Native plant growing tips

Louise Lacey

Thinking about the idea of growing native plants?

Here are some things to consider:

  1. There are almost 6000 species of plants native to California, in all categories, from annuals to trees. You won’t be starved for choices, and there are at least 85 native plant nurseries where you can find them.
  2. Now is the best time to plant natives, from late Fall to mid Winter.
  3. Other than digging holes to plant, you will never have to cultivate your soil again. Period.
  4. You will also never have to fertilize.
  5. And even more amazing, after a plant has been established, you won’t have to water it, either!

Some details of those dramatic concepts:

1. THE JEPSON MANUAL, Higher Plants of California, written by a large collection of experts, edited by Lawrence R. Heckard and published by UC Press in 1993, is the final word on our native plants. Soon a scientifically current version will be available as the result of a 5 year revision process (2003-2008).Both versions contain more than 5800 species, although named cultivars sold in the trade are not mentioned, so there are thousands more. An older book is still also in use, THE CALIFORNIA FLORA, by Philip A. Munz in collaboration with David D. Keck, published by UC Press, in 1959, and updated in 1968 and 1973.

The Jepson, as it is familiarly known, has many more drawings, including new changes of names, provides keys to determining species within a genus, and often makes a comment about the suitability of growing in a garden. Unfortunately, it uses Sunset’s poorly suited climate zones and its difficult to remember geographic subdivisions. Jepson costs $75.

The Munz inclusion of easy to remember plant communities, color and timing of flowers, and much more mention of local areas, means that people still rely on that book. You can often find one for a few dollars in a used bookstore.

2. You are used to planting in the Spring. That is because you are expecting to fertilize, cultivate and water your garden forever. Because instead you are counting on Nature rather than yourself to take care of these plants, you do it the way Nature does it. In California we have a Mediterranean climate which provides rain in the Winter. So you plant in the late fall to give the advantage to your plant of rainfall all Winter and into Spring. That allows the roots to penetrate deeply. Often that is all they need. Sometimes it takes a full year for them to become established. Either way, after that, they are on their own.

3. Now that you have understood the concept of doing it as Nature does it, think about what Nature does when plants die: they lie down. Grasses, leaves, small plants, even whole trees — lie down. They cover the bare soil and provide an overcoat. The human method is actually quite famous. It is called “no till” gardening, a concept created by organic gardeners. You don’t take those things away by putting them in a plastic bag and send them to the dump. No. They provide mulch. If too many weeds come up, you provide more mulch by pulling them out and laying them down on the ground. (Do that before they go to seed.) If you want them to look neat, or you don’t have enough weeds, call your nearest tree trimming company, and tell they you will take a load of tree chips (except euc’s or walnut). They are happy to oblige — otherwise they would have to pay to take them to the dump. In two or three years you will have soft, dark, loamy soil that you can actually plunge your hands into.

There is one more benefit from mulching rather than cultivating. This is a big topic, so I am only going to tell you the highlights:

One of the constituents of really healthy soil is the benefit of positive fungi, which reach out from the roots of one plant to the roots of another, to another. In this way they share water and fertility. Under the name of mycorrhizae, in three large categories and hundreds of subcategories, they tie up the soil in a way that brings health to all. So you can see what happens when the soil is torn by cultivation — whether with a shovel, a rototiller or a bulldozer — the mycorrhizae is also torn into huge abscesses, and each plant must live on its own. That isn’t the way Nature created it.

4. There is your fertilizer, right there — the mulch itself. It is laid only on the top, but because the soil is protected from sun and wind, the mulch keeps it moist and the fertilizer sinks into the earth. Right away — or eventually (depending upon how healthy the soil is) — the mycorrhizae facilitates distribution of the goodness! That's how Nature does it.

5. Our native plants have been adapted over tens of thousands of years to no water in the Summer. Think of plants native to New England or Europe: leaves fall and the plant goes dormant in the Winter. Some of our deciduous plants do that, but more often, if they lose their leaves, they do so in the Summer. Another form of adaptation is thick, leathery leaves and/ or stems. Manzanitas are a good example. Another is to collect water in the stems, or create tiny leaves. Some plants are very densely shaped, others produce hairs that hold water when it rains or is foggy. There is even a pathogenic fungus in the soil that comes to life with the combination if heat and moisture. It often eats the roots when you water in Summer.

Nature is very ingenious, isn’t she?