INTO THE WILD
Planting A Native Garden
By Alyssa Swanson Hamilton | Contributor
SPRING 2023 ISSUE
Photos credit courtesy of Tree of Life Nursery
When some people think of native gardens in the Golden State, a tidy symmetrical array of cacti and succulents and rock borders might come to mind. Isn’t California a desert, after all? Don’t we need plants that require almost no water? The truth is — although it’s home to some beautiful deserts, including the majestic Mojave — Southern California is actually considered a Mediterranean-type climate, with hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. Los Angeles is part of one of the most diverse (and one of the most threatened) ecosystems on the planet: the California Floristic Province that stretches from Baja to southern Oregon, with 8,000 species of plants, nearly half of which are found nowhere else on Earth. But with increased development, the amount of land covered by these unique native plants has diminished by 70 percent.
Cactus gardens, or xeriscapes, are wonderful for desert climes, but they offer no forage, shelter or shade for our native birds, insects, lizards, and other creatures that call Southern California home. Similarly, non-native decorative lawns, trees, and flowers that originated outside of this part of the country, or outside the U.S. altogether, are not suited to support our local fauna, including pollinators. Both suburban and urban landscapes often fail to take into consideration our non-human neighbors. Without pollinators, we would lose almost all of our food crops. We have forgotten our interdependence.
Lawns, if you think about it, also don’t make a lot of sense here. They need a huge amount of water and fertilizer, which creates toxic runoff that goes right to our oceans and waterways. Their root systems are shallow and don’t enrich the soil with diverse microbes or prevent erosion, and they don’t feed or shelter local fauna. We have been conditioned to consider them stately and elegant, but what if we started looking at the concept of beauty with new eyes? What if we embraced nature’s own wild designs?
Planting a native garden, whether in your yard or as a container garden on a patio, supports local flora and fauna while also conserving water and providing major curb appeal. These plants require no fertilizer or herbicides — just a little mulch around them –— and very little water once they are settled. Native plants and trees are rich in color and texture, and every bit as beautiful as a structured English garden or a row of exotic rose bushes. Once established, many native plants will re-seed on their own each spring, and those that go dormant in the winter will bloom back to life every year. Flowering varieties such as asters, beach daisies and coastal strawberry spread out over several feet, and native narrowleaf milkweed (the sole food of the monarch butterfly]) will happily take over patches of your garden with no assistance. Indian mallow, rose yarrow, Baja bush snapdragon (a hummingbird favorite) and autumn sage offer forage for local birds and butterflies. Want to see happy bees? Plant lavender. Many of these plants are also edible for humans, which is a great bonus.
My personal experience with native gardening started in 2018, after I moved back into my old house in Newport Beach after a marital separation. The front yard was in poor shape. The St. Augustine grass was tough and hearty, but not pretty. The willow tree was dying because I had, in ignorance, planted it far from a water source. The eucalyptus looked like it might drop a limb on a car any moment, and the city-planted elms were sad and sickly. I had read that I could get a rebate from the city if I took out my lawn and created a drought-tolerant landscape. It felt like a satisfying act of rebellion, to tear down the old and bring in something unexpected to my conservative neighborhood.
The trees came out first, over a series of months. I put in two city-approved and funded ginkgo biloba trees — not native, but drought-tolerant, and they feature medicinal leaves that can be made into tea. Finally, it was time to kill my lawn. I laid down sections of cardboard and unfurled long sheets of black plastic to cover the front yard. I elected not to use Roundup or any other herbicides, since the potential for groundwater contamination and harm to beneficial insects wasn’t worth it. Do it in warm weather so the plastic fries your lawn over a period of a few months, as it takes patience and a willingness to not be popular with your neighbors. I reasoned that it was no different than the construction site eyesores, dust and noise I had endured for months and years at a time; the sweet bungalows with sprawling yards on my street were felled one by one to make room for massive, builder-commissioned homes, built lot line to lot line with a square of grass and a few ornamental trees clinging to the tiny allotment of open space.
When my lawn was yellow and crispy, I hired a few folks to help me pull out the scorched remains. We pulled everything up by the roots. The gardeners took away the pile of dead grass and the plastic sheeting to use on another job. Serrano Creek Soil Amendments delivered a load of rich earth for me to spread over my existing dirt (I have since learned soil amendment is often not necessary with native plants, which are hearty and thrive in many types of soil).
I ordered free mulch from chipdrop.com and received a shipment within a few weeks. They dumped a full truckload in my front yard, far more than I needed, but I was happy to have it and called my urban gardener friend Jzin (@castleofcostamesa) to take as much as she wanted for her food forest in Costa Mesa. My two sons, my parents and I raked the wood chips over the yard. In some places it was so thick it was springy to walk on. Mulch is a gardener’s best friend; it blocks weeds and holds moisture, allowing you to water less frequently.
Suffice it to say, I missed the deadline to complete the requirements for the city rebate and ended up going rogue. I made a collage out of printed photos. I dreamed about it. I wanted it to feel like a song, a symphony even. I had an idea of how plants and flowers could build together and swell like music. It wasn’t entirely coherent, but it came alive inside my head and my heart.
Jzin, a gardening wizard who answered countless questions for me, had told me about Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano. I immediately felt at home there, mesmerized by rows of native sages and beach daisies and Point Reyes lilac as I walked under the whisper of oak canopies, hawks circling above. The Waldorf School of Orange County (my children’s school at the time) had given me a small grant as part of a worldwide Bees and Trees initiative to celebrate 100 years of Waldorf education through the fostering of pollinator gardens. I left Tree of Life with a full truckload of plants. I wanted something feral, musical in its form, with an inherent order that only nature understood. What would it be like to cede control to the wind, the sun and the soil?
I arranged the plants, and my children and I spent several days digging holes. A few times we hit a pipe, a rock or a giant tree root, but we persevered. The end result looked a bit like bad hair plugs. Many of the plants were small and there was a lot of mulched space between them. I bought some bigger lavender plants from Roger’s Gardens to make it look less like a mulch farm. I watered frequently at first, and then tapered off to once a week as things got established.
It took about a year to start to fill in, and I continued to add plants as I got a sense of what was thriving. When my garden hit its third spring, my mulch farm began to look like the wild oasis of my dreams. My symphony. The yellow-blossomed Indian mallow stretched to meet the bright red Baja snapdragon, black-chinned hummingbirds darting forward to drink the nectar. The three narrow leaf milkweed plants I had purchased from the Environmental Nature Center in Newport Beach had re-seeded and expanded into 15 hearty plants, teeming with monarch caterpillars. The wild coastal strawberry, asters and beach daisies sprawled across the front, and neon California poppies bloomed robustly in areas far from their original planting (poppies prefer to grow from seed). White sage mingled with lavender and rosemary, asters and salvia and goldenrod carpeted one side of the yard. The air hummed with bees. Sparrows, finches and warblers perched in the bushes. Living music. Blue-bellied lizards darted from the coyote bush and buckwheat and soaked up the heat of the concrete walkway. The air smelled like an ancestor of modern-day California.
I’m now entering my fifth spring, and I’m still adding plants and enjoying the many life forms that share this magical space with me. I have lots of visitors who tell me they can feel how alive the land is. I am still the only one on my street who has taken the less manicured, wild native route, and we definitely stand out in a neighborhood filled with geometric imported shrubs and stiff emerald lawns. I am confident, however, that this movement is catching momentum. I believe more and more people are realizing nature is not “out there” or separate from us. It’s right here at our front door, waiting for us to plant the seed.
For information on planting a native garden, to purchase plants and trees, or to join a workshop, visit Tree of Life Nursery at californianativeplants.com.