How Did You Get Interested In Native Gardening?

Gardener’s Corner | Answers and Questions with Local Experts 

By Dan Songster, 2011 November

This column is a regular newsletter feature offering chapter members and local experts a chance to briefly share information on many things related to gardening with natives. This Issue’s question was How did you get interested in gardening/growing with native plants?” 

Mary Olander-“My husband and I took Bob Allen’s course at Santa Ana College. There I met dozens of CNPS fans like Dick Newell, Laura Camp, Don Millar, Joan Hampton, Helen Wood, Thea Gavin, etc. They had the fever for natives and were happy to give it to me!”

Thomas W. Keeney-“I became interested in native plants from my first botany instructor at the Cerritos Community College—Edson Follett made plants live!… field trips to the Mojave and Great Basin Deserts…mild coastal sage and chaparral (and) working in various coastal, montane, and desert riparian habitats just made me go crazy for this vegetation. Then, I visited Tree of Life Nursery over 30 years ago; met Mike Evans and Jeff Bonn and their entire awesome staff and my love for natives became fervent and deeply instilled. And then the “fight” began—out went the roses, azaleas, anything that was not native to southern California. I have become a snobbish-purest native plant person, who believes in southern California there is simply no reason why all commercial and residential landscapes are not southern California native plants. Period.”

Ron Vanderhoff-“I was a “bug kid”. I used to chase butterflies all over Southern California attempting to learn everything I could about them, including morphology, range, flight season, larval stages and especially food plants. Well, food plants of course were native plants. That was when my native plant interest moved from casual to somewhat serious.”

Celia Kutcher-“My family moved to San Clemente in 1952 and began building the “dream house.”  The back of the lot ran down into a then-still-natural stream course with the hillside beyond covered in coyote brush, toyon, lemonade berry & coastal sage.  In the spring monkeyflowers, scarlet bugler, blue dicks, blue-eyed grass & many wildflowers bloomed.  I wondered why these plants weren’t used to landscape the house, instead of exotics.  On moving into my own house in Capistrano Beach in 1961 I wanted to landscape with natives but it was logistically unfeasible.  In 1990 I was finally able to remove my own exotic landscape & replace it with natives.”

Gene Ratcliffe-“When I was ten, our family was visiting the Tilden Botanical Garden in Berkeley, where I saw some manzanitas in pots. I liked this plant from seeing it in the wild, but only members of CNPS could buy plants….. of course Dad got me a membership and a manzanita, and the rest is history.”

Dori Ito-“While the interest in natives for me was always there just below the surface so to speak, it was a serendipitous and magical set of circumstances involving a swooshing hummingbird, a tiresome lawn and a suddenly urgent interest in our water source that led me to the native garden at Golden West College. Upon entering its gates, enchantment took hold and has yet to release its grip.”

Bob Allen-“I grew up gardening in San Juan Capistrano, taught to me by my Dad. As I was learning native plants in high school, I thought it would be great to add natives to my parents’ home. This pre-dated Tree of Life Nursery… there were no places to buy native plants. So I would transplant things like live-forevers (something we all know not to do today). After Tree of Life Nursery was established and I had my own place, I became addicted. ”

Sarah Sarkissian-“I lived in walking distance of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden as a child and in those days it was free (plus there was a back gate).  So when I finally had a plot of my own, that was my internalized model of a garden.”

Rama Nayeri-“After 7+ years of working for a landscape architect designing cookie cutter landscapes I woke up one morning and thought that there must be a better way.  Through research and exploration I discovered the solution and decided that I could help by designing CA native landscapes that are friendly to this earth we have so carelessly neglected.”

Alison Shilling-“We had been in this country 5 years, living in Santa Monica, when we moved east to Riverside County. Having been a gardener all my life, I automatically planted roses round the front door, daffodils and fruit trees. Then my sister-in-law asked me to go with her to the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden sale [she wanted a Matilija Poppy], and I found myself mesmerized by the different beauty of the plants in their garden. Also, for the first time in my life, I could walk out of my yard and see some of the same plants thriving in a climate so very different from the England where I grew up. I collected seeds, took cuttings, and gradually re-created small pieces of the coastal sage scrub around us.”

Alan Lindsay-“During the drought of the 1970s I started searching for drought tolerant plants in local nurseries. What I found was mostly Australian and that I took as a challenge, to find which California natives would work in my garden.”

Charles Wright-“I started innocently as an english gardener and then a fruit and vegetable gardener, but when we moved part time to the mountains fruits and veggies meant food for bears and critters. Native plants meant food for insects and butterflies.  Recently at our mountain house I was thrilled to watch two monarch caterpillars having breakfast on my narrow leaf milkweed. Earlier I have enjoyed watching bees, wasps, flies, and butterflies nectar on rabbit brush and senecio and lesser goldfinch are already gleaning seeds from great basin sage and rabbitbrush.  The native plants provide so much to the native critters and it is a thrill to take a part in the process.”

Thea Gavin-“Tired of the water-and-whack-the-grass routine, I killed my lawn, front and back in 1985, then dabbled in drought-tolerant plants from other areas. Then, running trails in the hills of East Orange made me curious about all the fragrant plants I was passing in my travels. A little research, a few impulse buys, a lot of dead manzanita until I learned about mounds…and now 90% of my landscape is natives or edible (or edible natives). Bonus: all the birds and lizards attracted by the native plants help keep the fruits and veggies happy. (And I don’t have to go trail running to experience the good smells of the chaparral.)”

Barbara Eisenstein-“I got interested in gardening with native plants when I moved here from the East Coast in 1996. I was homesick and disoriented by the different climate—missing summer thunderstorms, autumn foliage, spring rebirth, if not the long, cold winters. By planting natives I learned about what it takes to live in this strange but wonderful place.”

Dan Songster-“In 1975 I was asked to design a native garden for the science department at GWC and realized I knew nothing about native plants! So began a most rewarding journey discovering amazing plants and people along the way.”

Sarah Jayne“I used to participate in as many Irvine Valley College Biology/Geology field trips as possible and thus was exposed to a great variety of native landscapes. I loved them all and when I acquired my small Irvine backyard, I wanted to have them all there. Of course I had to compromise and reduce my selections to my most favorite, which now includes a huge sycamore tree.”


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