Landscaping with Natives

Sunset, Fall-Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Landscaping with Natives


Many natives make fine garden plants. Here are some of the showiest to plant this fall

Golden poppies and pink Mexican evening primroses have one thing in common: they grow wild in the West. In mist-shrouded forests, meadows, or parched deserts or on chaparral-covered hillsides or beach fringes, such natives thrive without a gardener's gentle hand to help them along. Because they have evolved to cope with often hostile climates and soils, they're capable of withstanding almost anything (droughts, for example) that nature throws at them.

The qualities that make them tough survivors in the wild also make them some of the best plants for Western gardens. By choosing plants that are at home in your region, you can succeed without the use of fertilizers, pesticides, or heavy irrigation.

How do you use native plants to best advantage? Take your design cues from nature. The conditions that embrace these plants in the wild - whether gritty, sun-baked soil or the moist shade of a coastal forest floor - are the ones you'll want to provide in your garden.

By landscaping with natives, you may end up attracting more birds and butterflies to your garden. The colorful, tubular flowers of many penstemons are favored by hummingbirds, for example. And wild lilac (Ceanothus) invites mockingbirds, thrashers, bushtits, and finches to nibble on its berries and to seek shelter among its leaves. Some native plants bring delightful fragrances to the garden; the needlelike foliage of woolly blue curls, for example, smells of freshly cut Douglas fir at Christmastime. Another bonus: upkeep on gardens containing native plants is minimal, leaving you more time to enjoy your sanctuary.

Fall is prime planting time for native plants. Through winter, rains will irrigate them for free. And the more time the roots have to dig in before dry weather comes, the better. Planting in spring is riskier for some native plants, which are disease-prone in warm, wet soil.

FINDING THE PLANTS

Nurseries that specialize in native plants are listed on page 96. Also check nurseries that are well stocked with Mediterranean and water-conserving plants. And native plant sales, held each fall at many botanical gardens around the West, are excellent sources; check the events listings in your newspaper. Do not collect native plants from the wild.

RELATED ARTICLE: PLANTING AND CULTURE TIPS

* Plant natives in soft, loose soil that's free of rocks and clods. Do not amend the soil; even in poor soil, most natives can get enough nutrients. Do add grit (sharp sand or fine gravel) or build raised beds as needed to ensure good drainage (soggy soil can encourage disease), or seek natives that are adapted to your conditions.

* Mulch plants to conserve water, keep roots cool, and discourage weeds.

* To encourage denser growth or a better shape, pinch back tips as needed in spring and summer. Do heavier pruning during dry weather after most growth has slowed (summer and fall are best).

* Learn the water needs of the plants you want to grow. Because even native plants evolved in a wide range of habitats, their needs are diverse. Much of California has long, dry summers, so many natives now in cultivation can handle summer drought once established - but don't make assumptions. Check reference books or ask nursery personnel.

Some native plants (lemonade berry, for example), though adapted to drought, will flourish with supplemental irrigation. Others, such as wild lilac and flannel bush, are not likely to tolerate extra water - especially in summer.

* Water native plants regularly while they are becoming established. After two months, water less often but deeply to encourage deep root growth. Don't water during the hot part of the day, especially in summer.

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