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A Sense of Place: Making Your Garden Truly Californian
by Arvind Kumar


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Going Native Garden Tour

Some people are simply not destined to own good-looking lawns. Since moving to Evergreen in 1988, my partner Ashok and I tried to keep our front and back yards green, but between a cranky mower and an aging sprinkler system, we didn't quite succeed. Much of the time, the green in our yard came from burclover, dandelion, and sow thistle.
Finally, in 2000, we got serious about the garden. We wanted something that wouldn't demand a lot of time, and that would appeal to both humans as well as birds and butterflies. We read countless books on xeriscaping and low maintenance gardening, but nothing really clicked ... until Ashok came across an essay by Judith Lowry (author of the classic book, Gardening With a Wild Heart, from University of California Press). It was an eye-opener. In it, Lowry argued that gardening and habitat creation and ecological restoration could all be practiced in one's home garden very simply - by planting natives.
We had had some exposure to native plants. Some years earlier, at the Wildflower Show & Sale organized annually by the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society, we had brought home a Purple Sage (Salvia leucophylla). Much to our surprise, the plant took, indeed thrived, in the dry, sunny spot in the back yard where countless ornamentals had perished. In spring, its silvery foliage was topped with spikes of lavender flowers which drew local bees and hummingbirds. That plant gave us confidence that we could be successful in the garden; it also showed us the habitat value of native plants.

A visit to the demonstration garden at Yerba Buena Nursery in Woodside sold us on the idea completely. California's oldest native nursery has a huge demonstration garden of mature California natives. A visit in spring, when the place literally buzzes with the sound of native bees, when signs to the butterfly patch become redundant, is a charming experience. California gardeners owe it to themselves to see it at least once.

Purple Sage
The Purple Sage (Salvia leucophylla) that turned us on to gardening with natives by thriving in a dry, sunny spot in the back yard where countless ornamentals had perished.
That was the beginning of our journey into native gardening. Today, our home native garden is three years old. We have planted scores of plants during this time, from wildflowers and perennials to shrubs and trees. We've lost some, but many others have survived and thrived. In future columns, we hope to share with you our successes as well as lessons learned.
California natives are not as uncommon as people think. Any gardener worth her salt knows California poppies, coast redwoods, Monterey pines, ceanothuses, and manzanitas. These common California natives have been in cultivation for decades, and can be seen in many gardens. What came as a surprise was how many more California natives are equally suited to the home garden. These plants rate high on all the criteria of importance: they are naturally water-wise, unparalleled in habitat value, low maintenance, and astonishingly beautiful. And they give a California garden a sense of place like no other plants can.
Elegant Clarkia
In late spring, our side yard lights up with the pink, magenta, purple and white blooms of Elegant Clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata). This dense stand is now completely self-propagating and maintenance-free, requiring neither watering nor planting.
We found that natives require much less work than ornamentals. Take wildflowers, for example. The wildflowers in our garden today - Seep Monkey Flower, California Poppy, Ruby Chalice Clarkia, and Elegant Clarkia - come from seed dispersed from last year's plants. In late spring, our side yard lights up with pink, magenta, purple, and white blooms of Elegant Clarkia. This dense stand is now completely self-propagating and maintenance-free, requiring neither watering nor planting. Once a year, in fall, I cut back the dry stalks, making sure to hold them upside down and shake well to disperse the seed (I have learned not to mulch the bed with the stalks or compost or any sort of amendment since that discourages germination). Winter rains bring the bed back to life, and we get a glorious display in May.

Fall and winter are the busiest times of the year for a native gardener. The best time to plant natives is in fall, when the air cools down and the first rains have moistened the soil. The work consists of preparing beds, planting, and mulching as necessary. Hand watering young plants during dry spells is a necessary and important chore.

Since going native, we appreciate winter much more. This is when Mother Nature takes over the watering chores. Still, the work of seeding and planting continues in the intervals between the rains, whenever the soil dries out sufficiently. In the early years, we spent a fair amount of time picking snails and slugs, which come out in droves during the wet season; they wreak havoc on native seedlings if not controlled at the outset. After four years, we have almost no snails, and a diminishing population of slugs.
By the time spring arrives, there is little to do in a native garden except watch the plants grow. This is when the garden is at its showiest. The below-ground root growth during winter enables the plants to embark on explosive above-ground growth in the form of new foliage and flowers. There are early blooming plants and late blooming ones; with careful selection, you can have something blooming from February through October.
Summer is the time of dormancy for most California natives. The sun is at its hottest, and the moisture in the ground is at a minimum. Annual wildflowers have set seed and withered; we cut down the dry stalks for a neater look, making sure that none of the seed is lost. If you have young native plants, hand watering through summer is critically important; without it, they will fail. Summer bloomers like Buckwheats, Madias, and California Fuchsias add color to the garden and attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

If you have been thinking of introducing new plants in your garden, go ahead and give California natives a try. Happy gardening!

Summer bloomers like Tarweed (Madia elegans) add color to the garden at the hottest time of year.
Sources of California Native Plants/Seeds

Common natives can be found at most commercial nurseries, like Summerwinds, Orchard Supply Hardware, or Home Depot. The following nurseries specialize in native plants and carry a much wider selection.
Larner Seeds 415.868.9407 P O Box 407
Bolinas, CA 94924
Yerba Buena Nursery 650.851.1668 19500 Skyline Blvd.
Woodside, CA 94062
Native Revival Nursery 831.684.1811 2600 Mar Vista Dr.
Aptos, CA 95003
Rana Creek Nursery 831.659.4851 35351 E Carmel Valley Road
Carmel Valley, CA 93924
Elkhorn Nursery 831.763.1207 P O Box 270
Moss Landing, CA 95039

Arvind Kumar is a home native gardener in San Jose. His garden was featured on the Going Native Garden Tour in 2003 and 2004. This article first appeared in the New Neighborhood Voice,, a webzine for the east hills of San Jose. All the pictures on this page © Arvind Kumar.