success if she gets them in the ground before winter, to take advantage of Mother Nature’s sprinkler system, and then leave them alone – save for a few early morning waterings – through the summer.

If a native hedge is something you’d like to try too, let the experience of my friend be your guide: seek out the right plant for your space and do your homework. You’ll reap the rewards of playing it safe. For plant suggestions, visit the Web site for Orange County’s Tree of Life Nursery: www.treeoflifenursery.com. Click on “Sage Advice” under the “Information” headline on the front page and then scroll down and click on “Natives for Screens.”

And if you want to learn more about Ceanothus, check out David Fross and Dieter Wilken’s fantastic book by the same name. You can buy it at Theodore Payne Nursery, Bookstore and Education Center in Sun Valley (818-768-1802) or online: www.theodorepayne.org.