A Garden Lesson

by Lois Taylor, Master Gardener

Several years ago I decided to convert my town house garden (with a postage stamp-sized yard) to California native plants. I started by tearing out all my camellias, azaleas, fuchsias (except for two that I had espaliered along an entry wall in 1980), Baby Tears (which still tries to re-establish itself in shady hidden areas) and various other exotics.

Without taking the time to make a plan, or organize sun vs. shade or wet vs. dry areas, I went to Tree of Life and purchased a trunkful of natives that I had seen on hikes in local areas. After planting them randomly, over the next few weeks I made several more trips and was pleased with the beauties I’d purchased. I dreamed of a beautiful, lush garden of California natives.

It didn’t take me long to learn that beautiful and lush are not adjectives to use when describing native plants. Yes, there are times when a native plant can be overwhelming in its beauty: the California Wild Lilac (Ceanothus, sp.) with its tiny but showy blue to purple flowers in masses on shiny green leaves, the Western Redbud (Cercis occidentalis) in spring as it bursts into deep magenta clusters on leafless branches, or the Matilija Poppy (Romneya coulteri) with its unique, large white “fired egg” flowers.

The first spring I had a few Coral Bells (Heuchera, sp.), lots of California Columbine (Aquilegia Formosa), a few Douglas Iris (Iris douglasiana), and a few (very few) California Honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula) blooms along with some other less interesting specimens. As summer wore on, it didn’t get better. On top of the lack luster of my garden, I found out about watering problems. I lost some of my favorites due to over watering: Woolly Blue Curls (Trichostema lanatum), Bush Poppy (Dendromecon rigida), and Hillside Gooseberry (Ribes californicum) to name a few.

I tried to cope with my garden problems for another year but it went from bad to worse as more of my yard became dirt and less of it even looked alive most of the time. Many plants that survived didn’t seem to grow bigger or produce flowers such as the Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) and Manzanita (Arctostaphylos, sp.) that looked healthy but refused to grow larger than the one gallon size I’d planted. The one plant that grew and took off (and I do mean took off) was the California Fuchsia (Epilobium canum)—it was so invasive it came up everywhere.

I was discouraged! I gave up the native plant idea and started adding any plants that people gave me, or ones I propagated from other people’s gardens. I had a great time just putting any plant in anywhere in a hodgepodge manner. I began to seek plants that were different or unusual and avoided the Home Depot-type regulars.

Now I’m having a great time and some of the natives are still with me. When I stopped babying the Toyon and left it alone, it decided to grow (now at least eight feet tall) and this year it produced flowers for the first time! The Manzanita is now taking over its section of my garden. The Fuchsia Flowered Gooseberry (Ribes speciosum) is doing well (even though insects ate all of the new, tender shoots on each branch) and the Bladder Pod (Cleome isomeris) has to be trimmed regularly (a challenge only because of its odor when I touch it). Mahonia (Berberis, sp.) and Currant (Ribes, sp.) are now taller than the wall they were planted to cover, and after three years some (two out of six) of the Penstemons have bloomed. This year the flowers of the Mallow (Lavatera, sp.) were so profuse it was almost impossible to get to my front door. A False Indigo (Amorpha californica) that I though had died the first year I planted it now is taking over the plants around it. These natives live happily along with my espaliered Fuschia, Nandina, and apple tree and others. Tending my garden is never boring! A bonus is the birds that visit.

Through all of this, I’ve learned a few things about the natives I still have and that are doing well: 1) natives take longer to get established; 2) natives are harder to transplant after once established; and 3) natives generally are more particular about the amount of water they will or won’t tolerate. Also I have found there are natives you can plant in areas that are shaded or that regularly get more water: California Ginger (Asarum lemmonii), Scarlet Monkeyflower (Mimulus cardinalis), Creek Monkeyflower (Mimulus gattatus), and Hooker’s Evening Primrose (Oenothera elata, ssp. hirsutissima) to name a few.

A friend once referred to my garden as eclectic which I really think in my case is a nice word for mishmash. It will never rival Dan Songster’s beautiful blend of native and non-native, but it’s fun for me to work in and no matter what plant I get, I can always find a spot to plant it because it won’t upset any landscape plan!

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