There is a corner of my gravel driveway where a purple-blue mist of small native lupine grows every spring. I do nothing to encourage or discourage this gift, save weeding out the grasses, and there are few of those, as the lupine smothers other seedlings. I let the lupine have that corner, and wait until summer when the plants set seed before tearing out the dried plants. It works well for them; it works well for me.
Native plants are great choices for our foothill and mountain gardens.
“Why fight what you have?” said Mary Campbell, co-owner of the Garden Company, a jewel box of a nursery in Sonora “There are things that are completely suited. Natives tend to be that in many ways. I grow a lot of local natives for that reason that are just suited to the exact conditions that we have. That’s the main reason that I grow them.”
You might know Campbell from her colorful plant stand at the Sonora Famers Market, where she buzzes about like a bee helping people choose between blue-flowered salvias or orange-blossomed globe mallows. You’ll want to listen as she discusses the merits of coyote bush and manzanita, or plots a hedge that uses native shrubs. You’ll learn a lot; Campbell takes her mission seriously.
She wants people to know they can grow a beautiful, easy garden – heavy on the natives – in the foothills and mountains.
“My whole goal and objective is to give people a way to succeed,” she said. “In areas where the soil is less than optimum, where we deal with critters – deer in particular – where the climate is more difficult than in the valley or the Bay Area. It’s cold here in the winters; it’s hot in the summers. I choose things that are adapted to the climate conditions that we have.”
Planting for the climate where you live is the key to success with any plants, but especially natives. Native plants are supremely evolved for success in their particular niches; some like cool, damp valleys and others like hot, dry slopes. Campbell encourages gardeners to really look at what grows in the landscapes around them and notice what’s already growing. According to Campbell, understanding the microclimate of your garden is a key to a successful landscape.
“Humans, with their giant brains, want to go out there and fix it all,” she said. “The trouble with that is they’re not learning to pay attention to subtler signs of the things that worked a long time before you came along.”
In Sonora, Tuolumne County Master Gardener Val Myrick, a longtime member of the Sierra Foothills chapter of the California Native Plant Society, has paid close attention to the microclimates in her garden, and uses native plants to deal with difficult situations.
“I integrate them into my garden,” she said.
She also uses natives for difficult locations: Cleveland sage, with its blue flowers, grows alongside red- and pink-flowered California fuchsias in a strip along the road.
“I water them occasionally,” she said. “But for the most part, they’re drought tolerant.”
Both Myrick and native plant society member Sheila Deeg, of Columbia, recommend native Pacific Coast irises for the foothills. While not as fluffy as the familiar bearded irises, native irises provide a lot of spring color in the garden.
“They’re short plants,” Myrick said. “They come in all kinds of colors and you get a mass of blooms.” She advised that they’re easy to grow in part shade with a little bit of water.
“Then there are ferns,” she said. “I have them wherever it’s shady. They’re evergreen.”
Judy Dean, gardener and vice president of the Calaveras County chapter of the California Native Plant Society, likes our native redbuds for garden trees.
“It’s a small, multistemmed tree,” she said. “But it can be trained into a single trunk, and it gives four seasons of enjoyment. In early spring it has flowers on the stems before the leaves come. So you have bare stems with clusters of magenta flowers. Then the leaves come out and they are blueish-green in summer and turn bright yellow in the fall. Then the bare branches have a wonderful tracery in the winter.”
Redbuds are drought tolerant, although Dean said, “Unlike some native plants, they can take some summer water.”
Native plants are often better choices than non-native plants. Campbell likes to recommend toyon, with its shiny evergreen leaves, white flowers in spring and red berries in winter, as a replacement for the common pyracantha.
“It’s much prettier; it has similar qualities. It’s a little slower growing. It belongs here, and it’s not going to cause a problem for wildland areas.”
Deeg seconds that recommendation. Once established, toyon “doesn’t like any water,” Deeg said. “They reseed themselves occasionally. Deer will graze it, but they don’t usually kill it. It’s easy to transplant. It’s the easiest shrub that I have.”
Campbell admits that some natives might be trickier to get established.
“I tell people, ‘You’re going to have to plant at the right time. You’re going to have to have good habits. Put the plant in the right place; water it when it needs it.’ But, I’ll tell you what, once it gets established, it’s going to give you amazing things for nothing. For zero water, zero attention.”
Using native plants in the landscape takes a creative leap for gardeners who are used to an urban garden ethic. But natives deserve a place in our Mother Lode gardens, not just because of their ease of care.
“I like my garden to look naturalized,” Deeg said. “I want things to fit in with the landscape and look natural in the setting.”
At the time of this writing, in my garden, a ceanothus is heavily budded. A groundcover that seldom requires any water, it has so far has been deer- and gopher-resistant. Its glossy green leaves shine year-round. By the time you read this, it will be loaded with deep blue blossoms that contrast with orange California poppies that reseed every year. As Campbell promised when I bought the ceanothus, it’s definitely amazing.