The Garden That Rhonda Built

Our California Native Plant Odyssey: 2001-2002

 In the Summer of 2001, two adjoining vacant lots came up for sale next to our house.  When we acquired the properties, there were some things we knew for certain and so much about which we knew little or nothing. 

 What we knew was that we wanted to expand the “green buffer zone” between us and the rest of “civilization”.  After all, that is why we scrambled and hocked our lives to buy the property which was about a half a second away from being purchased by someone who was planning to shoe-horn in two large houses within 5 feet from our bedroom & kitchen windows.   Also, we knew that we wanted to preserve and enhance the bird “habitat” value of this newly expanded  front yard.  Over the years, we had become moderately active birders.   It started with a love of gardening, which naturally evolved into a love for the beautiful creatures who live in the garden; especially the birds.  

They have become our heart-felt connection to the earth.   We are fortunate enough to live in a region which, as of yet, has not had every single square inch of hillside covered with monstrously overbuilt houses, and this was our little victory in the battle against habitat fragmentation.  This was our opportunity to “give back” a little something to the earth.  As a result, we are able to attract a variety of canyon/hillside birds to our little garden, including California Quail, Spotted Towhee, Band-Tailed Pigeon, American Robin, California Thrasher, Swainson’s Thrush, Phainopepla, Northern Flicker, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, and many more, including a variety of warblers and finches. 

We feared creating a maintenance-hungry or unsustainable water-thirsty “garden”, requiring much soil amendment, water, fertilizer. We stood there and looked at the land and thought “how can we possibly amend and work all this soil”.  Before this, we had only a relatively small yard, so lugging in bags of soil amendment here and there to support the needs of the “home depot” plants wasn’t such a big deal.   As I focused initially on the water issue, I thought “we should plant natives" because their water requirements will generally match the rainfall of the area.   Little did we know, that was the beginning of a new gardening obsession.

But first, Ken absolutely “had to have” a meandering stream.   He got no arguments from me.   (Sometimes he got a disbelieving glance, but I should know better by now).  With his boundless energy and amazing speed, Ken went to work creating a 75’ streambed laced with the abundant “local rocks” of Tujunga.   The only thing slowing him down was waiting for the cement to dry before he hooked up the pump.  The stream is fed by a pump in our little “pond” in front of the house, using PVC sprinkler pipe buried underground.    It was beautiful, and we immediately saw and increase in the variety of birds, especially since it was summertime. The elusive Spotted Towhee who had visited our yard but once in the many years we had heard his beautiful song across the street in the hills, now became a daily visitor (actually, a pair).  The Northern Flicker, Phainopepla, Western Tanager, all stopped in for a drink and a bath (in between visits of the Coopers Hawk, of course).   No matter how many bird baths you may have, there is no substitute for the attraction of birds to running water.

Next began the task of “planting around” the new stream (and then some).  It all began with doing some general searches on the internet regarding “California native plants” and “birds”.   Particularly searches on California Quail because we absolutely love these birds who visit our yard regularly each year.   Even one of the properties on the hill across the street is named “Quail Hill”.   That is why we chose the name “Quail Hollow”.   One of the most valuable resources that I would eventually stumble upon in one of the “bird searches” was the Las Pilitas Nursery web site with thousands of pages of information.   They have a chart which lists generally the birds attracted to certain species of native plants, and why (food, cover, nesting).  Las Pilitas was established in 1974 by a Bontanist and a Chemist and they have two locations;  Santa Margarita in San Luis Obispo County, and Escondido [San Diego].  We also remembered that we had once visited the “Theodore Payne Foundation” in Sun Valley on the suggestion of an acquaintance a couple of years ago.   However, at that time, we knew nothing of native plants.    We had no idea then how fortunate we were to have such a wonderful resource within just a few minutes of our house.  The combination of  Las Pilitas and  Theodore Payne would turn out to be basically everything we would need.

Initially, reading the volumes of information on the Las Pilitas site made my head spin.  I was also intimidated... mycorrhiza, pioneer plants, disturbed sites, soil contamination, fertilizer damage!   Here I was thinking that gardening with natives was supposed to be “easier” than non-natives and such did not appear to be the case!   I started to panic a bit, wondering if our soil was in good or poor condition; wondering if the mychorizae was present, abundant, or if we had already damaged the “grid” by starting to “work” certain areas in the traditional “non-native” way.   Nonetheless, we decided to just dig in.   We realized that it meant we had to give up some of our old favorites, but we went to work finding new native favorites.    This was not a difficult task.   We immediately fell in love with the amazing native plants.

Through our eagerness to realize our “vision”, we threw caution to the wind and did some initial planting in June 2001.   I can’t emphasize enough how much I recommend giving careful thought to plant selection and conditions prior to planting in California in the summertime.   Not only is plant mortality increased, you will likely endanger the health of your own muscloskeletal system by trying to break through the soil!   There is an amazing difference after the first couple of good rains.   It's better not try to go against the natural cycle of the earth in California [or probably anywhere else].   The California natives are generally dormant in summer and active in winter and spring.  There are exceptions to this, depending upon the plant community/geographic region.   For example, some of the desert plants grow and bloom in the summer, such as the Desert Willow tree or the Fairy Duster. However, most of the Coastal Sage Scrub and Chapparal plant communities are dormant in the summer and highly sensitive to introduced water during these warm months.   They are adapted to the absence of water during the warm and very HOT months.  Introducing water during these periods to plants against their adaptation will likely result in the promotion of fungal diseases.  The first Manzanita’s we planted died of apparent fungal diseases.   We attribute planting in June and July to their demise.  If you absolutely cannot live without planting in the late spring or summer, then maybe you can put in some smaller plants (no major shrubs or trees) such as the island varieties of the California Fuschia (such as the "Catalina" cultivar), or some Riparian selections like Lobelia.   Just don’t go near the plants that are sensitive to summer watering.  Everything we planted since the onset of cooler weather in October has appeared to become well established.   It all looks on the verge of bursting out with new growth and bloom.  The Tree Mallow, a fast grower, tripled in size.  I never thought our Lilacs would bloom the first year, but it sure looks like we are going to get bloom out of both of them (Concha and Dark Star).  We were blessed with early rains this year, which helped tremendously.  It has enabled us to plant like maniacs all fall and winter.  I hope the rains are not done yet.    I know that the true test of success will be getting all the new plants through their first summer without killing them by over or under watering. 

The other thing I recommend is to do your best to match plants to the soil on your site.  Just because a plant grows somewhere in California doesn’t mean it will do well in your yard.  Remember that California includes a wide range of coastal, inland, and mountain plant communities.  You may even have kind of “micro environments” within your own property boundaries.  We were actually amazed at the soil variation on our site.   We have a “Desert” section (sandy soil in sun).  Then we have a mature oak tree, producing shade and semi-shade and lots of great oak leaf mulch over the years, which is of course the “Oak Woodland” section.  Somewhere in between the two is a section of sun to part sun with somewhat “heavy” soil which I call the “scrub” or “chapparal” section.  Then of course, we have the stream side which is our “Riparian” section.   I grant you that I did “push it” a bit with some of our own choices, but I do think you can take a little chance here and there and it might work out if you are careful in the individual placements. be continued